Last Year's Model

It might be the last dance for St. Louis' independent record stores.

(Full disclosure: This writer worked for seven years as a record buyer at Vintage Vinyl before joining the Riverfront Times.)

Vintage Vinyl's regulars are legendary. One man sporting glistening Jheri curls used to come in, dressed in purple from head to toe. He'd make a beeline for the Prince section, and, before leaving the store, he'd do his best impression of his idol. With a coy look on his face, he'd start moving his legs in rhythm, drop down into perfect James Brown splits, push himself up and let out his best Prince wail.

Another customer, Kozene, was a tall dude with Coke-bottle eyeglasses and awkward social skills. He headed straight to the Paula Abdul section and would walk the aisles carrying her CD around, shaking his head, in awe of her beauty. What strangers didn't know was that this tall, gentle, African-American man had a freakishly encyclopedic knowledge of opera. He could tell you not only how often Maria Callas performed, say, La Bohème, but on what dates and in which concert halls she performed it.

Tom "Papa" Ray's not down with the new world of sound: "The ultimate result of [the]  digital paradigm is to cheapen music and make music lose its value."
Jennifer Silverberg
Tom "Papa" Ray's not down with the new world of sound: "The ultimate result of [the] digital paradigm is to cheapen music and make music lose its value."

Location Info


Vintage Vinyl

6610 Delmar Blvd.
University City, MO 63130

Category: Retail

Region: Delmar/ The Loop

One Saturday morning in the mid-'90s, a shaky man, drool running down his chin, entered Vintage Vinyl carrying a reproduction of his "invention." It was called, he said, a "record player." He'd built out of balsa wood a turntable, complete with a wooden tone-arm, power switch, spindle and platter. He was positively convinced that the contraption would change the course of history.

A man the clerks nicknamed Smokey used to come into the store. He was always talking to himself and appeared to be battling schizophrenia. Often, he'd approach the counter and ask to hear some Smokey Robinson. The clerks, feeling charitable, would grant his request, and as Smokey's rich falsetto filled the store, the man's face would relax, a smile creasing his face as he gently swayed to the music. When the song ended, his face soured and the darkness returned.

The St. Louis College of Pharmacy is an unlikely venue for a group of hipster music hounds. In the couch-filled lounge sits a ragtag group of men and women, none of whom would be mistaken for budding pharmacists. Some wear Mohawks and Converse All-Stars. Others have retained their ponytails for 25 years.

It's early May, and they've gathered for the biannual convention of the Association of Independent Media Stores, a coalition of national independent record retailers. Faced with increasing competition from the likes of Wal-Mart, Best Buy and Borders, the group banded together four years ago to gain greater leverage in dealing with major record companies. Rather than juggle 30 different promotional accounts, the Warner Media Group, for example, can with one phone call simultaneously purchase advertising or display space at all the stores.

Arranged in a semicircle, the owners of some of the nation's best little shops — including Shake It Records in Cincinnati, Grimey's in Nashville, Sonic Boom in Seattle, Criminal Records in Atlanta and our own Vintage Vinyl — are here to talk business with Sony/BMG Music Entertainment, the world's second-largest record label.

First, however, Sony has insisted on treating — or torturing — the stores' representatives with a live performance by a mediocre alt-rock band called As Fast As. The Portland, Maine, ensemble just released its debut CD on a subsidiary of Sony, which is pushing it hard. Introducing it to the small stores could help nudge the band onto the charts.

After the performance, the shopkeepers clap politely and are offered a three-song set by a bland twentysomething songwriter named Mason Jennings. "We view Mason as a career artist," says label executive Drew Kantor, as he introduces the pretty boy. If independent stores had a dollar for every time those words spilled from a label executive's mouth, they'd all have vacation homes at Martha's Vineyard.

After Jennings finishes, Kantor fields questions from the group on day-to-day operations. Kantor politely answers, though he seems less interested in helping than in campaigning to get Jennings and As Fast As added to the stores' listening booths. Later, Lew Prince shares his opinion: "From the major labels, you have to just assume that everything out of their mouths is either self-serving or a lie."

Over the course of the weekend, the stores will visit with all of the major record labels. But that's not the most valuable component of the meeting, says Darren Blase, owner of Cincinnati's Shake It Records. "It's like Vietnam vets getting together at the White Castle for coffee. There are plenty of war stories to go through. Frankly, there are fewer and fewer of us in the world. Every month there's going to be some independent record store closing somewhere. I can guarantee it."

"It's nice just being in a group of intelligent people that are still staking a future in the recorded-music business," adds Vintage Vinyl's chief buyer, John Henderson. "And it's good to be reminded of that. You hear all the gloom and doom, but it's not the entire reality. Everybody isn't closing down."

The coalition also met with a Los Angeles-based company that will outfit the stores with state-of-the-art Web site templates. Soon, indie stores will add to their arsenal digital-download portals similar to those that iTunes and eMusic offer, as well as access to a database that offers 1.2 million CD titles.

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