Another Record Store Day is upon us. I know, I know - it’s another retail holiday, just like Valentine’s Day or jesus’ birthday. But to me, a celebration of record shops is valid. I've spent large chunks of my life in record stores whenever I could afford to, and sometimes even when I couldn’t. When I was a younger man, every spare penny was spent on cassettes, then CDs, and then eventually back to vinyl. Music was so important to me that I had to be in the epicenter of it wherever I lived – and in small towns like Penticton, where I grew up, the epicenter of music is, without question, the local record store.
Penticton had only one independent record store - the GROOVEYARD. Sure, the local malls offered short-lived, mass-market chain music stores, but they were only good for Billboard Top 40 pop garbage or classic-rock schlock - you might as well have shopped the music department at Zellers (the other game in town). For those of us with even the slightest discerning taste, the Grooveyard was the only place to go.
I began frequenting the store around age 14, shortly after moving to town. In those days, the store was owned by a couple named Leanne and 'Groovy' Paul and their business partner Anita. I used to harangue the three of them for a job on a weekly basis throughout high school, but I always struck out. After all, their store didn't really need any extra staff, and being the hippest place in a burg like Penticton, and I’m sure my reek of job-hunt-desperation (that, or the mullet) didn’t win me any points.
The store's rep preceded it, though - and the Grooveyard wasn't above using its cred to ply record-store parlor-tricks to generate business. For example, I distinctly remember during the 2 Live Crew controversy, the Grooveyard was not-so-subtly selling second-generation cassette dubs of the Nasty As They Wanna Be album under-the-counter for fifty bucks apiece (no, I never bought one, but I knew someone who was dumb enough to). On the extremely rare occasion that a touring band would come through town, the Grooveyard could usually be counted on to host an in-store. This was huge for those of us who were still too young to get in to bar shows. I still remember long-forgotten Canadian hairfarmers Harem Scarem playing to a packed Grooveyard, you could smell the hairspray from a block away.
Around the time I graduated high school, an older hipster nemesis got hired at the store. Fuck, was I jealous! Of course, in tiny-town Penticton, the newly-minted title of 'record store clerk' only added to his status as a local underground music authority. He was the kind of cat who was always wearing shirts of bands you hadn't heard of yet, and he'd sneer at your CD purchases as you approached the counter with them in hand. John always knew about the bands you were just getting into way before you did, or he'd snarkily pontificate about a band or album you should be listening to instead (picture a more bitchy, hipstery Barry, Jack Black's character in High Fidelity). This was around the heighth of grunge and of course, he was already way over it. I'll never forget the time I went into the store, and he nearly leapt over the counter in excitement because he couldn't wait to tell me my band would have to change its name, there was already a band called 'The Droogs' (granted, we were young-and-dumb enough to think that was an original band name in 1992).
Oh, but did I envy him that minuscule amount of sneering-asshole power!
But- credit where it's due, he opened my mind by being the kind of name-dropping dickhead who turned me on to new music inadvertently (example: his Helmet shirt got me to check out Strap It On well before everyone else freaked out over Meantime). For the next few years, the development in my taste for independent and underground music was at least in part shaped by the sneering record store jerk. By this time, I’d started working a job that paid me better than the record store would anyway. Regardless, I would still visit the store frequently, and there were paydays when I’d recklessly drop a quarter of my paycheque on CDs.
A few years went by and I continued to hang out at the store, and would occasionally, half-assedly bug Leanne for a job. I finally got the call in 1996. My neighbor Joanne had been working at the store for a few months, and when the store had an opening, recommended me to Leanne (who was the sole proprietor by this point). After a quick formality-of-an-interview, Leanne hired me part-time on the spot, on Jo’s word.
This was it! Finally I got to be the sneering record-store asshole behind the counter. Finally I could (nearly) afford my music addiction with that golden 'cost+20%' discount. Of course, that just meant I spent more money at the store, probably more time too - but whatever. Days Monday to Friday I would work my day job and then evenings and weekends pick up as many hours at the Grooveyard as I could - it's still the coolest job I ever held. Working at the store broadened my musical horizons, and I learned that there was more to life than just metal and punk. This became especially apparent when I’d be working with the bosses, whose musical taste could not be further from my own, and who usually dictated what kind of music could be listened to in the store. Through them I eventually learned a grudging appreciation for other musical genres.
Of course, there were small-minded, record-store-asshole games to play, too.
Around this time, people who would come in and unknowingly ask for the album by "the Hanson Brothers” would be handed albums by the far-superior NoMeansNo hockey/Ramones side project, instead of the tween-bop kid’s act they were looking for:
“Hey, YOU asked me for the Hanson Brothers, so that’s what I gave you. The ‘Mmmbop’ band is called HANSON. It’s not my fault you didn’t know the name of the band you wanted.”
Or the week I spent playing the Ween and Supersuckers country albums as a joke non-stop during the big annual country music festival in Merritt (it was my boss' mandate that I play nothing but country albums in-store during the week of the fest). But that joke wound up being on me - I sold out of both those albums way before the week was over, and then I had nothing to listen to but shitty 'new country' albums for the balance of the week. I still cringe whenever I hear a song off that third Faith Hill album.
My old arch-nemesis Hipster Dude would have been proud though - the torch had been passed. I even got my own business cards, designating me the resident "Uneasy Listening Technician".
Above all, though, I just enjoyed being the guy who got to listen to music for a paycheque. It was especially gratifying when people would come up to the counter, ask me what I was listening to and then buy a copy of the album. It was a huge validation to be known as a small-scale (VERY small-scale) arbiter of cool. There were several kids who started to hang around the shop regularly, same as I had a few years before, who were just getting into collecting music for themselves, and they would always ask me what was new and worth listening to. Actually, it was usually the second thing out of their mouths, right after asking me for a job.
Another fringe benefit of record-store-clerkdom was that one of the local newspapers had approached the store to start writing record reviews - Penticton's Southern Exposure newspaper was the first place I ever got published (though if you ever ask me about the favourable review of the first Limp Bizkit album I am alleged to have written, I’ll deny it and show you the door).
After a year of part-time, I finally got an offer to work for the Grooveyard full-time, even offered a promotion to manager of their newest store location in Merritt. There was just that downside of moving to Merritt. But honestly, that wasn’t all bad either. That handful of cool people every small town has eventually gravitated to the store, and I remain friends with some to this day. As well, the boredom of weeknights in a grotty little town like Merritt pushed me to resume the fanzine I’d started a couple years earlier. I was also still writing record reviews for the Penticton paper and had expanded my repertoire to include a regional arts magazine. I had finally established myself as enough of a 'writer' to get a few of my favorite labels to send me free promo - receiving packages of swag in the post, especially advance releases (physical releases - this was the days before digital promo) was seriously like winning the lottery.
Alas, all good things come to an end, though usually not so abruptly. Six months after I'd started the manager job, the Merritt store got sold and the new owner decided he'd be managing the store himself, so I was out of a job. I moved on to Kamloops. Perhaps not so ironically, the Merritt Grooveyard folded about six months after I left.
But- the time I spent working for the Grooveyard was ultimately rewarding, and on this year’s Record Store Day I am reminded again that record stores are a dying breed, especially the kind that offer something more than just whatever greatest hits, top-40 bullshit you can find at Wal*Mart or Best Buy. People today either don't remember, or in the case of kids born post-internet, just don't know what it meant to go to the record store and pick up something new to listen to. It's just too easy now. But there's still magic in those stores, and if you like a band, you should still support them by buying their albums. So I’m heading out to my local record stores today* to see what I can find on vinyl. You should too.
*(Update) Today’s score: a 3-LP box set of Type O Negative’s Dead Again from SCRAPE Records. Again, Rest in Peace, Peter Steele.