Goodbye to the Record Store

I spent half of my childhood in the thick of things in Chicago and the other half in rural-exurban Western Massachusetts. It always surprises me when someone says "I can't imagine you in the countryside" (I often fantasize publicly about living in Vermont or somewhere similarly rural). What, Points of Interest in the Owens River Valley wasn't enough for you? 

Since my exurban life came during my all-important teenage years, I found it  crucial to visit the city where I'd scour the record stores or to tune into WRPI, a great industrially-oriented radio station, something I could only do whenever the horrific local Christian station was off the air. When I went to college at Cornell in Ithaca, New York, I was even further from civilization and without even a decent radio station (the college radio station was obsessed with Phish, infinitely worse fate than even classic rock) and so-so record stores. I invested in a short wave radio to listen to the John Peel show (and, when I could get it, the brilliant, ill-fated Radio Sierra Leone) and took painfully long road trips to the city to the same record stores to collect more music.

All this is gone now. I haven't been to a record store in years. I'm a bit of an audiophile so I still keep the best music in CDs but no record store is as efficient as the Net so I even that fix takes place online. In any event the record stores have closed down, the staff off to do God knows what. The scene is gone.

Why do I blog this? Simply enough: the old role of cities as places that you go to in order to experience hard-to-find culture is over. The Nick Hornby novel/film High Fidelity is completely foreign to network culture. Ours is the world of the Long Tail. Everything is available. The city is dead.  


Haha Phish

Would love to have been in New England in the days when college radio stations were obsessed with Phish. Now its unbearable, but to have been there in the thick of it would have been great.

Not New England, NY state. It

Not New England, NY state. It was hellish. WICB was a godawful nightmare. I suspect its abysmal, sub-commercial quality inspired more suicides than the famous Cornell gorges.

And the cities turn into

And the cities turn into farms.

All of this makes it far

All of this makes it far easier for the adult city dweller to move off to the country, but I still think that alternative kids in the suburbs must feel like little freaks.

on freaks

Hi Paul! Just thinking about you yesterday. 

Isn't feeling like a freak precisely what one needs to be "alternative?" I also wonder if there's anything left of alternative after its thorough commodification in the 1990s.

blim micky may have it right. The city is a record store, a device for accelerated consumption. This is what the suburb was accused of in the 1950s and 1960s…


I wasn't using "alternative"

I wasn't using "alternative" to refer to a particular type of music. I more meant that misfit suburban kids must still feel left out of the wider cultural world despite having computers in their bed rooms. I'm just guessing here... I have no idea what suburban life is really like nowadays. However, London is still filled with visiting kids in odd clothes checking out the cool neighborhoods.

But what sort of alterity is

But what sort of alterity is left in the city? It seems like the people who flock to Manhattan now do it more often because of Sex in the City than because of any notion of alterity. 

I don't think that London has

I don't think that London has changed as much in this respect. The alt shops, clubs, theater are all still here, even though the record stores are fewer in number. As far as I can tell from my recent travels, the same could be said for Berlin, Barcelona, Portland, and Seattle.

But what kind of [relevant]

But what kind of [relevant] alternative culture is still available in places like London or Seattle? Is it not some form of rehashed punk that continues to protest what it perceives as "mainstream", whether that's authoritarian government or suburban ennui? And how are these [sub]cultures not simply refugee communities for those who feel like they don't fit in elsewhere, rather than viable forms of protest, which they once were?

Actually, now this form of alternative can spring up anywhere. I was the project manager on a community theater renovation in a rural New Mexico town of 14,000 and even it had its own versions of "alternative". The community had two competing coffee houses - one had a grungy/artsy atmosphere and was run by hip, tattooed teens with wild hair while the other had a decidedly Christian theme that was modelled on the coffee shop from "Friends". In this respect, which one was the stranger of the two? I have yet to find the latter replicated elsewhere.

I haven't heard a compelling definition for alternative since the early 1990s. We now only have hybrids and these have the potential to emerge anywhere.

a "record store" in the city

a "record store" in the city is a bit of a joke
because the entire city is a "record store"

if we tighten our logistical belts
the network is a sum of interface fetish
for accelerated resource acquisition, tool access
and thus the manipulation of physical memory
[even if only entertainment byproduct]

which is a more likely fold in the timeline of revolutions?
urban and agricultural, or urban and digital?
cities might be server farms sooner.

City is Dead?

I enjoy your posts, but must confess I am new here and I am not sure if you meant to be ironic when you said the "city is dead".

Quoting Mike Davis: “Urban density can translate into great efficiencies in land, energy and resource use, while democratic public spaces and cultural institutions likewise provide qualitatively higher standards of enjoyment than individualized consumption and commodified leisure.”

My opinion: The future is the city, it is the only form that make sense in our world of diminishing resources.

Hi Tom, No irony at all. Why

Hi Tom,

No irony at all. Why do you think that in a future of diminishing resources cities will survive? Take a good, hard look at cities today. They're massive malls—and only a precious few of them are oriented around pedestrian life—geared around a rate of consumption that makes life in the suburbs look tame. I've seen perfectly good polished steel kitchens, perhaps only a couple of years old, thrown away by the side of the street in Manhattan. I'm not talking about an appliance, I'm talking about an entire kitchen. 

Why is this somehow a more appropriate form of consumption?

I love Mike dearly, but two points. Since when has he lived in what urban boosters traditionally define as a city? I'll be the first to admit that I don't know where, at present, he lives, but historically speaking, Mike's lived in areas that most people would consider suburban. Second, Mike has pointed out that Los Angeles—which looks pretty suburban to most eyes—is denser than New York City once you look at the metropolitan region.

If and when resources start taking a turn for the worse, I predict that having a patch of land to grow your own vegetables on is going to start looking awfully good.



The High Fidelity generation

Thanks for posting this entry. Reminds me of my childhood, growing up in a suburban New England town where you had to be accompanied by a parent into the record store in the "Center" shops for fear of teenagers congregating and sampling music (of all things!) On another note, in response to other comments above, I find it curious that the ginormous Tower Records store at the intersection of Mass Ave and Boylston Street in Boston which folded a few years back was converted into high-end mixed use loft style living with non other than, stainless steel appliances. Are we really getting any smarter or is the over-saturated urban condo market just a stand in for the record or cassette tape of my childhood?