Despite needing us (people who still pay for music) more now than ever, record store clerks still manage to treat us like something they found scuttling out of an ancient box of cassingles.
Record stores are on the ropes these days. After taking a series of beatings over the last decade or two thanks to the growth of digital music, the shrinking of the retail CD market, and the hard times of the music industry in general, kindly music consumers all over our gracious nation have stooped to help them out. We’ve guiltily purchased used CDs of albums we already downloaded from FilesTube, we’ve bought limited-release heavy vinyl private-label EPs… we’ve even given them their own day.
But lost in all this goodwill is the fact that record store clerks are, well, awful. We’re not saying that they’re terrible human beings who deserve all the suffering foisted on them by the vagaries of a post-industrial economy, but… well, maybe we are saying that. Long before the internet learned how to whine about noxious hipsters, know-it-all tastemakers, and whatever the trendiest neighborhood in Brooklyn is, resentful jerks like us were united by our hatred of record store clerks, who somehow managed to treat us like something they found scuttling out of an ancient box of cassingles, while simultaneously taking vast amounts of our money. In the immortal words of Darryl Worley, have we forgotten?
Some of us haven’t. Here are a few tales from the days when record store clerks earned only our scorn, never our pity.
BILL W., ANN ARBOR, MICHIGAN: Sometime around 1999, I went into a record store I’d visited at least once a month for the last three years. I was flush with cash from a new job, and after picking up a couple of CDs of my regular sort, I decided that I’d expand my horizons a little. I’d been wanting to pick up some jazz for a while—nothing too obscure, just some Miles Davis, Coltrane, Mingus… stuff like that. This shop prided itself on the “diversity” of its selection, which, in practical terms, meant that it carried a handful of rap albums and electronic music from both North America and Europe. I asked the clerk, who had rung me up at least a dozen times, if the store had a jazz section. He gave me a withering look, like I’d just confessed to running over his dog, and asked: “Where do you think you are?”
CAROLINE Z., CHICAGO, ILLINOIS: I was always on the hunt for new record stores, hoping to find someplace that carried new or unusual music. One day I was walking near Lincoln Square when I spotted a storefront called “Dayton Music Store.” I popped in, and the place was deserted except for a tall, mean-looking guy with tons of tattoos, who eyeballed me like I was an undercover cop. The music selection was small and apparently limited to a bunch of Euro-disco by people with names I’d never heard and couldn’t pronounce. Something about the whole thing made me super uncomfortable, and that’s when I realized that the store—located, as I remembered at that moment, in the heart of a Bosnian neighborhood—was probably called “Dayton” in honor of the recently concluded Dayton Accords that ended the war there. No Guided By Voices for me that day.
PETE L., VENTURA, CALIFORNIA: My favorite record store clerk experience came sometime in the early 2000s, long after such people should have learned that their pathetic salaries depended on people like me who still bothered to go to record stores. I was stopping in to get CD versions of a couple of my favorite David Bowie albums from the 70s—this was back when replacing your vinyl with digital was actually considered an upgrade, you understand. The clerk, who was maybe half my age (If he was born before 1983, I’ll eat a Quiet Riot metal mask), made one of those half-snorting, half-choking, I-want-to-express-an-opinion-about-how-much-you-suck-but-I’m-pretending-to-be-polite noises in his throat while ringing up my purchases, which came to about $150. “You don’t like Bowie?” I asked. I swear to Christ the guy literally rolled his eyes before saying “I dunno, I guess I just like stuff that’s a little more…” here he paused for ultimate jaded effect, as if he couldn’t believe he was forced to interact with plebian slobs like me on a regular basis, “outside the mainstream.” I can’t remember what he was playing on the P.A. at the time—Hrvatski or Philip Jeck or something—but Bowie and I went home and wept at our irrelevance.
Previously - Record Store Clerk Therapy: Portland