by Duncan Harman
“An eviscerated hulk” howled the email, “it’s nothing more than a sorry, eviscerated hulk”. So of course I had to rubberneck. No thinking required – my feet knew the way. That oh-so-familiar backstreet location (it always had to be a backstreet location; stranded at the rear of the multi-story car park, the wrong side of the bus station, unpretentiously wedged between tobacconist and taxidermist). Louder Than Bombs; a record store, the record store, my record store. Think John Cusack in "High Fidelity", amplified by the dreams of someone forever just a boy.
And there it was; boarded up, vacant save for empty racks, a guilty apology taped to the doorframe. “Closed for business”. Closed, closed.
I gifted my adolescence to Louder Than Bombs. It’s what people like us do. To outsiders it was never anything more than a vaguely maleficent influence, a misconception hawking t-shirts and posters and slabs of vinyl that no one in their right mind had ever heard of, to skulking people that no one in their right mind would ever want to associate with. To us however – in a strange way it was everything we could have wished for. Echo & The Bunnymen. Low era Bowie. The Go-Go’s, all go-go. I vividly recall my first visit. Nine or ten, fundamentally aware that some of the things I’d heard on my parent’s radio touched me like nothing before, I stood outside enraptured by the posters in the window, the indigenous stereo a muffled enticement permeating beyond the storefront. What was that record? What is it? How can I get it?
Eventually I plucked up the courage to enter. And never looked back (even now, twenty years later, there are so many songs that anchor me to that time, that place). As I shuffled in: row after row, rack after rack of the most soul-affirming music I could imagine. Depeche Mode. Hüsker Dü. Led Zep: One thru Four. A small store that somehow transmitted the atmosphere of the auditorium. Punters older and far cooler than myself flicked through the vinyl, and yet as soon as I made my first purchase I felt I’d somehow been initiated into a secret society that understood who I was, or who I was becoming. It wasn’t long before I was spending far too much of my time – and even more of my allowance – elbow-deep in the merchandise.
It isn’t spectacularly long ago that every malilluminated fleapit of a town had its own version of Louder Than Bombs (larger settlements had two or three; grander cities – manifold). Not for us the sterility of the Virgin Megastore, of Tower Records, of HMV. The independent record store fulfilled some kind of civic function, a sanctuary for the dispossessed, the nerdy, those for whom sleep was an impossibility without that rare 7” single, the Japanese import, the only copy of White Light/White Heat for sale within 50 miles. Discovering that singular record you’d read about in the music press, or you’d heard on FM whilst getting ready for school – the thrill in discovering it corporeal in your local record den was – well – pseudo-sexual in nature (I’m only half ashamed to admit). It pressed buttons. Sometimes even the hair on the nape of my neck stood erect as I held a record in my sweaty palms.
And the merchandise was only ever half the story. The staff, they knew their stuff, pointed you in directions to musical vistas you’d never stumble upon in the monochrome real world. The walls would be spattered in adverts for gigs, from every band who ever needed that singer/guitarist/drummer. You got to know the venues where bands played – and the band themselves – if you read closely enough. In this symbiotic environment, I joined my first band due to Louder Than Bombs (and I’ll never forget the thrill of finding my second band’s record on the shelves; it almost made up for the fact we were dreadful).
The public service your local record store lovingly provided became obsolete – or as near to obsolete as matters once you’ve counted the store closures – when its core constituency connected those wires, discovered the Internet. Ignore the perceived wisdom about Wal-Mart, about Blockbuster, about supermarkets and that whole pile-'em-high, sell-'em-cheap aesthetic; the disambiguation of music retail was never relevant to the music connoisseur, a genus never comfortable around mainstream retail, let alone one who’d consider purchasing cheap chart product from a store ill-dedicated to our obsession. Supermarkets only ever cater for the causal purchaser (or as I’d have it – people who don’t really like music) – people for whom crossing the threshold of a serious record store would be completely alien. The Internet, however, completely realigned the access of music, however obscure. The record store rapidly found itself irrelevant (or as good as) just as soon as Limewire and eBay and Amazon and a million other sources, both legal and illicit, flashed up on the screen. Suddenly records became instantaneous. Warehouses with ranges way in excess of even the best indie store sprouted beside the freeway, shipping that rare record at low, low prices. Bob in Des Moines wanted to sell his signed copy of the Ramones’ first album, and no matter how good Louder Than Bombs was, it was never going to spin into Bob’s orbit.
And is my hard drive full of tunes weird and wonderful? Of course – I’m as complicit in record store death as you. Do I feel guilty?
There will always be Louder Than Bombs. They’ll hide in the big city backstreets, owned by serious music connoisseurs with a philanthropic bent and a large bank balance. They’ll survive, just; the Internet itself has created what retail analysts call new revenue streams for the indie record store, specialization a key tool in any arsenal. These days, we download, grabbing electronica electrically, buying our records online – even those rare Japanese imports. We find our band members through social networking sites, head to gigs we’ve spotted on MySpace whilst listening to our iPods. And none of this is necessarily a bad thing – needing a hit at three am is far more convenient when you can simply hit a few buttons to get your aural fix (I still remember queuing outside, waiting for the store to open on new release day – how quaint, how twentieth century). The loss of so many record stores however – it’s a lost world, full of so many possibilities – and the planet is a poorer place every time shutters are rolled down for the final time, and another town becomes quieter than bombs.
Outside a closed record store, I gazed wistfully through cloudy windows at the detritus of another music casualty, and then walked home slowly through the rain.
Duncan Harman is a regular contributor to Turntable & Blue Light and is a London-based scoundrel, available to spin obscure eighties electro at your next family celebration.