I opened the door, walked in and it hit me, the scent of plastic wrap, laminated cardboard and heavily treaded carpet. I forgot how inviting the smell was, as a place of comfort when I was a teenager and even later in life.
It was while photographing The Long Ear, in Coeur d’Alene, for this week’s Inlander, when the smell of the record store triggered memories. While most of the store is row after row of CDs, it has retained its record store smell.
My mom made the mistake of buying me a Fisher 100 watt hi-fi system when I was a teenager in suburban Los Angeles. That hi-fi changed my impression of music. Up until then, all I had tape recorder, which had a pretty sad sounding mono speaker. But the Fisher sounded crisp and, better yet, it was loud, much to the dismay of my family and neighbors. It made music a lot more interesting for me.
I started going to a nearby Tower Records to browse, endlessly. There was no rhyme or reason. I would escape in the rows and rows of illustrations and photos, containing everything from heavy metal to new wave. I would save up to buy the $10 album or a few singles.
The store was always a little less than clean. You could always tell that many people had been there. The carpet was stained. There was always a hint of the scent of fast food, plastic and hair spray. Usually, there was always a little rubbish stuck in a corner somewhere. That was part of what made the record store inviting.
Posters hung from the rafters, saying “buy my new album” or “go see my show.” There were always flyers and copies of independent zines by the door. But the real draw was the music.
Sometimes I bought an album or single after hearing it being played over the store’s sound system. Somebody always had an opinion, though. It could be an employee or the person browsing in the next aisle. “Don’t buy that album, there’s only one good song.” “This album might be their best ever.” I found such opinions annoying at the time. I wanted to come to my own conclusions.
I especially didn’t want to know what was in a record sleeve or cassette case before I bought an album. They were always covered in plastic wrap and it was impossible to tell what was inside. Were there lyrics? Were there tour photos? Part of the excitement of opening an album was looking at all of the stuff inside. A lack of stuff was always disappointing.
It wasn’t until much later in life, after all of the Tower Records and Virgin Megastores closed, that I realized I missed the endless browsing. Even in my early 30s, I took it for granted that these stores would always be there.
Some of the mystery had disappeared by then. CDs took over and listening stations popped up at every store. I should have realized that this was the beginning of the end of the record store, now the music store. Nobody had to talk anymore. You just put the headphones on and tuned everybody else out.
Eventually, I started buying my music online. I didn’t even notice the record stores closing. They were being turned into furniture and appliance stores or an electronics store. Some of the culture went away. Browsing for music online just doesn’t have the same feel.
For an hour, while working on this story, I remembered how it felt to just walk around a record store. I looked at CD cases and didn’t look at them at the same time, heard opinions given, listened to the music being played over the store’s sound system, and didn’t care what time it was or how long I was there.