Saturday, January 29, 2011

Record Store Reflections

When I first moved to Washington, DC in the early seventies, Saturday mornings involved a regular shopping trip on foot before the crowds arrived from the suburbs. First was the Georgetown Coffee Tea and Spice, then Meenahan’s Hardware and finally Orpheus Records on M Street. That was last so there was time to linger, to leaf through plastic covered albums and listen. Orpheus was actually more concert hall than record store, two stories of open space with exposed brick walls and an oak floor. The speakers were mounted high on the walls and I can’t remember whether they were Klipsch or JBL or something else, but they were good.  In fact the acoustic effects were what the Who had in mind when they coined the term Quadrophenia.  They were so good I often took visitors to experience the music much as I would want them to experience the Capitol or the Lincoln Memorial.

Of course the exquisite sound was also a  problem because, more often than not, whenever I asked, “What’s playing now?”  I ended up walking out of the store with that under my arm.  And it may explain why my music collection outgrew my bookshelves and required construction of a special rack.

I think this memory was prompted by news of the imminent demise of Borders Books and Records.  Our neighborhood store is still open but over the past year I have watched their music and video department shrink from hundreds of square feet down to a token few shelves.  The other day I looked up to see that a furniture store had replaced what was once our local Tower Records outlet.

While these antiseptic chain stores would never measure up to the music store standards set by Nick Hornby (and John Cusack) in High Fidelity, at least they offered a place to spend some peaceful hours thumbing through the cases, looking for deals or trying some new group the kids are listening to.  It’s the same serendipitous discovery process that I still enjoy at the library,  bookstore or wine store.
(I was pleased to see that one of my old haunts, Karma Records, is still in business in central Indiana.)

As for Orpheus, it moved to Arlington to cheaper digs and Rick Carlisle kept it going in a smaller shop until it succumbed to internet competition in May 2009.  I stopped by for its final, final sale (its “going out of business” sale lasted a year) and picked up a Johnny Cash album from the Sun collection that included “Teenage Queen” and a Bobby Bare collection so I can listen to “Drop Kick Me Jesus (Through the Goal Posts of Life)” whenver I feel a need.

Speaking of surviving, here is a link from my old friend Benner about Arhoolie Records in the Bay Area.

For now, visit your local record store soon and while you are at it, buy a newspaper.


  1. Outstanding post. I remember Orpheus and of course Karma. In Indy we also used to hit Freddie's, where you found the best R&B, funk, could play pea shake and buy a fresh dressed raccoon. The next time you are out west we'll visit Boo Boo's-a real old fashioned record store.

  2. Great post. You'll be glad to know Alex and I discovered a used book shop AND a record store right next to my favorite tea house here in Glasgow yesterday. Almost didn't make it in for the best chai in town because we were browsing for so long!