The Spiritual Energy of the Record Store

In the suburban sprawl where I grew up, record stores were largely chain places with names like Sound Warehouse and Coconuts, but there was one store in town where you could get the hard stuff. It was called Uncle Albert’s.

by Marshall Bowden

In an Atlantic article entitled “Every Place Is the Same Now,” Ian Bogost writes about the way that smartphones have changed our sense of place by altering the way that we live in space. He talks about non-places (a real architectural term for places that people merely pass through such as airports or hotels) and the way that online shopping, streaming, and social media have turned every non-place into a replacement for specific spaces that once existed.

“These changes hollow out the spaces where specific activities once took place. The unique vibe and spiritual energy of the record shop or the clothing boutique evaporate away once Spotify or Amazon takes over for them. Peripheral spaces also decay, such as the transit lines or roads that lead to them, and the cafés or boba joints that flank them.”

Uncle Albert’s was in the two-story building at the end of the blok

In the suburban sprawl where I grew up, record stores were largely chain places with names like Sound Warehouse and Coconuts, but there was one store in town where you could get the hard stuff. The records you read about in Lilian Roxan’s Rock Encyclopedia and Robert Christgau’s Any Old Way You Choose It. It was called Uncle Albert’s, and in the words of a local musician named Steve Lindstrom, who wrote a song about it:

Uncle Alberts
Was a record store
With a sloping dusty walnut floor
Fluorescent lights and plywood bins
They had a card for almost everything
I bought a record a week, with care,
much care
I met my people there

https://open.spotify.com/embed/track/5at6XoNioc43WFdyAToced

I remember one time I was buying a copy of the New York Dolls’ second LP In Too Much Too Soon and Valley of the Dolls by Generation X. I went to the counter and was being rung up by owner John Olsen. There was another guy in back of the counter, too, and they were talking. The other guy gestured at my records on the counter. “Right there you see, you’ve got two titles there that he isn’t going to be able to buy at another store.” 

And it was true. Oh sure, we all shopped at the chains. You had to go there if you wanted the newest release as soon as possible.  My friends and I loved the cutout bins and the saucy counter girls at Sound Warehouse or an unexpected bargain at Discount Records and Tapes. But, we knew that Uncle Albert’s was the secret club, up on the second floor at 123 East Davis Street, and it held the real treasure. 

For the people who knew, the people who cared because the things they needed to hear were there, Uncle Albert’s was as magnetic as a brothel or an opium den would have been to other mortals. 

In Chicago, a short train ride away, there were lots more palaces and parlors dedicated to records and the stuff that people who loved records loved. Rose Records. Rolling Stone Records. Jazz Record Mart. Wax Trax. And there were used record stores, lots of them in certain neighborhoods. These places were godsends because, even though you could still buy new copies of many of the records you could find at used stores, the prices were much better. And the condition was often really good. 

At the used stores you definitely ‘met your people’ to use Lindstrom’s turn of phrase. There’d be local collectors and dealers, musicians, artists, slackers, and–depending on the store’s location–lots of times there would e lots and lots of students. Being in or near a college town virtually ensured the success of any small record store. In my college years, I visited stores in Boston and Cambridge, MA, St. Louis, MO, and Chicago. I remember a store in Bloomington, IN that I used to visit every summer in the late ’80s/early ’90s. 

These were places where I felt completely comfortable and at ease because everyone that was there was there because of their love of music. That doesn’t mean that they all agreed on what good music was. Owners were there to make money, but they knew their clientele and if you were a regular they’d throw you something they thought you’d like for free or next to nothing. Or the staff would hip you to some record you didn’t know about but that was tangential to something they saw you buy. 

In the ’80s came CDs, and there were monster music stores–Tower Records and Virgin Superstores. A lot of us loved these places even though they were chains because they maintained a selection of music that you could actually browse that was unparalleled at any previous time in history and because they were full of the same music people you found in the small record stores, only now they were shopping for CDs under harsh fluorescent lighting. 

I spent a lot of afternoons browsing Tower Records’ Chicago main room where they had pop, rock, soul, etc. and their jazz room, which was sizeable. After Jazz Record Mart, Tower had definitely made the biggest commitment to stocking separate departments of jazz and classical music. I also remember the three years in a row that I signed up and took Rhino Records’ RMAT test which was administered at Tower. 

I was less excited about Chicago’s brief flirtations with a Virgin Superstore because it reminded me of nothing so much as the record boutique scene in A Clockwork Orange where Alex picks up two young ladies who apparently enjoy both Beethoven and phallus-shaped lollipops. Virgin was perfect for its time–all flash and sass–but they were a far cry from the namesake record label that Richard Branson originally started as a mail-order record store business. 

So now what happens when we routinely buy and sell and download and stream music in spaces that were never meant for us to spend leisure time: airports, doctor’s offices, grocery stores, hospitals? When there is no space labeled ‘record store’ how do we make up for the functions it supported? And what about the peripheral spaces that were part of the scene–the favorite bar or cafe where convos about records and musicians could continue indefinitely over espresso, the clothing stores, head shops, and other purveyors of lifestyle accouterments? 

They don’t disappear completely, of course, but they become more strictly functional and thus, less essential. And since anyplace is merely a tap or click away, a lot of their ‘vibe and spiritual energy’ will be transferred to home, where we do so much of our business these days. 

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