July 27th, 2009

Death of the American Record Store: Sounds Familiar Leaves Columbia

words and photo by Preach Jacobs
It’s 3:37 a.m. on a Sunday in the summer of 2007. My cell phone rings. There’s no logical reason why the name Sounds Familiar should be showing up on my phone this late; this can’t be good. The other end of the phone was Charles Hayes — Chuck to whom I and every Parklane location of Sounds Familiar customer has known him for nearly 20 years. He spoke, bleakly.

“Preach: What are you doing?”

“Nothing. What’s wrong?”

“Preach … you just need to come to the store. It’s unreal.”

Luckily I lived minutes away, but those five-minutes was enough time for me to wonder about what could have happened. Were we robbed? Was there a shooting? Did someone die? My wondering ceased when I drove past the store and noticed that I could literally see into the store. Some drunk driver — supposedly after too much tequila — drove his pick-up truck directly into our store through the concrete walls. Shattered glass, broken shelves, smashed CDs and not to mention tire marks on the floor had me waiting for Ashton Kutcher to come from out of the bathroom, telling us we were punk’d. The driver, who had been taken into custody by the time I had gotten there, didn’t have a scratch on him; he was found sleeping in his truck, minus a windshield, next door at the gas station.

Chuck, Sounds Familiar vet Joey Bull and I were the ones left to clean the store; fittingly we were the last three to tear down the store in the middle of January for Parklane’s dreaded closing.

I think I’m one of the only people in my immediate circle that loved his job. I mean, I absolutely loved my job to the point I would be there for hours on my days off. I had pride that we could call ourselves music professionals.

We knew the title of that gospel song you wanted when you didn’t know any of the words, but were only able to hum the tune. We knew the artist you were looking for with your vague description. And if you were calling us to find out how to spell an artist so you can download it, good luck looking for Ellvuzz Castelbow.

Every worker had his or her own customers. I had my hip-hop fanatics after turning them onto J. Dilla, Foreign Exchange and my solo album. And we could tell what kind of record you wanted based on how you waltz into the store. Pants sagging with a chain where I can see your name? Gucci Mane. Khakis with deck shoes? Robert Plant’s album with Alison Krauss. Tight jeans and purple Nikes? Lupe Fiasco. Walking in with tattered clothing asking for free promos and listen to the music in the players on the wall? You weren’t buying shit.

Life just isn’t complete without being cursed out by a senior-citizen gospel customer mad at you because the particular artist she’s looking for hadn’t released his album yet; the idea of explaining release dates and record labels to them is a losing battle. Or cleaning splashback on our private bathroom after rapper Yung Joc, stopping by during his tour, stayed in there for more than 10 minutes. Or watching over the young kids that are trying to be slick, but we knew they wanted to steal the newest DJ Dice mixtape with that hot Lil’ Wayne song.

But we had our great customers. Mr. Lee, the businessman that bought nearly $200 worth of gospel records each visit, and one of the nicest human beings you’d meet. Or Norris Dennis, a soft-spoken Southern gentleman who’s a truck driver by day but a DJ at night, and one of our most loyal customers. Or the infamous Greater Hits, who got his name by buying nothing but greatest hits by his favorite artist, and if you didn’t move fast enough he’d threaten to “body slam you, soldier!”

Besides the free promos, wearing what I want, promoting my own music and meeting exciting people, I actually loved the workers I was blessed enough to be around. Chuck, who’s a clean-cut, glasses-wearing, steak-and-potatoes-eating everyman, intimidated me when I first met him. He seemed like the biggest square on the planet. Now, I can’t imagine how my life would be without knowing him.

Or DJ Joey Joe a.k.a. The Bull, who has the largest vinyl collection I’ve seen and seemingly hates all the hip-hop I love (with the exception to Dilla) has become like a brother to me. Our arguments (as well as with other workers) have been legendary and even tempted me to seek other employment, but there is nothing I wouldn’t do for him. (He’ll probably be pissed that I’m writing about him. Or, as he would say, he’ll “sue me.”)

And, finally, Pete Smolen, the owner of Sounds Familiar, the man whose combustible temper scared the hell out of me when I first met him. Now, I believe I will never work for a better boss.

If I had to say why Sounds Familiar is closing down, it would be for three reasons: (1) The Internet, (2) the economy and (3) loss-leaders. It’s easy to bash the Wal-Marts of the world (even though they do kill small businesses), but I do know that times have changed. We’re just analog babies in a digital world.

I’m not bitter about leaving. I’m very sad indeed, but I’m not getting angry like people were when Dylan or Miles went electric. I can understand that times are changing; the only problem is now, that if you wanted to get an acoustic Dylan record, where would you go?

This isn’t about me losing a job; this is about Columbia losing a cornerstone of the community. About the nation losing the fundamental building blocks of a city: the music store.

I always wondered what Rob Gordon from High Fidelity would be doing if there was a sequel in today’s climate? The story would totally be different, as his store Championship Vinyl would have gone under and he would have joined the cast of Office Space, doing computer tech work.

I’m not bitter, honestly. It’s just the sign of the times. Nothing is going to be the same for me when the store closes. I guess I’ll have to get a real job and have a boss with a stick up his ass. For every co-worker that’s become a friend, for every friend that has become family because of this establishment, I am forever grateful. And I hope Columbia will realize what we’ve lost. But you might not realize it until you’re looking for that CD that you can’t find anywhere else.

Good luck using the ‘Net.