Blog: Broken records
Atomic Records is closing, but this Decider writer isn't ready to give up on record stores
When I heard the news last week that Atomic Records was closing, I was crushed. I ended up sending a short, emotional email to owner Rich Menning, saying that it was like "a member of my family just died." In retrospect I probably shouldn't haven't likened a record store shutting down to a family member perishing. No, it's more like your house burning down.
We all know the record industry is in freefall, but losing Atomic has brought the stinking stench of death home in a big way. I have spent much of my life wandering around and getting lost in record stores. Yes, I've bought music online, but I prefer going to a store partly for sentimental value, and partly because I always thought that going to record stores was one of the most enjoyable aspects of being a music fan. I love the half hip, half nerdy atmosphere of a good indie record store, and the incredible sensation that comes from literally being surrounded by great music. Wherever I've lived, I've sought out the best record store in town because that's where I feel most comfortable when I'm not at home. All it takes is a brief look of recognition shared with another fan also perusing the psych-pop section--"Hey, you like this stuff, too? Awesome!"--for me to not feel so alone in the world.
Once Atomic closes in February, we will have one non-chain store option--one!--for buying physical copies of new music releases. That would be Rush-Mor in Bay View. (There's also the ever-venerable Exclusive Company, which is a Wisconsin-only chain, as well as used vinyl and CD places like Bull's Eye and Lotus Land, which cater specifically to collectors like Amish colonies cater to butter-churning enthusiasts.)
A culture I love is dying. Most people have decided that all the wonderful stuff that used to come with music--stores, packaging, albums as complete artistic statements--is worth trading for convenience and progress. I recognize all the wonderful things the Web has done for music. When I was growing up in a small northeast Wisconsin town in the early '90s, I had very little access to new music. If I wanted to hear something new, I had to ride my bike 45 minutes one way to the Exclusive Company on the other side of town. If I'd had the option of turning on my computer and downloading music from one of a gajillion blogs catering to my specific music taste, my bike would have stayed in the garage. I'm not about to tell someone who has always lived in this world about how much better the old world is. I'm just mourning the seemingly inevitable end of something I grew up with, and wondering if I'll enjoy what's replacing it as much.
While you can get anything you want on the Internet, I've always been more interested in stuff I didn't know I wanted. I've tended to have better luck discovering those unknown treasures in record stores, where I could thumb through music with my bare hands.
A long time ago, I was hanging out at Atomic, rifling through the used CDs, when a song came out and grabbed my attention. It was Bill Withers’ “Use Me”, from 1972’s Live At Carnegie Hall. The cut was twice as long as the studio version, and about five times more fucking kick ass. Later on, there was another long song where Withers talked about his friend losing his arm in Vietnam. I asked the clerk—who I later learned was Mark Waldoch—what the song was called. “‘I Can’t Write Left-Handed,’” he replied. How can you not buy a record with a song called “I Can’t Write Left-Handed”? Bill Withers’ Live At Carnegie Hall has been a treasured part of my music collection ever since. Could I have found Live At Carnegie Hall online? Probably. Would I still remember how I got it several years later? Probably not. I don't have any good stories about finding music on the Internet. The MP3 files blend together. In the end, I've not had nearly as much fun downloading an album in 30 seconds as I've had wasting countless hours bouncing from one record store to the next, looking for the next surprise.
I look forward to many future Saturday afternoons spent browsing through stacks at Bull's Eye or Rush-Mor and debating whether I should spend a few extra bucks on that one last record I added to my pile. I'll have one fewer store to visit now, and there will probably be fewer fellow shoppers at the racks. But mark my words: I'll be patronizing local record stores until the last ember burns out at my house. So, like, fuck off, progress.