LPs? For the record, the aficionados are sticking around

Independent record stores are an endangered species.

We must do our best to preserve these little music shops and their fragile natural habitat away from encroaching box stores and other predators. For without record stores there would be no more … Record Store Clerks.
We need Record Store Clerks. Who else will tell us what’s good? Music critics? Yeah, right.

Walk into Permanent Records, a new record store just off Whyte Avenue, and you might be lucky enough to talk to one of its owners, Mike McDonald (above, left, with co-owner Dave Gawdunyk). He was rock musician in his former life, the frontman of legendary alt-before-alt-country-was-cool band Jr. Gone Wild, and now is (and probably always was) a Record Store Clerk of the highest order. “Clerk” is a poor word to describe this noble art. Better are “Curator” or “Guru” or “Zen Master of all that is Vinyl and Holy” – worthy to be romanticized along with such films as High Fidelity or Clerks or Onion headlines like 37 Record-Store Clerks Feared Dead In Yo La Tengo Concert Disaster. We know them well!

If you dare to play a game of Rock ‘n Roll Trivial Pursuit with a real Record Store Man like Mike, or his partners Gawdunyk and Clint Anderson, he will win. If you ask where you can get that rare Rory Gallagher, he will know. If you walk in looking for You Light Up My Life, he won’t turn all Jack Black on you and order you to leave immediately, but will politely direct you to the nearest Debby Boone while perhaps suggesting you might also like Patsy Cline.

Mike takes umbrage at the obvious line of questioning: Record stores are dropping like flies (the dead include A&B Sound, Sam the Record Man, MusicWorld, Tower Records in the US and the indie stores Sound Connection and Megatunes). Recorded music has evolved since 1877 when the phonograph record was invented, before it was replaced by cassette tapes, which were then supplanted by 8-track tapes, which fell out of favour when CDs came along until they, too, were declared obsolete when everyone bought iPods and downloaded all the free music they wanted from the Internet. We’re done. We don’t need any more record players. We don’t need any more records. Why do we need record stores?

Mike says you might as well ask why we need coin and stamp shops. “Of course you need coin and stamp shops!” He adds, “The idea of an independent record store not being useful is laughable to me. The only people who say that are the suits who work at HMV. Here at the indie record store level, we’re still able to look at things from an artistic point of view. We respect the integrity of the artist. It’s not about moving units. It’s about giving people what they want, as cliché as that sounds.”

So you won’t find the latest Britney Spears front-racked three deep at Permanent Records. Instead, there is Cake and Justin Townes Earle (Steve Earle’s son) and lurking nearby a new vinyl copy of Frampton Comes Alive! Also, whoa, there’s Tom Waits’ classic Nighthawks at the Diner, also on brand new vinyl, and yes, Rory Gallagher. Permanent Records isn’t a used record store (which represents a whole other level of Record Store Clerkdom). It’s an independent music store that does at least half its business in LPs. Vinyl has of course, come back into favour and the pressing plants are happily pressing LPs again, thanks to audiophiles who have always insisted it has a “warmer” sound than digital recordings, and mainly thanks to the rappers and electronic music guys who kept the medium alive during the dark ages, the ‘90s.

Plus, McDonald goes on, “When I buy a record, I want the container it’s in. I want liner notes. I want a picture of the fucking band. I’m a record collector. I download from iTunes when I need something, but that’s not satisfactory to me.”
Record store customers are largely record collectors, too, Mike says. When Megatunes went under last year, the regulars were heartbroken – and so were McDonald and Gawdunyk, since they happened to be working there at the time. This was the second time McDonald lost his job from a record store folding underneath him. That made him even more determined.

“Where am I going to go? Get a part time job at HMV? I don’t think so,” says McDonald. “There’s a still a need.”
Gawdunyk adds, “People begged us to open.”

There’s more to this record store thing than a vinyl fetish. There’s some historical evidence that record stores existed long before the mass marketing of recorded music reached its peak (and then declined roughly in inverse proportion to the popularity of the Internet), and that true record collectors have always been disdainful of prevailing trends in favour of really “good” music.

The thing is, it’s a lot of work finding good music. Just listen to the commercial FM radio, if you can. People can’t become fans of something new and interesting unless they’re introduced to it, and that won’t happen if the only place they’re looking is Wal-Mart and the only thing they’re listening to is CISN Country. Moreover, there’s just so much goddamned good music out there waiting to be found – hidden in so much crap like diamonds in a cow pasture – you could go into shock just contemplating the sheer enormity of choices. It can drive you crazy.

Relax. The humble Record Store Clerk is there to help. He – or she, but probably he – is there to guide you. Recorded music and indeed the whole idea of the “album” as a viable commercial and artistic venture may have literally turned into thin air, but as long as there are record collectors, there will be record stores, and as long as there are record stores, there will be Record Store Clerks. They are an irreplaceable human resource.