The post (way) down below, from the highly entertaining blog, “Dangerous Minds,” got me reminiscing fondly about my own record store daze. During a six-month gap between bidding farewell to my prior life as a news reporter and dipping my purple suede Pumas into the unchartered, untested waters of music journalism — which had been a secret, trembling dream of mine for pretty much my entire adult life — I realized I had to find a way to make a buck to make ends meet (if for nothing else than to feed my record-listening and collecting habit).
I had worked constantly as a journalist, in one way or another, since I had been a 17-year-old high school senior and applied for a summer freelance gig contributing high school sports articles to our town’s weekly paper. I had intended it as something like an after-school job to pick up some weekend midnight movie and illegal beer-buying cash. I was up against some tough competition; namely, a girl who was a star field hockey and basketball player who was also a straight-A student (I was none of those things).
But I did have a stack of five years’ worth of homemade, self-published pop culture and baseball “magazines” my mom had saved. Judging from the editor’s look of incredulity when I plopped what looked like bound encyclopedias down on her desk, I think those home-illustrated and written yellow legal-pad sized volumes nabbed me the job.
Not a week later, the sports editor at my town’s weekly newspaper up and quit. I was summarily handed that job with no negotiation or fanfare (no wonder: this lofty editor’s gig paid $15 bucks a week). I had the sum total of exactly zero experience as a sportswriter, and my actual participation in high school sports amounted to being a speedy runner (being fast was one of the few physical talents I can justifiably brag about) on my junior varsity baseball team — albeit one who couldn’t hit a lick. So, getting on base where that speed could have translated into, y’know, actual runs for our team was a moot point. But our coach decided to keep me on the squad (OK, I could throw the ball from the outfield too) and decided to cut his losses by using me as a “pinch-running specialist” to psych out the other teams’ pitchers’ concentration in close games. In freaking junior varsity high school baseball. Coach really wanted to win. (I soon wised up and went out for Track, a sport and activity — wind sprints and running up hills for practice — I liked considerably less but was considerably better at, go figure).
All of which is a fancy way of saying that, fast forwarding to many years later, I had no discernible skills other than writing. Oh, sure, I did custom grind coffee and mill flour at a high-end health-food supermarket for the Amherst/Northampton/Happy Valley granola crowd one summer, and I spent a few summers variously chopping wood, bagging groceries, washing dishes, fashioning ice cream cones, and degrading myself hunched over picking cucumbers next to a bat-crazy loon of an old lady who guarded “her” sweaty mattress from cuke-picking summer interlopers like me.
Seeking a break from this demeaning work (and bat-shit woman), my friends and I decided to apply for a summer job picking peas for 50 cents per pound picked. Only trouble was, when we got there, the farmer, employing a bit of bait-and-switch, told us the ad was wrong: It was actually 25 cents a pound (do you know how many freaking peas you need to pick to get to a pound? Never mind that it was in keeping with about what I basically had earned as the town’s sports editor).
With that glittering resume at my disposal, and no desire to return to covering municipal bitch sessions and school board backbiting workouts, let’s just say my viable non-newspaper skill options were limited. So, at the tender age of 32, I hatched a diabolically brilliant plan to start fresh and gain employment in the place where I spent most of my free time anyway: a record store.
My headlong fling into the world of music retail was a vaguely noble, and, I thought, bold move. After all, how many thirty-something ex-City Hall reporters opt for an upwardly mobile career trajectory of slinging Wu Tang Clan cassettes to teenage hip hop heads? It wasn’t exactly the obvious next step in my life. And it almost didn’t happen. My first job-application stop was at a local satellite of the Peaches record store chain. “What’s a 32-year-old ex-City Hall reporter doing applying for a job at Peaches?” asked the manager, impressively adding up my age and scrunching up his face like he just bit into a grapefruit through its porous shell of pale yellow skin. As I recall, he looked a bit like Nick Offerman’s mustachioed Ron from “Parks & Recreation,” gauging whether my education, experience, and absurd over-qualifications might somehow negatively translate into a too-efficient pain in his slack-ass butt. He inspected the pages of my resume ever more slowly. I got the feeling it was the first time any prospective Peaches’ employees’ resume pages were plural. I blurted out something about being “hungry for invigorating new life experiences.”
OK, he exhaled after breathing in deeply, as if bracing himself for a needle in his eye. I had the job. But there was one catch. “You’re not afraid of heights are you?” Ummmmm …. “Because,” he continued, plowing on with the task, “One of the things you’ll need to do is change that sign out there every Tuesday, to tell people driving along Route [whatever-it-was] about our exciting new releases.” He pointed past the Tupac Shakur and Puff Daddy posters toward the big plate-glass window where, outside, in the blazing, blinding South Carolina sun, a towering Peaches sign reached for the heavens like a skyscraper. Way, way up there fastened to a building-sized canvas of white plastic, I could just make out, were removable red letters — like the kind you see on strip mall megaplex cinema billboards. “We do have a ladder,” he offered comfortingly, perhaps sensing the black hole pit of fear spreading sickly in my stomach. “It’s a pretty tall ladder. But you’re gonna need to climb it.”
As a news reporter, I once had to cold-call an accused child rapist at his home to ask him for a comment on the allegations. I did it (his child picked up the phone first). I interviewed desperate crackheads with nothing left to lose, wallet-in-pocket and completely alone on deserted streets.
I once had to ride in an elevator with the man whose criminal trial for police brutality I was covering: a 6-foot-8-inch, 300-pound cop who had been caught on tape roughing up a private citizen whom he had taken a dislike to. The cop hated the paper I wrote for.
I had walked across a scrubby patch of lawn in the projects and loudly crunched down on a jagged sea of broken glass at midnight while researching a story I was writing on a series of random neighborhood shootings. When I asked the minister who had taken up the neighborhood watch if we were safe, he reassured me that absolutely we were. Um, how, exactly, do you know that sir? “We are walking with the Lord!” I was a tad un-persuaded. “Well, He may recognize you, sir. But I’m afraid he hasn’t seen me in awhile.”
I did all of those things. But scaling that stairway to heaven and changing that sign every Tuesday morning? Nope, negatory. That was a danger to life and limb I could not do.
Thankfully, the Sounds Familiar record store down the road didn’t have a sign nearly as high. And believe me, I checked.
Working there was a memorable experience, mostly enjoyable, and surprisingly unpredictable. Even if I was surrounded by fellow employees so young that, for the first time in my life, I referred to my co-workers as “kids.” It was a designation that I myself had previously enjoyed and taken pride in when grizzled, coffee-and-bourbon slugging editors referred to me when I was a cub reporter.
Now, as I gazed around at the other clerks — 19-year-old patchouli-scented stoners with makeshift hemp jewelry; dyed-black fourth-generation Xeroxed punks with nose rings and “Screeching Weasel” tees — I realized that I was now that grizzled, coffee-and-bourbon slugging old dude. Fuck that, I told myself as I boxed up my collection of City Hall-ready neckwear, pulled one of my faded old souvenir rock tees from a stockpile of caked sweat and permanently smoke-polluted shirts that were nearly as old as my colleagues, strapped on a vintage pair of black Doc Martens, and grew my hair out longer than it had been since I was twelve. I finally looked as young as I felt, but with double the amount of music life listening hours as everybody around me.
It was a good fit. Not only did I meet some terrific people and serious music fans and got to talk with them about, well, music, for eight, nine, ten hours at a stretch. But my tenure as the oldest rookie record store clerk known to mankind (somebody call the Guinness World Record people!) working at Sounds Familiar, an independent record store chain in South Carolina, gave me a valuable, first-hand perspective about the retail, business-driven side of the music industry. Plus, when we closed for the night (and it was always a balmy night in Columbia), we’d shut the doors, crank up the store stereo system, and break out a few beers from the back fridge while we vacuumed, put the new releases out, and got the store ready for the next, inevitably balmy day.
Pete The Owner was a squirrely fellow and weird egg who, as I discovered, put out compilation CDs of obscure ’50s and ’60s “beach music” on his own record label, single-handedly supplying the demand and filling the void for regional doo-wop fanatics. Jon The Manager and my immediate boss became a fast friend; we shared a first name and were of roughly the same music generation. Jon, it turned out, was a bibliophile and philosophy grad student whose open-ended, perpetual study of Kant and Plato was an ongoing passion matched only by his unapologetic love affair with Jethro Tull and Jaco Pastorius. And hitting the beach whenever and wherever possible, preferably with a stack of CDs, a boombox with a kick-ass sound system, and large cooler of adult beverages. (I said we were fast friends). Jon’s plucky-as-a-pistol wife Sharon helped run the store from the business end behind the scenes, which was an obvious waste of her probable talents for being able to sell a flatbed truck’s worth of Skid Row CDs to the town pastor on charm, and a strategically exposed shoulder, alone.
As for me? Besides occupying my natural in-store niche as a kind of encouraging older brother figure to “the kids,” (with the kind of extensive record collection only someone rich or as old as me could amass), I relished my unofficial, if slightly clichéd role as the record store rock critic who wrote for Rolling Stone and, much more importantly to the locals, The Free Times, the city’s alternative arts rag.
The afternoon when an editor at Rolling Stone called me at the store to ask me to cover the big AC/DC show happening at the Enormo-Dome in the next county was the day that “the kids” looked at me as if I had just walked on water. I also manned the phone to order inventory, which included a plum gig ordering rare, “unofficial” specialty CDs from nefarious sources, tailored to fit the needs and obsessions of a certain demographic that frequented the store. Namely, thirty-and-forty-something bootleg-loving freaks like me.
The only personal drawback and liability I introduced to the store was that, as a clerk, my duties entailed me ringing up sales customers, which always gave me a bad flashback to my hapless math class days (damn you, counter-intuitive cash register, playing with my mind with your antiquated, dad-gummed methods of addition and subtraction!). I’m pretty sure that to add up a total you had to actually subtract something, like a percentage of the sales tax, to make the total come out correctly — or something like that. Jeez, my palms are clammy and I’m sweating already! I think seeing me behind the cash register attempting to navigate the deep waters of volume sales had a similar sweat-inducing effect on Manager Jon.
I patiently fielded phone call questions about hotly anticipated release dates. The new Jewel? No clue, and don’t care! Snorah, er, Norah Jones? You must have trouble sleeping — congratulations, you’ve found the perfect remedy. Who sang that song about loving somebody that goes like this: ta-da-da…you know the one I’m talkin’ ’bout? Oh yeah, ‘cuz there’s only one song about love in the world! Only, unlike the tuneless blabber you’re actually humming to me over the phone, I’m guessing that song you want has a melody and lyrics!
And, ghastly as it may seem, with a warm smile of reassurance, I gamely addressed in-person queries from concerned moms of rebelling teenage kids about which Blind Melon or Spin Doctors CD they should buy to extend an olive branch of understanding and a smidgen of knowing hipness to their obnoxious offspring (that would be NONE of the above!). That was usually the point in our conversation whereby I steered them to Nirvana’s “In Utero” or Alice In Chains’s “Dirt.” (Hey, it was the mid-90s, after all).
I told myself this was all part of my research and tutelage for my soon-to-be-sizzling career as a rock critic. Little did I know that this gig pronouncing musical judgment on people’s pedestrian tastes (and trying to steer them in more artistically rewarding directions) for minimum wage was much closer to the creative/compensatory parameters of my dream job than I had ever envisioned or planned for.
I also happened to be working at a Columbia, South Carolina store during the height of what I’ll call Hootie and The Blowfish mania — the very same store, in fact, where Hootie himself, er, Darius Rucker, worked as a record store clerk. Hootie, er, Darius, even stopped in once to say hello. Ah yes. It was a special time to be alive.
But perhaps no more special a time than when an elderly grandmother, looking as if she had just stepped tentatively onto an alien planet and speaking in a heavy accent of undiscernible origin, asked me, innocently and hesitantly: “Excuse me young man. I am shopping for my grandson. Do you have something called ‘Slawwwhhhssssshhhhez Snekk Peet?’ ” After a few minutes of confusion followed by cracking the code, I realized what she wanted. I special ordered her “Slash’s Snake Pit” and assured her the CD would arrive in time for her grandson to appreciate playing in his snake pit. Secretly I wished, just a little, that this sweet little grandma actually dug the Guns ‘N’ Roses guitarist and was really ordering the CD for herself.
Then there was the lady who constantly came into the store and asked to sample the movie soundtracks. As in, can you tear the brand new sealed shrink-wrap off of this brand new CD and play it for me before I decide — like I always do — not to buy it — or anything else, ever, for that matter? Finally, my friend and store manager Jon put his foot down — well, not literally –on “soundtrack lady.” When he broke the news gently, and without trying to embarrass her, that the store just couldn’t afford to tear open sealed CDs ad nauseam anymore, she gave him the kind of stricken deep-shock look people give cops when they’ve just been told their whole family’s been murdered.
But, as far as memorable record store quotes go (again, see the link directly below this post), my favorite was always the query, which varied slightly each time it was asked, from the parade of teenage girls and 20-something young women who, over a span of several weeks, strode into the store and made a bee-line to the front counter to ask their collective, not, ahem, entirely unwelcome question about a new track a rap group out of Georgia called the Southern Playas had dropped:”Do y’all have Dickey Ride? I need me some Dickey Ride.”
After the first ten or twelve times being asked that by these lovely gals, and a few guys too — directly, loudly, even impatiently and without a trace of self-consciousness — the exchange and inevitable transaction became slightly surreal. It would always be the same. I would look them in the eye, nod my head as if pondering the sage question, and finally, to their unabashed delight, brightly answer in the affirmative: “Actually yes,” I would say cheerily, from my elevated position behind the counter, standing directly in front of a whole shelf of shrink-wrapped “Dickey Rides” waiting for them. “As a matter of fact, I do have Dickey Ride.”
As I reached behind me and pulled the cassette single from the stash, I contemplated the fact that both their question and my answer was definitely a piece of dialogue I never imagined having. Not without getting slapped, that is. But this was Sounds Familiar, a record store that was, contrary to its name, frequently a surprising place of unfamiliar, novel conversations — and questions. And much like the eclectic music our staff played there, just as entertaining. And it beat the living hell out of picking peas.