“Record stores can’t save your life. But they can give you a better one.” — Nick Hornby
As a sentimental sort possessed of an old soul, it’s no secret to my friends and family that I like the old things.
The sentimental mélange of old tchotchke that that fills my home brings back happy memories, not the least of which is my retro rewind stacks of vinyl 45 singles and full-length LP record albums that still spin on my hi-fi turntable from time to time.
The soundtrack of my audiophile childhood and the workhorse backbone of my early adulthood days as a record-toting disk jockey in the waning heydays of freeform radio at Marquette University’s WMUR-AM and my mid-1980s afternoon drive gig at WLUV AM-FM, Rockford’s “WKRP in Cincinnati,” my stax o’ wax still spin me back to those heady, bygone days when music—and independent record stores—were king.
Back in the day, there was nothing quite like gathering with enthusiastic like-minded music lovers at places like Radio Doctors, 1812 Overture, Mainstream and Ron Cuzner’s Jazz Cellar in hometown Milwaukee, enjoying the tactile feel of letting your fingers do the walking through hundreds if not thousands of albums in the meticulously-organized record bins, admiring the cover art and getting the latest inside scoop on new releases. In the case of Radio Doctors, one could browse a mind-blowing array in excess of a million vinyl record albums in the shadow of their pink and green neon sign.
People are also reading…
I was instantaneously transported back to those Kodakchrome days recently when I crossed the threshold of Black Circle Records, 516 Broad St. in Lake Geneva, and crossed paths with owner Tim Townsend.
It was, as pop soft rock duo The Carpenters sang on vinyl in 1973, “Yesterday Once More.”
“When I was young I’d listen to the radio, waitin’ for my favorite songs. When they played I’d sing along. It made me smile. Those were such happy times and not so long ago. How I wondered where they’d gone. But they’re back again, just like a long lost friend. All the songs I loved so well.”
Indeed, music has come full circle. Vinyl—and record stores—are back. And cool.
And for we audiophiles who have argued for decades that tiny, compressed electronic formats like CDs and MP3 downloads lack the tonal warmth, depth and lush richness of old school vinyl, there’s the satisfaction of vindication.
“Nothing beats the sound of good vinyl,” Townsend said. “Listening to music on vinyl is just the warmest, purest sound. It has heart and soul in it.”
Vinyl LP albums, he said, are an immersive experience.
“The album art work draws you in,” Townsend noted. “The liner notes draw you in. Listening to albums is a whole experience. It’s not just clicking a button and walkin’ away and the music plays in the background. You have to pull the album out, put it on the turntable … You just don’t get that with the CDs and downloads.”
For awhile, people walked away from vinyl in favor of new formats, first compact discs and, later, web-based digital downloads. And brick-and-mortar independent record stores gave way to big box stores and online sellers.
“When CDs were taking over, people walked away from their albums, gave them away,” Townsaid recalled. “Record stores tried to compensate with CDs, but then everybody began buying stuff online. You’d go to Walmart and even they were sellin’ CD’s. Record stores just couldn’t keep up. They just started falling by the wayside.”
Townsend credited Seattle-based alternative rock band Pearl Jam and its retro 1990s releases on vinyl with rekindling an interest in the format.
“It exploded and now it’s huge,” Townsend said of vinyl. “CD’s are out—nobody cares. Downloads even fell to the wayside. Listening to music on computer or phone is now a convenience. When you really want to sit down and listen to music, vinyl has taken the number one spotlight.”
And while big box retailers by Barnes & Noble Booksellers and Walmart are now in the business of selling vinyl albums, nothing beats the experience of going to a record store.
“When I was a kid growing up in the ‘70s that was it, that’s what you did if you were into music — go to the record store and hang out all day,” recalled Townsend. “There was something about flipping through all those albums and filling my mind with all this information—who was who, what was what, all the art work. For me personally, being in that atmosphere, I felt at home. That was my thing.”
It’s still his thing, and a passion that he now shares with others through his independent store Black Circle Records, launched in 2012 with a starter inventory of nearly 4,000 albums culled from his personal collection, which still numbers more than a thousand albums.
“My passion and love for music is so overwhelming, you come in here as a customer and want to talk shop, dude I’ll talk your ear off all day about music and albums and concerts,” he said. “It’s come full circle. I’ve got a lot of 12, 13 year old kids coming in here buying albums and they all want the classic rock. They don’t look for stuff from today’s bands. That just blows me away to see these young kids getting into records.”
Record stores are not just appealing for the young, but also the young at heart seeking a taste of yesteryear. The revival of independent record stores is the retro nostalgic new age glue binding the generations.
“People love it,” he said, noting record stores like Lake Geneva’s Black Circle are fast becoming tourism destination draws in their own right. “They seek record stores out now. It’s a culture thing that brings people together. All it takes is one person to say something about an album or a concert and the next thing you know everybody is like, ‘Oh, I saw that concert’ or ‘I bought that album’ and everybody’s chiming in. It brings people together.”
Case in point, the sight of a record store drew me in and crossed my path with Townsend, stirring up our own conversations around Rockford-based rock band Cheap Trick, 2016 inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, including my brush-with-fame Aug. 15, 2019 photo op with Cheap Trick lead guitarist, primary songwriter and frontman Rick Nielsen in downtown Rockford.
Letting my fingers do the walking through the albums, I came away with an old school vinyl prize not in my collection, Cheap Trick’s second studio album, the 1977 release “In Color,” considered a classic of the power pop genre, including the Side One, Track Four lead single “I Want You to Want Me,” today the band’s signature song.
The price? Eight dollars. The memories? Priceless.