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GOODBYE TO ALL THAT

What I learned at the record shop

March 26, 2006|Lynell George | Lynell George is a senior writer at The Times' West magazine.

LONG BEFORE AMOEBA MUSIC opened its landscape-altering Hollywood flagship, and nearly a decade before "High Fidelity" immortalized that singular breed of retail animal -- the completist record store clerk -- there was a holy strip of scuffed-up, indie new-and-used record shops lining Melrose Avenue. Vinyl Fetish, Bleeker Bob's, 2nd Time Around and my two favorites: Rene's All Ears and Aron's Records.

When vinyl still reigned (in various versions -- 78, 45 and 33 1/3 ; import or domestic; picture discs and colored vinyl; sexy little EPs), these shops and a few others scattered across Los Angeles played host to all manner of yearnings, discovery and invention in my life. They felt as essential as the ampersand in R&B.

On any given weekend a couple of decades ago, I could be found lurking among the bins in my painter's overalls and my once-white, low-top Jack Purcell's, flipping one-handed through "Jazz," bending over this or that artist until my neck went numb, carrying a hefty stack of LPs, a load heavy enough to leave red creases on my arm. I wouldn't set them down for fear that someone would swipe that long-out-of-print Cannonball Adderley LP that I'd spent not hours but years hunting for. I couldn't take that risk.

I invested in these places -- not just money, but time. And then, like the changer arm lifting and the stereo switching off, my habits changed. I somehow slipped out of my routine. I eased up on my record store fetish; I invested elsewhere.

And maybe that's why I didn't shed a tear or show up to mourn when Rhino Records and now Aron's (both long relocated from former addresses) began shutting their doors for good in the last few months. I'd already said my goodbyes -- to old locations, to overpowering memories, to bins that had long since been picked over. I'd seen the shift coming, the back-stock thinning, all manner of new media -- DVDs and DATs -- taking up shelf space. I couldn't stomach the emptying bins, the death of an era.

It wasn't me that changed, it was the business model: a general slump in record sales (down 7% last year, according to SoundScan), a great big uptick in digital downloading, a rush to shop online. Statistics underscore what our eyes already tell us: The Amoebas stay in business, but there are only about half as many independent record stores as there were 10 years ago countrywide.

Last year, downloaded tracks from online retailers soared to 332.7 million, compared with 134.2 million in 2004 -- an increase of 148%. And when former customers weren't downloading music, they were burning friends' CDs. The landscape for bricks-and-mortar storeowners has been nothing less than a disaster zone.

Yet I can't imagine what my life, my worldview, would have been like without record stores -- particularly the independents with their idiosyncratic rooms plastered with posters, speakers booming, smelling alternately of patchouli or herb and always crammed with persnickety customers arguing with even more persnickety clerks.

Through junior high school and high school, I saved my lunch money and once a week made my way to the various neighborhood record stores not only to update my collection but to augment my sense of the world -- its tongues, its rhythms, its stories, its very vastness. Not to sound too much like some old-school crank, but I can't imagine that watching a bar load on-screen equals the awe of opening a double-album set with both your hands.

When I first learned to drive, getting up the hill without rolling backward on La Cienega, just so I could get to Tower Records on the Sunset Strip, became an important rite of passage. The clerks there steered me toward the essential Sonny Rollins; the "forget about all others, this is the best" Bill Evans. But I soon discovered that Rene's and Aron's were where the most unique treasures could be found.

Emblazoned with the White Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland, Rene's All Ears stood at the corner of Melrose and Spaulding, near what I was told was Rene's other passion: an auto/motorcycle repair shop. It was smallish, but size, I learned quickly, didn't matter.

I bought a lot of imports there -- blues and early roots music, R&B, regional voices -- the Honey Drippers and blues shouters Chicago Carl Davis and Big Joe Turner. But it was also where I dipped into the Washington go-go scene (Chuck Brown and EU) and wandered into my first King Crimson, New Orleans guitarist Danny Barker and Automatic Man's elastic blend of space rock and funk. For a buck a disc you could take a chance on anything. I bought my first Rahsaan Roland Kirk at Rene's, from a man with a huge smile and a mohawk the color of cotton candy.

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