Sunday, December 30, 2007

(Twenty Years) Part 6: We're Movin' On Up

November 30, 2007 marked 20 years to the day since I started at Record Den, which has inspired some thought and reminiscing on the person I was then, what the job was like as the years went by, and what has kept me around until now ...

At the time of its construction in 1961, Great Lakes Mall, incredibly, was the biggest enclosed shopping center in the country. Over the years, that title slipped away after newer and larger mega-malls opened across North America as an explosion in retail construction changed (or, some might say, defined) the face of suburbia over the two decades that followed.

The renovated interior of Great Lakes MallBy the late 1980s, however, a more "open," brighter aesthetic to mall design had arrived in town that stressed atrium-like skylights and a less purely functional, more vaguely ancient Roman look to the support columns and tiled floors. Compared to these polished new locations, Great Lakes Mall began to less like a trendy shopping destination and more like a dim, drab cave. In order to keep their million-square foot property up to date (and their anchor tenants happy), the DeBartolo group set in motion a complete renovation of the common mall area that spanned most of 1989. Construction proceeded during open hours, of course, and for a few months during the summer, the constant muzak piping through the mall's PA system was completely drowned out by power tools wielded by workers up on scaffolds or hidden by giant drop cloths. When everything was finally finished before the start of the next Christmas rush, the mall certainly looked far more modern, well-lit, and "trendy" than it had before.

Another new concept that most new malls had glommed onto (including Great Lakes) at the end of the 1980s was the "food court." Before the start of the renovation project, several restaurants and fast-food locations were scattered about the "main drag" of the complex, and nearly all of them wound up moving into the newly-created food court almost immediately after construction was completed (the one or two chains that did not opt to relocate quietly vanished when their leases came up for renewal). Happily for Great Lakes Mall, this reorganization of available space added some more greatly-needed slots for the one or two sellers of pointlessly expensive shoes and foofy women's accessories that were not already renting there. Huzzah.

Right smack in the midst of all of these newly refaced store fronts and brightly colored exteriors stood the J.J. Newberry's store, which had overnight turned into a once-quaint eyesore. If the rest of the mall represented a clean, immaculately maintained street in a quiet suburban subdivision, Newberry's was the dumpy house with the pink flamingos on the grass and the old Chevy truck up on bricks next to the cracked, oil-stained driveway. In their mad dash to keep up with the Joneses (better known as Beachwood Place and Great Northern Mall), Great Lakes Mall had no need for a five-and-dime straight out of Hooterville cluttering up the busiest part of the main strip. At the end of 1991, Newberry's had finally reached the end of their lease, and there would be no renewal.

For the Record Den and the two or three other tenants sub-leasing space around the department store, it was suddenly time to find new digs, and fast. Obviously, the big news was not being taken well by Newberry's employees (my girlfriend at the time numbered among them), who were understandably upset that their jobs were about to vanish into thin air. We at the Den were a tad apprehensive as well, especially when we discovered that we had nowhere to go: it appears that our home office had been caught off guard by the news as they would not have a new location ready for us to move into until late summer 1992. Ruh roh ...

As the 1991 Christmas season wound to a close and Newberry's began to noticeably empty of product, we found out that the Den would be allowed to remain in operation for the time being in our currently-leased space. Asking to stay where we were for the better part of a year would likely have been problematic, so a temporary location would be necessary to move into until our permanent digs were finished and ready. As it happened, the wait until we made our way to this temporary location was about 4-6 weeks, and during that time, our store space was gradually "walled off" from the rest of the disappearing Newberry's location by a series of 6 1/2' tall cassette racks, with the only possible entry to our store through the same massive sliding glass doors the department store had once used, now opened just wide enough for a couple of people to walk through at a time.

The Great Lakes Mall: present anchor stores labeled as indicated
To follow the events of the next few months, I hereby supply you with a rough map of the Great Lakes Mall floor plan. Until January of 1992, the spot taken up by J.J. Newberry's was the letter "H" on the map above, with the exact location of the Record Den a tad to the right of that letter and directly on the "main drag" of the mall. OK, off we go ...

At the end of March, our first temporary location was ready: an old shoe store near the center of the mall (about parallel to the top of the letter "G" in the Dillards wing), sporting two large, bay-window type display cases and an actual back room for shipping, receiving and overstock. This news alone had us over the moon: in our ridiculously-cramped previous location, there was a space behind the miscellaneous product wall where coats, import posters and a vacuum cleaner were kept and that was it ... all other storage space was a few hundred feet away in the Newberry's shipping-and-receiving department. This temporary store was going to feel like a freaking warehouse in comparison.

Jim looks into the camera (next to Greg, with Nate in the background) as the old Record Den empties out once and for all.The move itself could have been a lot worse, but it certainly wasn't anyone's definition of "fun." I'm guessing I speak for everyone who showed up to lend a hand that, pleasant or not, none of us would have missed this night. We all felt a deep connection to the history of the Den (or at least a morbid curiosity to see it empty), especially Greg, who had been working there since the end of 1973. I don't remember there being any outright sadness expressed at the time, but more of a resigned feeling of letting go and moving on.

Me in back of those shitty waterfall racks with my shitty waterfall haircut.Being that we were on the eve of one of the biggest release weeks of the year, closing our doors for a day or so in order to tidy ourselves up was not an option. There wasn't an awful lot of time to screw around, particularly since our company's owner had provided us with these horrible new "waterfall" display racks that, on one hand, "faced out" a lot more titles than was possible with our old converted vinyl bins, but also were a royal pain in the ass to work with and took a lot of extra time to set up.

I am happy to report that we junked these ungainly bastards by the time we reached our permanent digs.

Jim was completely in lust with the girl playing the Easter Bunny at the mall that year. Sadly, this is as close as he would come to realizing his carnal ambitions with her.The whole process from start to finish was a grueling all-nighter: we started breaking down the old store shortly after the mall closed at 6:00 on Sunday evening, boxing up thousands of CDs and tapes and then getting the fixtures themselves ready to move. It was nearly midnight by the time we were ready to start shuttling boxes and fixtures down the mall in two-man teams, after rigging up some clunky old four wheelers to support the damn things. From there, the rest of that night was spent transporting the guts of the old store down to the temporary location, punctuated by some horsing around with the mall's Easter display during our few moments of downtime. By the time we called it a night, the store wasn't exactly pretty, but it was ready to run and that was all it needed to be: we had weeks to do the rest of the fine tuning ... or so we thought.

Temporary Location #1: Moving Night (that is long-haired me in the jean jacket)I think it was on the following Saturday that we were visited in our store by the mall manager, a grim, buzzard-like man who always dressed in a soulless, slate gray suit. As was his style, he came right to the point: the space we were inhabiting had actually been slated for someone else and we would have to vacate in seven days. To say we didn't take this very well might be a bit of an understatement ... I think "thunderstruck" better approximates the feeling of that moment.

The next move took us across the Dillard's wing to a point about parallel with the bottom of that letter "F" on the supplied mall map. Our second temporary location had previously been a jewelry store and, judging by the huge, cavern-like back room (a handy place for making out with your girlfriend during lunch breaks, it turns out) with rows of wooden shelves extending well over our heads, most likely a shoe store before that. Unfortunately, this new location was also as nearly invisible to mall traffic: the polar opposite of our previous location. Instead of two huge glass bay windows, we were now completely shut off from the mall, with an almost comically-small front doorway about as wide as two people standing side by side. In fact, the only space we had to offer any clue we were a record store (besides the garish-looking sign we had strung up directly over the name of the previous tenant) were two enclosed case-like window displays that were more suited to showing off engagment rings and necklaces than promotional displays for, say, the new Ride or Wire Train release (though I do recall Beth coming up with a pretty cool underwater-looking "Weird Al" Yankovic display that exploited these little spaces to their limit).

About the only way we'd benefited from this latest move was that the new store was far bigger than the last. It was so wide that we had to use the tape cassette racks to divide the floor space (and in effect create a second back room). Even when cut in half, the floor space dedicated to shopping in that store was spacious almost to the point of absurdity. Lastly, in a pretty cool touch, the store was primarily lit by a huge chandelier hanging overhead (another leftover from the previous tenant) that added a weird, faux-classy feel to your shopping experience that resonated wonderfully whenever Nate threw on a CD by Social Distortion or They Might Be Giants.

Record Den's final Great Lakes Mall incarnation.After four months as Record Cave, we finally moved into our permanent new location about halfway farther down the Dillard's wing. While we had been able to loosen our belts a bit with the last two locations being as open as they were, the new digs were located in a narrow, cylindrical box of a space, completely enclosed in white slat wall and red neon (with some very 1980s mirrors over the middle ceiling: the remnants of the store's previous tenants who had specialized in, get ready for it, foofy plastic women's fashion accessories).
The new Record Den location was all about maximized space: from the double-decker CD bins that lined the walls to the yards of plastic and metal shelving running up and down the length of the store. Even our back room was greatly decreased in size from before, but it did feature a two-way mirror that allowed a person to watch over the rear half of the store while seated at the desk (we also devised a pretty sneaky way to run surveillance on the import section from an alcove space above the bathroom that was reachable by stepladder and looked directly down on browsers through a grated section of acoustical ceiling). Sizing up the available square footage, it felt like we'd need a shoehorn to get the move done, but by now we were getting experienced with this kind of thing and the moving of materiel from point A to point B went pretty smoothly in comparison to the first two times.

In addition to the reduced space, there was another drawback to our permanent location: an enforced dress code. I realize this sounds like a ridiculously petty gripe, but the dress code was the most visible (and nagging) manifestation that we were no longer in direct control of our own destiny (I will come back to this point in the post called "The End Is The Beginning Is The End") and were starting to turn in a more faceless direction. Greg had been fighting this concept off for years, trying successfully to let the store and employees retain an identity and letting our expertise market itself. Our owner, in his desire to show that we were one of the big boys (just like Camelot and NRM), felt very strongly otherwise, and we had been engaged in little rebellious actions against his edicts for years, making such a fuss over, say, being forced to wear silly name tags that our owner would finally drop the issue in exasperation and move on.

This about sums it up.With a newly designed Record Den awaiting a grand opening, we figured our owner wasn't going to be letting us off easy anymore, but none of us had any idea we'd run into this new enforcement policy on the very first morning we were setting up shop. As the actual "moving" was winding down and we'd started arranging displays and product in the new bins, our future disaster of an indie buyer (who had been helpfully dictating marching orders to us lowly idiot retail workers) waspishly advised Greg that we should all be written up for wearing tennis shoes and jeans (jeans!) on the job. Greg got her to back down in no uncertain terms (telling her in the most tactful way possible to go piss up a rope), but not before word of this little exchange had spread amongst us grunts, nearly precipitating an angry confrontation right then and there. To say the least, we were in no mood to hear about this shit at 6 in the morning, having spent the previous eleven hours hauling cassette displays, CD storage bins and dozens upon dozens of leaden boxes stuffed with product across the mall without any moving equipment or professional assistance for the third freaking time in six months (not to mention figuring out a way to make all of this shit fit in a far smaller space than we'd just occupied). As we would find out over time, there would be a lot more bullshit where this came from.

Any worries we might have had about losing ground due our constant changes in location (not to mention getting farther and farther away from the busiest part of the mall) proved unfounded as Record Den hit the ground running in its new location. Not only did the store start off well, we'd even managed to flourish in our new hole in the wall, as the year 1993 represented a high watermark of sales the likes of which we had never seen before or since: a million dollar year, capped off by a Christmas shopping season so intense that we still look back upon it and wonder how on Earth we pulled it off. Even looking at the figures as I write this, the numbers are staggering in comparison to what we are used to now, most notably that Monday, December 23, 1994 when we did $25,000 in sales from open to close. Unbelievable.

And, as we later found out, unsustainable.

(Pictures of the store in this post were originally taken by Jim B. and Dave M.)

Sunday, December 23, 2007

(Twenty Years) Part 5: Good Times

Time, flying.November 30, 2007 marked 20 years to the day since I started at Record Den, which has inspired some thought and reminiscing on the person I was then, what the job was like as the years went by, and what has kept me around until now ...

What I once thought was half-senile nonsense has revealed itself as incontrovertible truth: time moves a lot faster as you age. I'm sure most of this sense of temporal distortion has to do with increased, competing demands on what free time I have by added responsibilities. Beyond the background noise of everyday life, however, lurks a growing acknowledgment in the back of my mind that time itself is no longer necessarily in infinite supply, especially now that entire months seem to be stealthily zipping on by with distressingly increasing frequency. While it seemed I could while away an entire day tooling around aimlessly listening to OU812, ...And Justice For All, or A Momentary Lapse Of Reason during the middle of 1988 (and this is something my friend Rob and I did quite a bit that wonderful endless summer, come to think of it), such freedoms seem frustratingly luxurious and out of reach nineteen years later.

I still love what I do, though these feelings of lost, carefree days of youth sometimes extend to the job as well. Due to the fact that we had four or five full-time workers on the schedule at Record Den into the mid 1990s, I was able to learn how to perform many of the necessary duties to run the store, yet at the same time I remained far enough down the pecking order that my actual responsibilities were few and it was difficult sometimes not to think of work as a minimum wage giggle. Getting days or whole weekends off was never a problem as there were always more than enough employees handy to cover whatever time you needed off. Boy, do I miss that flexibility sometimes.

Beth: one of the biggest sweethearts on the face of the Earth, faces the camera sometime in 1989.Then again, vacation time was never much of sticking point for me: for most of my time at the Den between January 1988 and December 1991, working was often more like hanging out with a group of similarly-obsessed friends, which is basically what we all were. To this day, I have hundreds of pleasant memories of cutting up during the days or going out to shows or movies (or bars) on odd nights over those years with Don, Dave, the Steves, Greg, Beth, Jim, and Theresa.

A few favorite recollections spanning the end of the Old Record Den era ...

''Big Steve,'' from a distance, early 1980sThe 1988 Record Den Christmas Party: the one and only time during my tenure that we got together for the holiday at a place other than the store. "Big" Steve hosted the shindig at his house (we had two Steves on the payroll until late 1989, you see, one was "big" and one was "little"), and I clearly recall most of us sitting in his living room late that evening, listening to his homemade "best of Howard Stern" compilation tape, and laughing so hard we could barely breathe (The King Of All Media was still 5 years or so from his Cleveland radio debut at the time, so this was something we'd never even heard of before). I don't think to this day that I have ever seen the usually-reserved Greg losing it like he did that night.

Customer Torture: Record Den was not physically walled off from Newberry's per se: only a long, chest-high row of album bins separated our floorspace from theirs. As a result, anything we played on the stereo also went blaring well into their store. Once in a while, we'd forget this little fact of life while playing something particularly brutal/obnoxious (Ministry's "Jesus Built My Hotrod" or Nine Inch Nails' Pretty Hate Machine), lewd (pick a Blowfly track), or just plain strange (Laibach, Madhouse, Was (Not Was)). I also remember a time Greg threw on Monty Python's The Final Rip Off CD during one slow afternoon, regaling Newberry's shoppers with such classics as "I Like Chinese," "Cannibalism," "Sit On My Face," "Bookshop," and "Lumberjack Song."

''Little'' Steve and me, sometime in 1990/91Send In The Clowns: Pretty much any night Dave, "Little" Steve and I worked together was a regular laffalympics. Between sales, we'd spend most of the time simply doing our best to crack each other up, either by amateur physical comedy or with the aid of silly-ass cheap-o toys we'd snag from the Newberry's bargain aisle. The most memorable of these toys were these little beady-eyed pneumatic skulls (you squeezed this little bulb and their mouths opened and closed). While the Cocktail soundtrack was red-hot during the second half of 1988, I'd often line 3 or 4 of these guys up on the counter and make them "lip-sync" to such future karaoke classics as "Don't Worry Be Happy" and "Kokomo," which never ceased to reduce "Little" Steve to stitches. Also in this category would be "Big" Steve's amusing penchant for playing records at the wrong speed (one of the stunts I miss the most from the age of vinyl). Listening to a capella works by Bob Rivers, Shinehead or Prince at 45 speed (or just about any George Michael song at 33 1/3) always made for a great way to speed along a dead shift.

Me, stoned (if I were a cat).Half-Baked: My first few attempts at getting stoned over the years hadn't really panned out, probably because by the time I ever got up the nerve to puff on a joint at a get-together, I was already pretty well bombed, which tended to dull (if not completely obliterate) the effects of the grass. That said, one of the best highs I ever had was after work one Sunday night after work when Jim and I were hanging out and shootin' the shit at Garfield Park. The late great Bill Hicks used to talk about "getting (his) third eye thoroughly squeegeed," and that is exactly the effect of Jim's stinky, very high-grade weed. As I pulled out of the parking lot to go home afterward, I felt like my head was about six feet tall from chin to crown and my mouth had been stuffed to bursting with packing peanuts. I had to straight-arm the steering wheel on the way home as it seemed to be just out of my comfortable reach (which was odd considering that I never adjusted my drivers seat that day). Upon reaching home (miraculously in one piece), I donned a pair of sunglasses to conceal my eyes, which felt like they were bugging right out of my head. Without a word, I slipped upstairs, devoured half a box of Ritz crackers, and fell asleep in a boneless sprawl. Only the time that I mistakenly ate three of my sister's altered brownies and wound up listening to my own heartbeat for an hour surpassed that feeling of utter and total bonelessness, both mentally and physically.

Imagine: John LennonSteppin' Out: It was a rare non-holiday occasion when a bunch of us would meet somewhere outside of work, but the release of a Beatles-related movie provided one of them. So it was that four of the resident Beatlemaniacs in the Den crew (even notoriously cinema-phobic Greg) headed out one weeknight after work in October 1988 to catch Imagine: John Lennon at the theater. The night started off as a merry lark as we tapped our feet and smiled throughout the segment devoted to the Fab Four and made snide remarks whenever Yoko Ono appeared onscreen. Of course, history then ran its course, and we ultimately got up from our seats after the shattering conclusion, mute and saddened, each of us re-living the loss of one of our heroes once again.

Fantasia: One of the all-time greats. JUst leave the bottle at home.Stupid Drunk Human Tricks: I saw the 1990 re-release of Fantasia probably three times, but the most memorable was the night I attended with a lady friend who was working for Camelot Music at the time (yup, fraternizing with the enemy, that's me). We had managed to sneak a couple of drinks into the showing in her purse and the both of us got pretty well lit by midway through, which unfortunately made the rest of the film feel a lot longer than 2 hours ... in fact, it felt fucking endless. Anyway, at some point during (or just after) the bit with the hippos in ballet dresses gallivanting around with the alligators in capes and fezzes, I was feeling all flushed and dopey and started to doze off in my chair. Just as the music dropped down to a low ebb, a nearly-empty bottle slipped through my relaxed fingers. Thank Goat there weren't any ushers around, because the sound of that nearly empty glass container hitting the uncarpeted floor was shockingly loud in the sparsely-populated theater, and I felt myself sinking low into my chair, mortified (while my companion started giggling helplessly), as my lost contraband began a long, deliberate, and excruciating roll down to the very front of the theater.

The Haunting Of Morella: I am going to blame this one on Kris. Ha ha.At The Movies: I'd be remiss to not mention one of the biggest benefits of my job in those early years (and a big part of the reason I saw Fantasia a bunch of times): all the free movies I could watch, and then some. Sometime before I'd started at the Den, Greg had made deals with two local multiplexes to regularly trade VIP movie passes for CDs (mostly classical titles that were played softly over the lobby PA or in the theaters themselves in between showings while the multicolored psychedelic blobs wandered about on the screen). I kept seeing passes being dropped off and traded for over the months, and gradually realized after a while that hardly anyone at the store ever used them. Thus, my friend Kris and I, both filling the nighttime vacuum in our activity-bereft lives, started seeing a lot of movies together (probably a sizable balance of the entire 1989-1991 Hollywood release schedule, really). Whether it was a spectacular summer blockbuster (Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade, Honey I Shrunk The Kids), a big-name comedy (The 'Burbs, Hudson Hawk), some miserable, deservedly-forgotten dud (Gleaming The Cube, Let It Ride) or even an excursion into lesbian-leaning soft core porn disguised as period horror (The Haunting Of Morella, which I have yet to stop hearing about), we made time to see a little bit of everything, and we nearly always wound up in a booth at Denny's for hours afterward. Yes, there were oceans of time to waste back then ...

I certainly am not trying to imply by this list that all good times at Record Den ended when the old Newberry's store closed for good, but looking back from now, the whole atmosphere at the store began to change very soon thereafter. After twenty years and change of doing boffo business in the same corner of the same department store, the end was nigh for our old location, and the clock was rapidly winding down ...

Sunday, December 16, 2007

(Twenty Years) Part 4: Black Sabbatical

Shift change at Adanac, sometime in the summer of 1990.November 30, 2007 marked 20 years to the day since I started at Record Den, which has inspired some thought and reminiscing on the person I was then, what the job was like as the years went by, and what has kept me around until now ...

It's difficult for me these days to remember a time when I was not working at Record Den: a little more than half my life to this point has been spent in that tiny bump on the retail end of the music business. I'm pretty sure I wasn't intending to stay in the biz this long when I was eighteen years old (I must have been thinking that I would only be able to put off finishing college for so long), but the way time seems to slip on by when you aren't paying attention coupled with a never-ending desire to work around music has stretched this job through two decades now, with a third looking like a decent probability as of this writing.

I think I've mentioned before in this arena what a terrible slog January can be at retail. Going from December, a month that progressively increases in volume to a deafening roar, you suddenly drop within a week to a near total lack of activity as the industry enters a month long post-holiday siesta and the pace of everything slows to a tortoise-like crawl. Frazzled. twitchy, and fed-up with people (and retail in general) after being put through the wringer yet again, you stumble into January in what amounts to a mild state of post-traumatic shell shock. If you can hold it together for those first four weeks afterward, you can start to feel the biz returning to life and the pipeline begins to spit out interesting new releases once again. Until that happens, however, January at retail can feel like you are damned to walk an endless, featureless desert with no water in sight.

There have been three Januaries where I had become so bored and dispirited and burned-out from the Christmas before that I wound up squarely in Greg's cross hairs as a result. On two of these occasions, I found myself reduced in hours as a punishment and was forced to find additional employment elsewhere to make ends meet. In early 1994, I wound up working mornings (and the odd afternoon) for a local family-owned computer business, basically doing a lot of phone/desk work and occasionally going out on-site to help with network installations when needed. A couple of years later, I put in time over the spring and summer at the local Suncoast outlet, doing a lot of the same things I did at Record Den, but with a much different, far more corporate-organized feel to the proceedings. In both cases, I left these jobs amicably after a few months when I was asked for an increase in my availability, but both times the Den wound up winning my loyalty.

Early Donnie, Joe, Jordan, Mark and Jonathan. The bane of my existence: 19891990, on the other hand, was something altogether different. Christmas of 1989 had been awful, and taking some time away from the store (and Great Lakes Mall in general) was a move suggested to me by Greg during a walk through the mall one morning a few weeks after. His grievances were dead-on: my mind was no longer on doing the job, and I wasn't even trying to pull my own weight anymore. For me, the fact that the Record Den had transmogrified from a record store to a New Kids On The Block accessories outlet at the same time that a lot of personal shit hit the fan had made working there an exercise in masochism. Trying to find some kind of solace and healing in music that winter wasn't working when all I was doing was selling New Kids tapes, CDs, buttons, shoestrings, posters and pillows all day and night. Coming out of that holiday season, I was a fried, hollow shell running on autopilot and Greg, in effect, fired me after a few weeks had passed in the new year and I had still not snapped out of it. As I left work that day, he made it clear to me that the door was being left open once I had figured out what I wanted to do, but for me, it felt like the end of the line.

A quick bit of advice for those of you in the midst of bleak emotional turmoil of your own design: don't move away hoping that a new setting will miraculously make everything all better, because it won't. The idea of actually moving out of the area hadn't occurred to me until my best friend asked if I wanted to move in with him down in Columbus that spring. At the time, this seemed like a great idea, and I accepted, but my problems were still attached to me on a very long, invisible, elastic string and they eventually caught up with me a few weeks later.

I wasn't completely miserable in Columbus, but it was obvious this arrangement was not going to work out long term. Luckily, my roommate delivered the "I'm moving to a new place ... alone" ultimatum before I had the opportunity to damage our friendship, but the question of what I was going to do since I couldn't afford an apartment on what I was making had to be answered quickly. The idea of asking for full-time hours at the nearby Drug World (the place of my employment) made me blanch immediately: I had not cottoned to that place at all in the two months I had worked there. Worse, none of the other job ideas I'd applied for back in April had ever panned out. In the end, the only choice left was to come back home to Mentor, tail between my legs, admitting to myself that this had not been a greatest idea ever.

Luckily, I had barely finished moving back in to my old room when a friend of my dad offered me a job at his business over that explosively hot and rainy summer. I took the offer, more under pressure from my dad to do something than from any real enthusiasm on my part.

A day on the job at Adanac (bilge-like industrial coolant not pictured).Initially, I sorely regretted my acquiescence: working at Adanac Industries meant another factory job, which I'd sworn three years previous that I would never do again. But this time, with my dad on my back and a boss who had once been a good friend and neighbor to the family, I knew I couldn't do half-ass two weeks and bail out like I had at Rainbow Plastics. No matter what, I was pretty well stuck for the time being. Worst of all, this was the kind of hellish factory work that you see in bad movies or music videos: sloppy, smelly, dirty, mindless, loud and, being second shift, during the hottest part of the day. This was not shaping up to be a fun summer, to say the least.

All that said, Adanac was also a solitary job: only one other person worked with me during that shift, and he was usually on the other side of the shop floor from me. With only two 15 minute breathers and a half hour lunch to make small talk with my co-worker, there was little for me to do besides feed pieces of metallic slag into the roaring machines, inhale the horrid spoiled-milk stench of machine coolant, listen to WNCX or WMMS on the tinny factory PA, smoke (a habit I'd idiotically picked up while living in Columbus and would keep at for another 16 years) and reflect upon what an immature antisocial dick I'd been over the previous nine months.

Over time, Pete (our once-neighbor who'd offered me the job) started pushing me towards learning CAD and other functions of the company's computer system. For some reason, I had this reputation with my parents as some kind of tech-whiz (probably since I was always programming the family VCR and helped wire up the stereo), and that undeserved reputation had apparently reached Pete's ears. While I relished the chance to recline in the crisp, air-conditioned peace of his office, I had absolutely no clue what on Earth Pete was talking about with the computer half the time. After a week or so of being shown around the system, we both agreed that I should get back to school in the fall and take a load of computer courses to get myself up to speed: if nothing else, getting off that shop floor once and for all made for one hell of a carrot on a stick.

It was a deliberate act on my part that I picked out a school schedule that had me in class during the afternoon three days a week, which would cut down my hours at Adanac considerably. I wasn't trying to be obstructionist, but the idea of working for 40 hours a week in that hellhole while taking on a full course load of was not how I wanted to spend that fall, especially considering that I was taking on what might as well have been a foreign language. Also, I also wanted to make an impression on Pete that I was serious enough about learning computer languages and programming to take a hefty pay cut while doing so.

In reality, the reduced schedule wouldn't be so hard, financially: my social life had been pretty quiet over the summer, I wasn't driving (though that changed once I had re-enrolled at Lakeland), and all I did on most weekends was sit around and get lit with my brother and a few of his friends. I had been pretty well paid at Adanac, so I felt like I could focus directly on school and not spend a lot of time worrying about how I was going to get by on a week to week basis. A good plan all around.

Starting up at Lakeland that fall for the first time since the spring of 1989 was probably the most excited I have ever been to go back to school. While I certainly had not been enjoying myself at Adanac, the psychological seclusion of working on the floor all summer long in those conditions had managed to leech away that choking aura of self-pity I had been carting around for nearly a year. I felt refreshed, motivated, and ready for a new start.

Then, a problem arose: Pete's boss at Adanac (a gruff, hulking old man with whom I had never exchanged a word with in my entire time there) was not at all pleased with this new schedule of mine and wanted that changed, pronto. This demand might have been workable if I'd been informed of it before classes had started that quarter, but it became a severe stumbling block being told a week or so later.

Incensed at this development (and greatly miscalculating my importance to the future of Adanac Industries), I told Pete that I was taking these classes in an effort to learn what they wanted me to be able to do, after all, and that it was a little late to switch all of this around. You guys wanted me to go back to school, so I did, damn it! You can't have it both ways! Pete, in the nicest way possible, then told me that his boss would not be needing my services if I could not be available five days a week.

I had always liked Pete and none of this was his doing, so I calmly accepted what he said, and then informed him of my decision to stick with school, hoping I was calling their bluff by doing so.

The cards were laid down. Adanac wasn't bluffing. Oops.

The decision on what to do next was obvious, but tucking my tail between my legs in order to carry it out took a bit more self-coaching. It was a few days after leaving Adanac that I realized for the first time in months that I was missing the Den, missing the flexibility of the schedule, missing the beehive of activity and excitement as another fourth quarter drew near, and missing the camaraderie most of all, since I'd experienced none of that since the day I was let go. A few days later, while visiting a friend at work in the Mall, I headed down to the store and went to lunch with Greg. We sat in the newly-finished food court of the now slickly-refashioned mall and discussed the previous year, the previous Christmas, and what had happened with me over the past few months and how I missed what I had lost. Finally, I asked him if I could have my job back. After a few moments of thinking about it, Greg thankfully said yes.

Starting work that following weekend felt like coming home. As with school (and life itself), I felt restored, improved, relatively serene, and ready to face to world from behind the retail counter once again ... this time, apparently for good.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

(Twenty Years) Part 3: Digital Daze

A CD collection. Everyone point and laugh at Evanescence.
November 30, 2007 marked 20 years to the day since I started at Record Den, which has inspired some thought and reminiscing on the person I was then, what the job was like as the years went by, and what has kept me around until now ...

If Christmas 1987 felt like a trial by fire, the following year at the store felt a bit like one of those Choose Your Own Adventure books come alive as I started to broaden my musical horizons and learn about what I'd missed in the years before my "musical awakening." The chief catalyst for this process was my dad going out one night in January and buying a spiffy, imposing-looking rack stereo system to replace the one he'd had since I was a kid. Best of all, this new setup included a spiffy, sleek compact disc player, which thankfully erased the need for me to 5o out and buy one of my own ... at least for the time being.

With the means of playing these shiny five-inch platters now easily available, and being that I worked in a place that sold them (and could thus buy as many as I liked at a sharply reduced rate), I felt no need to test the pool water with my toes: I just did a cannonball right into the deep end. The day after the new stereo came home, I had picked up the entire Pink Floyd catalog and a handful of other longtime favorites on CD. What eventually turned into an almost embarrassingly large music collection was now off and running.

While I had taken some of the most tentative steps into so-called "classic rock" during my senior year at high school, what comes mind when I think of my first year at the store was a complete immersion into the form. Part of this was a re-discovering of familiar touchstones from my childhood: listening with different ears to such evergreens as Simon & Garfunkel, The Beatles and Steely Dan. From exposure at work, I started falling into the dense, winding catalogs of Led Zeppelin, Tangerine Dream, Jethro Tull, Todd Rundgren and Yes: bands I'd heard people going on about throughout high school, but never paid much attention to as I was too busy keeping up with the state of the art in contemporary rock and Euro synthwave pop.

Four TDK SA-90s from various eras of designLargely as a direct result of this sudden shift in my tastes and buying habits, my primary indicator of an artists' true worth finally shifted from individual songs to full albums. Until 1988, like nearly all teenagers, most of the bands I'd followed through high school had been on a song-by-song basis and only rarely did I ever obtain a full album by even my favorite artists of the time (I had maybe 50 full albums in my collection when I turned 18, and maybe two-thirds of that total were dubbed onto TDK SA-90s from high school acquaintances or the vinyl collection of the Mentor Public Library). In effect, this shift in my listening and buying habits was exactly the way the whole music industry used to work back in the days when it was being run by maverick record men and not Ivy League-bred accountants.

For all you whippersnappers who came of age after the mid-1990s, this is the way it was: waaaaay back before there were mp3s, streaming audio and P2P networks, perpetually broke young teenagers such as myself would have to listen to the radio most of time to hear the music they loved. Occasionally, some kids would spend some of their allowance money on the songs they really liked in 45 RPM vinyl form (or, after 1987, cassette and CD singles). This early buying of singles was a crucial step for the industry in developing a viable customer base, especially on the occasions when a customer wound up picking up 2 or 3 singles from the same album. Perhaps emboldened by hearing 2 or 3 songs they liked, our young budding music fan might splurge one day and purchase the whole record (or ask for it as a Christmas present). If that whole record turned out to be good, the seed was then planted for the fan to start buying more full-length albums, especially once he or she started working and accruing discretionary income.

Ideally, a typical music fan's "graduation" into album buying would keep them in the habit for 7-10 years (typically throughout college and into bachelorhood). After the age of 25, though, the herd starts to thin considerably as customers begin to grapple with reduced leisure time and the intrusive, expensive realities of adult life: marriage, children, mortgages, and individual tastes or lifestyles greatly dictate how long a person will remain a regular music buyer. Not everyone gives up: some adults keep on buying music past the age of 30, and even fewer still past the age of 40. It's mostly the people at these latter points that become our most valued regulars at the store: these are the junkies, the lifers, the hardcore. What has changed the most since 1987 is the importance of these dedicated followers of the groove: without these people, Record Den in its current form would almost certainly not exist since the youngest sect of the old music buyers market has all but disappeared over the last eight years.

(OK ... getting ahead of myself here. We'll come back tackle this again later: for right now, let's stick with back then ... )

The horizon, circa 1988.If there is one feeling that was prevalent in the music industry in 1988 from the top echelons of power all the way down to a lowly retail clerk like me, it was of facing endless flat horizons in all directions, with no end or obstruction in sight. Following a period of sharp contraction from 1979-1983, this new era of booming sales and across-the-board upward momentum felt like music had been given a second chance and we were soon going to pick up right where we had left off in those heady, disco-fueled boom years of the mid-to-late 1970s. I can't stress enough how profoundly different this feeling was from the way things have felt since sometime around early 1997, (by which time the business was tangibly and unpleasantly different in character than the one I'd joined a decade prior). Sure, I might have missed the true "golden years" of the record biz by dint of being born too late, but I did manage to catch the "second wave" as it was building to a peak, and it was a helluva ride while it lasted.

Of all the sales rung up at the Den during my first year on the payroll, most were dominated by cassette tape (which at the time had been the biggest selling audio format nationwide for about 5 years), with a healthy dose of good ol' vinyl albums and a rapidly-growing share of compact discs in the mix as well. While tapes and vinyl were seen as "mature" formats, the market for CDs was still in its infancy, with many people only just then starting to come aboard as selection began to improve by leaps and bounds (spearheaded by the release of the Beatles' catalog throughout 1986 and 1987) and the prices of CD players (and even some of the discs themselves) drifted steadily downward.

Only a year before had CDs regularly started hitting the shelves day-and-date with their vinyl and tape counterparts: until then, most CDs were issued up to six months after their initial LP/Tape release since most of the production facilities were still overseas and only audiophiles were buying them in any kind of volume anyway. By the middle of 1988, CDs of older titles were finally starting to appear at "mid line" pricing ($11.99 MSRP instead of the standard $16.99), as the labels began digging into the vaults at last after years of having their hands full simply meeting demand on current hot product (never mind worrying about what Blue Oyster Cult and Beach Boys records were available). Perhaps most amusing to reflect upon now, used CDs were rare and valuable enough to us that we offered a flat-rate of 2-used-for-1-new title for any trade we were offered (a deal that was absolutely unthinkable only a few years later).

A record store full of CDs. Punk ones, too.With so many factors working in their favor, compact discs began to overrun the business. Over the next year and a half, in what was kind of like watching a month-by-month time lapse process, CDs gradually ate up more and more floor space at Record Den, encroaching upon the domain of vinyl albums and forcing them from three aisles of display space down to two, then to one, and finally to a specialty/cut-out section off to the side. For many businesses, it was an easy transition to make, really: CDs were still being sold in cardboard "long boxes" that stood neatly side by side in the old album bins, so no expensive refitting was necessary (and albums themselves were vanishing so quickly that they didn't need the space anyway).

Yes, album sales were dropping as people stampeded for the clarity and durability of the compact disc, but the near-total extinction of vinyl in the first half of the 1990s from nearly all chain stores was also a case of self-fulfilling prophecy: vinyl albums didn't "die" so much as they were pushed off a cliff by an industry completely dazzled by mushrooming CD profits. One of the great dirty secrets about the CD boom is that nearly all artist contracts signed in the years before CDs became available in mid-1983 contained a "new technology" clause which basically said "you the artist/band are being paid royalties on sales of albums and cassette tapes that typically sell at 8-9 dollars a pop ... but if we, your record company, should happen to find a new way to sell your music that costs, say, twice as much at retail, you will still be paid as if they were being sold at the same prices as albums and tapes until it comes time to draw you up a new contract or until you get enough clout to negotiate a better deal. So there. Ha ha."

With profits soaring to the moon and beyond and sales of LPs slumping as chain stores devoted more and more space to CD, record companies quietly started to cease production on record albums, which didn't exactly slow their decline. At the end of each fiscal year, the labels would then point at the resulting decreasing amount of vinyl sales and say "hey look, LPs are dying even faster than we thought! Let's get out of this and move on!" And move on, they did: by the end of 1991, I don't think there were any record albums being sold at the Den or anywhere else in the area, for that matter. Even 45 RPM records and 12" singles had by then been largely supplanted by cassette and CD singles and were mostly being sold to DJs and hardcore collectors only.

Cassettes were very stackable, weren't they?Cassette tapes, on the other hand, persisted for another decade. The biggest ace in the hole that format boasted was portability, and with portable CD players still on the expensive side (not to mention very prone to skipping) and car CD players still a luxury option, cassette tape had a captive audience all its own for most of the 1990s, though sales steadily decreased as the years passed. At the Den, tapes had moved from behind the counter to a series of towering display cases arranged down the Newberry's wall in the middle of 1989, all of them housed in clear plastic cases to dissuade folks from trying to load their coat pockets with them.

The cassette format survived to the very end of the 20th century before we quietly made the decision to simply stop buying them, as sales and availability were finally reaching a point where it was becoming impractical to set aside the funds for them. With nary a whimper of protest from customers, we abandoned ship and opted to sell used cassettes only. Funnily enough, there will at some point come a time when we start to shrink down the huge selection of used cassette tapes we sporadically sell and use that space for a resurgent format with a far more important role in Record Den's future: vinyl albums.

Funny how the worm turns.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

(Twenty Years) Part 2: Into The Fire

A very crowded Christmnas somewhere.November 30, 2007 marked 20 years to the day since I started at Record Den, which has inspired some thought and reminiscing on the person I was then, what the job was like as the years went by, and what has kept me around until now ...

Christmas 1987 at Record Den, like many that followed, was a nonstop blur of activity from the moment you clocked in until you finally staggered out the back door of the Newberry's pet department at a few minutes past ten (or eleven). You drove home feeling beaten, winded, and looking forward to nothing else but getting some sleep before getting up the next morning and starting all over again.

My only experience with this kind of retail craziness before this had been bagging groceries at Fazio's, and even a busy streak on a Saturday afternoon at the supermarket was nothing like the weekend before Christmas at the Great Lakes Mall. Hours tended to fly on by when you weren't paying attention, and it and the pace rarely slackened. A second cash-only register was set up on the opposite end of the counter from the main register that helped split the crowds into two, but it was still all you could do to keep up with the flow while ringing out and writing up sales one right after the other.

At first, I was mainly consigned to the floor with a couple of other co-workers, answering questions and helping direct the people jostling up and down the aisles (2/3 of which were still taken up by vinyl albums, incidentally) towards whatever items they were after. I am told that during even busier times (if such a thing can be imagined), we would have employees stationed near the entrance to the store who would simply relay requests from customers who didn't feel like braving the crush of humanity in that little hat box of a record store.

Even with this kind of teamwork happening, you could still only go so fast at the main register as any credit card or check transaction had to be phoned in to an authorization service (usually one person did this for most of the day), and every single piece of product sold had to have its stock number scribbled down on an old-school duplicate sales form: one for the customer as an itemized receipt, and the other for Beth (or Dave) who would do the subsequent inventory adjustment by hand.

A Telxon computer, naturally.At the time I was hired, there was still no computerized inventory system at the Den (that wouldn't get going until 1989, if memory serves), and every album cassette and CD we kept in regular stock thing was tracked in a large bin of stock tickets, each one roughly the same height as an old CD long box. These tickets, at times, dated back well over a decade, though records that had been cut-out or quickly dropped from inventory would often have their cards flipped around and re-used when the occasion warranted. During slow times, I'd sometimes idly flip through these cards (some perennial sellers had 3 or 4 tickets stapled together and recorded sales and orders going back what seemed like prehistoric times) and goggle at the days in the go-go 1970s when new releases were ordered (and then sold) in the hundreds, rather than the dozens I had became accustomed to. I wish these cards still existed, but they were all tossed out and lost forever when the company adopted the Telxon as our store inventory manager and moved towards a more centralized buying system ... but we'll come back to that later.

At the risk of sounding cocky, I felt pretty good at the time about my musical knowledge, though looking back from now, I barely knew my ass from a hole in the ground as far as rock music was concerned. Sure, I was comfortably fluent in the music of the years 1982-1987, but almost anything pre-dating that time (not counting Pink Floyd) might as well have been Bulgarian folk music for all I knew. Regardless, my mastery of contemporary pop music gave me a pretty good feeling of confidence to do this job and answer questions from customers, and I began to learn the older stuff through osmosis and an ever-growing respect and admiration for classic rock and pop over the years.

There had been no discussions or hints as to what would happen to my job once January 1 rolled around and, quite truthfully, I had not yet decided what I'd wanted to do, either (this was largely due to a certain person I worked with back then whom I did not get along with at all). With school off until the middle of January, I was able to commit to a 40+ hour schedule at the store over the holiday break, and it was long, breakneck slog, but it was also a hell of a lot of fun (even the days I worked with the person I had a problem with). One factor that was working in my favor was that Greg had given me a shot at learning and running the main register after a couple of weeks of getting acclimated to the job. Luckily, I'd picked up the hang of it quickly enough to "graduate" from a warm body on the floor to someone who could quickly help knock down a line of people at the counter. I figured that, if nothing else, this would be experience that could come in handy elsewhere.

Another hint that this might not be a temporary gig dropped on Christmas Eve. To my considerable surprise, I found myself offered a Christmas gift from Greg in the form of a 12" single and import CD single (though I had yet to even own a CD player) for Pink Floyd's current hit "On The Turning Away." There was a longstanding store tradition of a brief after-work gift exchange on the night before Christmas, and I discovered over the following years that being asked to work on Christmas Eve was usually a sign that you had been accepted into the Den crew. Though I didn't know it just yet, I had passed the audition and was about to be offered a regular job after the holidays were over. My temp job was going to be anything but.