Interpreting Record Store Content and Experience

As I noted in my first blog post, one of my favorite things to do is roam around and dig through the shelves and bins of record stores.  In this regard, I am quite lucky to have many such places within a short drive of my home (and I’m not counting places like Target or Best Buy that have maybe one row of compact discs in store that sells all kinds of other things, but rather only stores where records are the primary thing they sell), and I take full advantage of this luck by rarely going a week without visiting at least 1 – 3 record stores whether or not I purchase anything on a given visit. This past weekend, however, I dug through the bins of one such store for the last time, and the experience led me to reflect on record stores I have visited across the United States over time.

I did not actually know ahead of time that the record store I visited Saturday was closing the following day. In fact, it had been months since I had taken the 45-minute drive that brought me to its door nestled amidst other shops within a flea market the size of a couple football fields. When I arrived, however, I found signs noting the closing of the store the following day, and a sale taking place all weekend. Having recently received some free cash for helping out a friend, I was happy for the sale – I left with a large bag full of compact discs spanning eight different genres without spending much at all – but I was sad to see the place closing because (as I thought casually at the time) it was the best spot in the area for finding used records by female-identified artists.

As I drove away from the place for likely the last time (i.e., I have no other reason to visit that particular flea market), I thought about my own apparent sorting process (i.e., this was the place near my home for best selection of used records by female-identified artists), and began to reflect upon what (if any) interpretive sorting I had done with other stores I regularly visit. It didn’t take me long to realize I associated other stores in the area (as well as stores across the country) with specific contents, meanings, and desires – here are some examples from the stores near my home that I visit most often:

  • There is the one with the best selection of new vinyl right across the street from a comfortable coffee shop.
  • There is the one where there never seems to be a line even on Record Store Day, which often has a tremendous supply of music from the 1990’s.
  • There is the one where they often have obscure and hard to find releases for only a dollar or two (sometimes even new releases).
  • There is the one I can barely walk through because junk is thrown everywhere (I’m not overstating here), but it has the largest metal and only Goth section I’ve seen in the area.
  • There is the one (well three locations actually) that has the largest organized (i.e., easy to sort and look for specific things) used compact disc collection I’ve seen in the country to date (especially if, like me, you combine the three locations by visiting each one in the same day).
  • There is the one (also in a flea market like the one that just closed) that has an interesting ever-changing selection of compact discs and records (often initially released independently or through limited runs or from less well known genres like Texas Music or Queer-Core) for very low prices as if they are easy to find anywhere (for the record, they are not).
  • There is the one I likely go to the most, but shop at the least because they rarely have things I want or need in my collection, but they have great coffee and are located next door to one of my favorite restaurants.
  • There is the one that is smaller than my office at work that just seems so cute, but I hear it might be closing soon.
  • There is the one in the back of a pipe (i.e., for tobacco of course, ignore the Grateful Dead posters, nothing to see here) shop that I go to (despite the horrid smell of the place) because they often have the best selection of box sets.
  • There is the corporate one that I rarely go to because when I’m in other cities corporate options are often all I have to choose from, and I’ve noticed they don’t change much from place to place (i.e., an FYE or Second & Charles in Louisiana is basically the same as one in Georgia and so on). Also, corporate stores often want more for their used compact discs than I am willing to pay.
  • There is the one with the largest selection of rare releases and new used (i.e., from recent years, but used and thus cheaper) vinyl in the area.
  • And finally, there is my (self described) favorite record store in the world, which has a little bit of everything I’ve just noted about all the others as well as a budget (i.e., very, very cheap) section full of compact discs that is actually larger than some of the other stores noted above. It also has a separate location full of more vinyl than any one person could likely listen to in a lifetime.

For lack of a better term (is there one?), I think of this as interpretive sorting wherein I sort musical spaces I enjoy based on the elements of each place that make it distinct. I found myself wondering if other people do this in relation to, for example, record stores, other types of musical businesses, concert venues, or other types of space. What speaks to the person about a specific musical space, and what might such interpretation tell us about music, fans of music, and other aspects of musical experience and content?

As I thought about these things, I also found myself remembering Joseph Kotarba’s work on music scenes and on the meaning of specific types of music to specific populations. In terms of specific types of meaning, I found myself returning to my prior posts on genres and radio stations because I have noticed genres rarely contain all the same things in each store. In some stores, for example, an artist will be in the country section (take Jason Isbell or Neko Case for example), but in others in the Rock or Folk section (same thing with Rock versus Pop versus Hip Hop (i.e., I’ve seen Prince in all three in various parts of the country). Similarly, some stores are arranged purely alphabetically, but others are broken down explicitly into genres. I tend to prefer the alphabetical method, but I’m guessing others like the genre method and I have no clue how or why stores do one or the other. Further, some stores sort by generation wherein Rock, Pop, Country, Hip Hop, Metal and Pop are only post 1980 releases whereas earlier releases of similar music will be in Classic Rock, Americana, Soul, Vocal, Folk, or some other area. It makes me wonder where people draw the lines in time that separate, for example, classic rock from rock, and why this is done in the first place.

In relation to music scenes (and other places people get their music), I began to wonder if the record store could be conceptualized as a music scene. One thing I’ve noticed (likely because of how often I go to record stores) is that they often change in terms of arrangement, often cater to very different demographics and tastes, often price their merchandise in varied ways that appear to have no discernable order (i.e., the same record is 1 dollar at one place, 3 dollars at another place, and 10 dollars at another place), and often host musical performances at specific times during the year. Since these same provisions are often integral parts of music scenes and subcultures, could record stores represent music scenes in and of themselves? If so, what would ethnographic studies of these places reveal?

I could offer plenty of other examples, but the point I’m getting at here is that it appears the organization of a record store may tell a story of some sort. Maybe the story is about the assumed shoppers. Maybe the story is about the owners. Maybe the story is unintentional or intentional in some or all cases. In any case, I wonder what examinations of the organization of record stores (in terms of both content and space) would tell us about the ways music is framed or structured in society.

What does it say when an artist is in two sections in the same store – I’ve actually seen this more times than I ever would have expected honestly, most often with acts like Prince or Wilco that blur existing genre boundaries? What does the variation in record store organization mean to owners, shoppers, or others who visit such places? I don’t have answers to these questions, but I would love to hear some. What might examinations of the interpretation of record store contents and experiences reveal about music and society?

J. Sumerau


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The Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction (SSSI) is an international professional organization of scholars interested in the study of a wide range of social issues with an emphasis on identity, everyday practice, and language.
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