Customer: You have the worst selection of metal vinyl I’ve ever seen. Not a single Italian metal band from the last eight years.
Customer: It’s like you don’t want me to shop here. Is that it? Don’t smile. I’m not joking.
Me: Thanks for coming in!
When I was in high school, I knew one girl who worked at a record store. She was exactly my age, in my class at school and fond of brightly colored hand-knit sweaters you might wear to sip acid-laced hot cocoa at Jerry Garcia’s ski chalet. None of us could ever quite figure out how she got hired, a seeming Herculean feat to be sure. But she was a genuinely kind and friendly person—an uncommon combination for a hippie in my hometown, a place where the mean girls were Grateful Dead fans. I didn’t begrudge her the job, even if I stared wistfully at her working the register, wondering what in hell I’d ever have to do to deserve it.
Me: I can give you __ in credit.
Customer: That’s ridiculous! I paid more for it than that when I bought it new.
Me: Right, but now it’s used.
Customer: But the guy that sold it to me said it was collectible. It’s a special edition. He said it would be worth a bunch of money in the future.
Me: When did you buy this record?
Customer: Last month.
Sean hired me to work at CD Alley in late 2002, a few weeks before Christmas. I was twenty-six years old and I’d been entirely unemployed since September when my repeated infractions at my mostly pointless museum job got me canned. The museum director asked if I wanted to know why he was firing me. I told him I could think of about eleven excellent reasons but if it was cool with him, he could just mail me my last paycheck.
I sulked about the dismissal. I didn’t have another job, save the occasional crumb of paying freelance work. I’d applied for literally hundreds of jobs since arriving in Chapel Hill in June. I couldn’t get temp work. I couldn’t get an interview. I couldn’t even get the ice cream parlor to call back. I kept getting advice about networking. I kept mulling over graduate school. I kept buying groceries with quarters.
I’d quit writing record reviews a few months previous for a bunch of reasons (1). I knew a fair piece about music— not nearly as much as I let on—mostly because I’d spent much of the eight years previous aggressively studying it, often at the detriment of my bank account and my academic career. And I found myself babbling about all of this one night at the register while Sean rang up a used Delgados CD. At some point he looked up from the inventory notebook and asked, very kindly:
“Alison, do you want a job?”
I think I might have pinched myself. I know I tried very hard to not look like a crazy person.
“Yeah,” I said, in my best deadpan. “I guess that would be cool.”
Customer: My dad is old and not very hip. Will he like this? (Holds up Eagles CD)
The first time I ever went into a CD Alley was in 1996, in Wilmington. I was in town with my roommate, in order to see a band play the kind of goofy, earnest, anthemic punk rock I swore I’d absolutely never grow out of loving (and then promptly did). I had a wallet full of birthday money I really should have used to pay the gas bill. Instead, I blew it on a stack of cds and 45s.
“Do you realize you buy something at every single record store you go to ?” asked my roommate.
She clearly meant this as some sort of Gotcha! though I could not, for the life of me figure out why. My roommate worked at a record store and rarely brought home new records. What is wrong with you? I wanted to ask. How do you not want to hear everything? How are you so sure that this record won’t be the best thing you’ve never heard? Don’t you know that some songs are better than eating dinner?
My new records smelled like warm vinyl, dusty cardboard and old paper, scents I found to be both comforting and aspirational. I ignored my roommate’s scowl and hugged them to my chest when we left the store.
Customer: I’m disappointed that I couldn’t find any collectible records in the 98cent bin. It was just old records, lots of them in poor condition.
Me: It’s a 98cent bin. The collectible stuff is up here.
Customer: Yeah, but it’s not 98 cents.
My Dad was a jazz snob, whose tastes expanded out to encompass a fair amount of soul, funk & r&b. He liked to tell a story about being a kid, visiting a record store in Greenwich Village and digging through the titles—Miles, Monk, Mingus—and feeling the breathless wooze of an incipient spiritual awakening. He kept shelves of LPS in the house ,many scratched and warped and battered from having been lugged to college and Europe and back to a collection of addresses in Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina. As I child I could identify the record from the pops of the needle, the exact moment when ‘Round Midnight needed a tap to stop repeating the ‘til after sundown, ‘til after sundown, ‘til after sundown, ‘til after . . .
My mother’s tastes were more catholic. Her musical awakening occurred in the verse between dancing to beach music and buying folk records in high school. She played the guitar and, for a time in college, fancied herself a singer-songwriter and even attracted the attention of a Richmond radio DJ for a gauzy, long-haired minute or two in 1968. She liked jazz, but also soul and blues and Willie Nelson and Elvis Costello. Mom was a full-time artist during my childhood and she would play Nina Simone covering Bob Dylan while she painted and I would break–crayons–just like a little girl.
The family stereo lived in the sunroom, which faced west and glowed a perfect late 1970s tawny gold at sundown. My dad taught me how to work the turntable when I was about three. I could pull up a tiny me-sized ladder back chair beside the receiver, plug in the giant headphones and puzzle over the yet incomprehensible liner notes while listening to my favorite records (“Mary Poppins,” the “Camelot” soundtrack, “Masterpieces of the Ballet” and various disco 45s courtesy of a seriously funky Easter Bunny). I remember feeling sublimely happy there in the shimmery haze of twilight, clutching a literal security blanket, listening to the pop scratch pop presaging the first thrilling note.
Customer: I don’t see many women working in places like this. Are you married to the owner or something?
I was the only woman on staff when I was hired. And except for a few months in about 2005, I would be be only woman on staff for next thirteen years. Dusty little record stores and their regular clientele, skew male(2). I knew this going into it, and I’d long been a gatecrasher at boys’ clubs, so it didn’t bother me. My coworkers were, to a person, nice, funny, smart, respectful guys. I liked them all. Even when they played The Fall every shift for a year. Even when they turned up Lee Perry on Saturday afternoons so loud that I felt the bassline in my fillings. Even when they fell asleep on lunch break and forgot to come back. Even when they went through long sulky spells and short furious ones. Even when they didn’t deal with the creeping horror of the bathroom for like four years (3). Some of my co-workers became my close friends. Some of my co-workers are my best friends.
Of course, I have my own quirks. I’m not exactly a princess. I once quipped to a friend that I felt like the Annie Potts character in “Pretty in Pink” hired on to work at the store in “High Fidelity.” That was fine. I’d settle for thirtysomething woman in vintage dresses doling out wry commentary about youth and nostalgia and relationships over old soul and new wave, while my customers compared catalog numbers on limited edition garage rock records and Top Five-d Prog Rock songs. Someone needed to know the protocols lest an unrequited Otis Redding lipsync look inevitable.
I listened to almost everything and liked more than I didn’t. I developed niche interests. Some were surprising. I got far enough away from my hometown to finally like reggae, for one thing. Also, it turns out on cold gray winter afternoons, I sometimes like mournful Kentucky fiddles or minimalist techno or self-consciously weird British folk, despite finding peasant blouses ridiculous. Even when men wear them.
Customer: Mom, look! A record store! This is so cool! I’ve never seen one of these in real life.
My dad used to have his creative department over for concepting sessions on weeknights. They’d drink beer and eat shrimp and listening to records on the den floor. I’d creep downstairs to join them until someone noticed I was supposed to be in bed. Most of Dad’s department were in their twenties– scarcely more than kids at the time. I was maybe seven. When Christmas came my favorite among them would usually bring me a present. Sometimes this was a gift certificate to the record store a couple miles up up the road. I had to wait for one of my parents to take me, because my elderly babysitters viewed the record shop as borderline at best and its employees unsavory freaks of dubious intentions. I loved it for all the same reasons. I loved the bins of records and the scarred wooden floor and the way it made me feel uncomfortable and excited at the same time, like I might round a shelf and discover a whole other universe behind “Beauty and the Beat.”
The day my little sister was born, I spent a lot of time worrying about my mother and whether the addition of a sibling might make my parents love me less. Nana, my grandmother, stayed with me all day and she told me we could do whatever I wanted and she’d buy me whatever I wanted. The only things I could think of were a chocolate milkshake and a trip to the record store. Nana, to her endless credit, obliged on both.
Me: (To Customer) You know we have a used copy of that.
Customer: Why would I want it used?
Me: It’s cheaper.
Customer: Um, I’m totally not poor.
CD Alley rested in the center of a shabby brick block of buildings festooned with peeling paint and sickly wrought iron swirls. To our immediate left was a headshop, to our right was the communist bookshop (since moved). Above us was an environmental non-profit and an apartment leased by a local bartender, who subleased out his front room to local bands looking for a practice space (4). Notoriously, our block of also contained University Massage, an impossibly seedy handjob joint run by thugs and mysteriously immune to the changing climate of our liberal college town. Sometimes their patrons would come in looking for information. I directed them into the massage parlor entrance (around the back of the building) with a look I hoped would convey both I am a sex positive feminist who believes you are free to do whatever consensual thing you’re doing upstairs and Seriously? Gross. I met a few of the women that worked there. They would hang out smoking cigarettes in the parking lot and, on several occasions, shut down their own patrons if they harassed me on the way to my car.
The rent was cheap and it stayed cheap despite our half of Franklin Street getting cleaner and fancier and and more friendly to chain restaurants. The gentrifying influence didn’t really affect our building, probably because it flooded all the time. Rain would waterfall over the lip of the parking lot, overflow into the fetid below-street-level alley in the back, then seep under our backdoor and fill the store. I would stand behind the counter and watch the expanding pool shimmer under the florescent lights and think this would be almost cool to watch if I didn’t have to deal with it and then I would think I cannot believe that guy in the back is still going through the “Used Metal” bin. His feet must be soaked. Until we elevated everything three or four inches off the ground, we lost inventory at every summer shower. We kept rainboots and old shoes in the back room. I learned that “Oh wow, a flood” is the most common people say about a flood. It’s annoying, but not as annoying as thirty runs with a ShopVac or the needling chill of standing in several fresh inches of February downpour for several hours.
I don’t remember when the air-conditioner broke (2007ish?). Chapel Hill is hot in the summer, in that thick, soupy, green way makes southerners talk slow.. Our store window faced west and the front half off things started broiling as soon as we hit the pm. July was purgatorial, August infernal. I’d go through my closet trying to pick the least amount of clothes I could wear while staying decent. I donated my best fan from home and we’d keep it running on high, behind the counter. The skirts of my summer dresses would balloon out around me and the only part of me to cool would be the back of my calves. Sometimes I watched a customer stand too quickly, their t-shirts drenched in sweat, and I would think shit, he’s going to pass out. Sometimes I stood too fast and felt the room rock and roll but not with the rock and roll and I’d think shit, I’m going to pass out. I have about thirty-six playlists specially formulated for August at the store. They include a bunch of my favorite songs. All of them are sultry; a few are even steamy.
Customer: Are you hiring?
Customer: You assholes are never hiring.
We were never hiring. The standard protocol involved giving a customer the option of filling out an application, asking such questions as “What are your top five favorite bands?” and in an lovably throwback sort of way “Do you read ‘zines?” The bottom drawer of the filing cabinet is full of these. I don’t think anyone ever got hired off the strength of an application.
I wrote five pages, single-spaced even though I’d already been offered the job. For the record (no pun intended), I still can’t believe I got hired. I still think it’s the coolest thing in the world that I get to work in a record store. I’m a grown-up person and my friends are talking about private schools and IRAs and I’m like dude, check out these awesome promos! Do you believe people just send them to us?
In general, I love the customers. Even the weirdos.
(We’re all weirdos)
Customer: We’re looking for a part-time receptionist. Maybe $10 an hour. It might be a way for you to get your foot in the door if you ever want a real professional job.
Me: Thanks, but I actually have a regular job that’s not here. I’m a copywriter and …
Customer: You really do have another job? Because this would be a great opportunity for you. I mean, it might not be as “cool” as this job, but it must be really hard to support yourself on what you make at the record store, what, a few hours a week?
Me: You’re right. It would be impossible.
Customer: You seem like a smart girl. I’ll put in a good word for you with HR.
Mostly I wrote for other people. Mostly I sat at my computer at home in gym clothes, suffering conference calls and bickering with cursors. Both Ryan and Sean tolerated my eccentric hours, my travel schedule, my perennial lateness, my habit of leaving piles of old books and magazines in my wake.
I’ve always hated identifying by career. When you tell people you write, they expect to hear a list of titles, a catalog of publishing credits, a whole rack of magazines. Then you have to qualify—advertising, public relations, ghost writing, blurbs without credits . . .but you know I also write books no one reads and plays no one produces! Their eyes glaze over. I feel like a fraud. I am a fraud. It’s easier to be vague.
It’s better being the girl at the record store. People know me there because I do a thing I like at a place I like that they also like. There we can stand around talking about music without boring other people. We can do trivia and gossip and opinions and fantasies and Holy fucking shit, that song is so good it nearly knocked the breath out of me even though we’re pushing forty(or forty-five or fifty) and so many of our friends stopped listening to new music in college. At the record store, I didn’t have to self-censor. I didn’t have to network. I didn’t have to feign enthusiasm. I could be a girl in giant rhinestone earrings at the counter and I could count on having people come in who wanted to talk about Kendrick Lamar or The Kinks because it was a record store. I also knew the ones who might linger to discuss Thomas Pynchon or the 30 Years War or curry recipes because it was me they were talking to. I felt like I was part of a community. And I love my community. And that was magical. That is magical.
Customer: (drops huge pile of records on the counter) I’m not going to buy any of these and I’m not going to put them back.
Me: (blank stare)
Customer: I mean, I thought it would be nice if I brought them to you. If you had a system of whatever. Thanks! (Leaves)
Things I remember: The time the Cool John Ferguson played blues in a santa hat by the counter and I got drunk during my shift. The time the second line materialized across the street and marched up and down the block. The time my cat wandered in as a stray and slept on the Pink Floyd section. The time Questlove came in and chatted and shopped for an hour on an otherwise slow weekday night. The time this kid bought $700 worth of vinyl to decorate his apartment walls. The time I cried for two shifts straight and listened to Brian Eno for a month. The time the ceiling collapsed over the used CD tables. The time I couldn’t open the front door to leave. The time I couldn’t close the front door to lock it. The time I set off the alarm and the police came and bought Gram Parsons CDs. The time Broadcast came and moved their records to a different section because they objected to our categorization. The time the kid couldn’t stop telling the Arcade Fire how much they looked like the guys from the Arcade Fire. The time the two French kids and I had a mostly pantomimed conversation about D’Angelo. The first time I ever heard this song. I mean, Damn.
Customer: I heard you guy were closing on Saturday.
Me: Nope. Normal hours.
Customer: I mean. Closing closing. Closing forever.
Me: Nope. I don’t know where you heard that but it’s not true.
Customer: Are you sure? I heard it was closing forever and everything until then was 70% off. I’ve heard it from several people that you’re closing forever on Saturday.
Me: Dude. I’m working here Saturday.
When Ryan told me he was going to sell the store, I went through several anxious, aching weeks of trying to figure out whether I should buy it, whether I could buy it. But I’m a single lady without assets whose personal finance strategy involves a lot of magical thinking and looking at my bank balance through knitted fingers. I didn’t have enough of anything to risk everything and I’m not sure if I could have paid my rent even if I wasn’t an abject failure at running a business. I thought maybe if I were married? I thought maybe if I could share it with someone? I thought maybe if I won the lottery. I thought definitely if I won the lottery.
A real buyer was found– the owner of several other local stores. He would change the name but wanted to keep the same vibe. When the story broke in the local press, it was reported that the staff would all stay on. I wasn’t so sure I should. Or rather, I’m not sure I will. I’ve been here for thirteen years and some change. It would be nice to not have to close on Saturday nights.
On the other hand, I’m not so good at change. I don’t want to leave it all behind–the music, the people, the keeping a list of what I’m listening to when people ask. I am a sentimentalist, a past-dweller, an easy crier, a sappy Luddite who goes full teenager over the sound of scratched up plastic circle, a resident of 2016 who regularly wears inkspots on her fingers. A quiet night in the store, watching people stroll down the sidewalk through the puddles of lamplight and shadows of tree limbs, while the sound of something soulful or silly or sexy or furious swelled through the speakers and resolved into something sublime. The most perfect sound. I wish I could write something that would read so messy and human and gorgeous. That’s my happy place, on the edge of longing, just down the seedy alley, on the dark end of the street. Side One. Track One. Pop. Scratch.One. Two.Three. Four.
Thanks for coming in, y’all.
(1) Including but not limited to: being expected to review mostly women because I was a woman, being expected to review friends’ bands despite a conflict of interest, exhaustion at inventing meaningless qualifiers, frustration at only getting read when I wrote something negative, feeling like an asshole, a poser, a dilettante and mostly just wishing that music reviews could be more like book reviews (and sometimes vice versa).
(2) I have some (non-groundbreaking, hopelessly unoriginal) theories about this, which I’ve mostly cribbed from women who write more eloquently about the business and culture of music than I do. But that’s subject for different kind of story (maybe I’ll write it) or at least a good ramble if you catch me in the chatty space between cocktails.
(3) There’s not a way for me to discuss the bathroom without succumbing to overwrought, borderline Lovecraftian language. Some of you may simply be too fragile to hear to a precise accounting of our facilities. Otherwise hale and hearty adults have been driven mad at less. But let me just say this: I once let a filthy, train-hopping gutter punk use the toilet because she asked politely and seemed like a nice person (and I I used to be more flexible on the subject of customer use). I tried to warn her. She gave me a do you really think your bourgie, indie rock, college town, record store bathroom will shock me look. And I had no choice but to let her go. When she emerged a little later, she was visibly paled. How long has the sink been stopped up like that? And, in God’s name, why is it that color?! I shrugged and told her the truth: no one knows and I’m personally quite sure I don’t want to.
(4) Did your band practice upstairs? All bands heard from directly below sound terrible in the same way, including yours and especially the time you played that 3.5 hour continuous bass solo right over my head. That should be illegal.