Why Vinyl is Today’s Most Dynamic Music Medium

Paste Magazine asked twenty record store owners to give them feedback on LPs and whether vinyl is making a comeback in their stores. The stores were all over the US–Nashville, Portland (ME and Oregon), LA, SF, Chicago, Ann Arbor and Dearborn (MI), Boston, Fayetteville (AR), Denver, Tempe (AZ), Wilmington (DE), Decatur (GA). By my count, nineteen of them observed more or less emphatically that vinyl has made a big comeback, and that it is the area of their business with the most growth over the past several years.

Consider this remark from Dave W. of Wax Tracks Records in Denver:

“I have noticed that at least two or three times a week some father or mother comes in saying that their kid asked for a turntable for their birthday or Christmas present. So it’s not a case of the older generation just giving their turntables to their kids and saying ‘Here’s what we used to play music on,’ but rather the kids saying ‘This is what’s cool and happening right now and I want in on it.’”

Or this from John Conrad of Johnny’s Records in Darien, CT:

“It was probably around 2005 when requests became so numerous that I began bringing vinyl back to the store. By the Christmas of 2006, a large number of high school kids began showing up in the store and perusing the record racks. When I asked them what was up, to a one they’d turn with a big smile and say, ‘I’m getting a turntable for Christmas.’  Since that time we’ve doubled the amount of vinyl we carry every few months. I mean, music lovers, and that includes me, we’re kind of a geeky lot and as such we like to collect real physical items.”

And, finally, this from Tony Grandischnig of Jackpot Records in Portland, OR:

“It has been interesting to watch the compact disc rise up and nearly destroy vinyl, but with the rise in vinyl sales and production, along with the oft included download code, it now seems that vinyl is having it’s sweet revenge on the compact disc.”

Notice that all three use the word “Records” in their store name. Still other commenters in the Paste feature spoke of the fact that superior liner notes and packaging were driving many more customers than ever to choose LPs when they had a choose of vinyl or CD. Most revealing to me is that lots of young people are actively choosing to buy and listen to LPs, for what they consider to be superior sound quality, and the enjoyable rituals of handling and owning a full-size LP.

I bet if they’d polled any Canadian record store owners, the responses would have been equally emphatic. For a recent CBC Radio 3 podcast titled “Will Vinyl Save Music?,” host Lisa Christiansen asks, ”What factors have led to the return of vinyl? Has it become just a part of a growing hipster cottage industry? Is it purely nostalgia that has made people care again?” To explore these questions she interviews Daniel Fazio, of the Tiki Bar in Vancouver, B.C.’s Waldorf Hotel, who has designed and programmed the bar to cater to musiclovers’ hunger for a tactile listening experience. They power a massive set of JBL speakers manufactured in 1948 with an analog tube amp purpose-built for them. Fazio insisted the recent embrace of vinyl isn’t nostalgia, and observes that with so much music being driven up into the cloud, and with listeners really owning nothing when they buy an MP3 file, actually owning an LP is an antidote to the merely virtual.  At the bar, they hold a regular “sellers night,” where owners and collectors of vinyl come to spin, sell, and swap their albums. Later, on the podcast, she visits Jack White’s Third Man Records, an all-in-one recording studio and vinyl pressing plant, where they are doing more business every year. Third Man also houses The Vault, the music site.

Speaking personally, I reconditioned an old turntable this year and have recently bought LPs by bands Wintersleep, Wilderness of ManitobaCuff the DukeElliot Brood, and Hey Rosetta!.

Working in the book business, I urge wags in my industry to not be too hasty in dismissing printed books as a desirable object for purchase. Yes, surely ebooks and digital downloading are going to continue gaining an increasing share of the market, but just as vinyl still has its place among music fans, so will printed books continue to have a role for booklovers. I believe there’s a lot the book biz that we can and should learn from the music industry, particularly about the world of digital downloading which music insiders have been dealing with for close to a decade, while bookpeople can also learn from the sturdy persistence, and reemergence, of vinyl.

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The Governor Who Lived in a Bubble

Ohio Governor John Kasich is a pathetic example of a public official. “I don’t read newspapers in the state of Ohio, Kasich said Monday at a college in Columbus. “Very rarely do I read a newspaper. . . reading newspapers does not give you an uplifting experience. I have found my life is a lot better if I don’t get aggravated by what I read in the newspaper.” Okay, now I understand that newspapers are often filled with disturbing news, especially for an elected official at about 30% in polls, and I’m fine with ordinary citizens choosing to read newspapers, or not, but here we have a public official who deliberately chooses to not be well-informed. Isn’t part of the implied contract between office-holders and the public that the former will do their level best to understand the problems and issues confronting ordinary citizens? Kasich is quoted in the American Independent article accompanying TPM’s coverage saying that “others occasionally send him important articles and ‘things I need to know about.’” Talk about the boy in a bubble!

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“Least Cynical Place on Earth” as “Third Place”

“It was like the least cynical place on earth,” according to one customer quoted in the New York Times profile of Raconteur Bookshop, a sweet second-hand bookstore and theater space set to close in early 2012. The owner of this Metuchen, NJ shop is not losing his lease or being forced out by his landlord, instead he said he “still love[s] being here and meeting the people. But I feel like I don’t want to be a shop clerk anymore. That’s what it boils down to.” A longtime bookseller myself, I sympathize with anyone who wearies of keeping a shop running day after day. At the same time, I love places like Raconteur and sympathize with the customers who feel bereft.

I recall one such place I frequented during a vacation in 1992 in Scotland. Located on the very special Hebridean isle of Mull, in Dervaig–a wee village that boasted the theatre with the smallest number of seats of any venue for plays in all Europe–it was called “Coffee&Books,” just down the lane from the B&B where my wife and I were lodging. I was sitting on a stool in the shop on a Saturday morning just as its owners were setting off on a holiday to Venice. Several locals had assembled to see them off, as with a bit of ceremony the owners anointed Colin, a sheephish lad in his mid or late teens, as shopkeeper in their week’s absence. Chiefly, this would mean brewing coffee and ‘stuffing’ the many weekend papers due to be delivered later that morning. The shop handled all the usual British papers–Telegraph, Daily Mail, Times of London, plus the Scottish papers, the Glasgow Herald, the Scotsman, and a few tabloids whose lurid front pages I had never seen. Turned out though, Colin really had his hands full. By noon that morning he was awash in a tangle of dozens of weekend supplements, funny papers, racy tabs and sober broadsheets. Things were looking a real mess. Customers began rolling in looking for their usual papers, ordinarily reserved under their name every weekend. Unfortunately, however, none were ready. At first a lot of kidding ensued as the regulars saw that Colin was overwhelmed. But as it became apparent to each new arrival that Colin wasn’t finding any humor in his plight, they shed their sweaters and anoraks and got down on the floor with him to, at first find their own papers. But these regulars didn’t just leave after assembling their own weekend reading, they helped Colin master the untidy piles all around him, sensing he was determined not to fail in the challenge that had been left in his lap.

Clearly, Raconteur Books and Coffee&Books had come to fill the vital role of a “third place” in the lives of their customers. The Wikipedia entry for Ray Oldenburg’s influential book, Celebrating the Third Place: Inspiring Stories About the “Great Good Places” at the Heart of Our Communities, describes the third place as “a term used in the concept of community building to refer to social surroundings separate from the two usual social environments of home and the workplace. Oldenburg writes that third places are “important for civil society, democracy, and civic engagement.”

Someone may still step forward to take over Raconteur. If not, sadly, its regulars will soon have to to find a new venue for their shared passions. Meantime, the spirit of cooperation that prevailed at Coffee&Books struck me then and since as a stellar example of a microcosm for a healthy society.

January 13, 2011–Update: In a tweet this morning, novelist and book critic Lev Grossman (@leverus) writes “The Raconteur bookshop in Metuchen, NJ is closing down on Sat night. I’m going to help them. By reading. Who’s w/ me?” 

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Literary and Cultural History Preserved in Wood, Paint, Ink & Graphite

Literary, social and cultural history are all fascinatingly preserved in an old wooden door from a 1920s Greenwich Village bookstore. In Frank Shay’s Bookshop at 4 Christopher Street the proprietor was surprised one day in 1921 when writer Hedrik Willem Van Loon, an author with the publishing house of Boni & Liveright, signed his name to the door and for good measure added a little drawing to his contribution. Soon, Shay began routinely asking visiting writers and other cultural notables to sign the door. Ultimately, it would bear hundreds of signatures, including such figures of the day as John Dos Passos, Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, Upton Sinclair, Sherwood Anderson, Heywood Broun, Christopher Morley, Edward Arlington Robinson, Frank Conroy, artist John Sloan, explorer Vilhalmur Stefansson, poet Don Marquis (creator of “The Adventures of Archy & Mehitabel”), and Henry Seidel Canby (editor, Saturday Review of Literature).

When the shop closed in 1925, the door was removed from the premises before the contents were auctioned to pay creditors. In subsequent decades its value as a cultural artifact became evident, with this advertisement appeared thirty-five years later:  “Mrs. Frank Leon Smith has a door for sale. On the door are the autographs of about sixty people who in the early Twenties were important, famous, talented, unusual. Im [sic] telling you, this is a fabulous door….Want a door? Ask Mrs. Smith at 321 East 52nd Street, New York 22. —’Trade Winds’ in the Saturday Review, 1960″. Note that money would evidently not have been required to become custodian  of the door.

Eventually, by steps unknown the door reached the Ransom Center at the University of Texas in Austin, where it is housed today. Organizers there have created a terrific website devoted to it, to the shop, to Greenwich Village, and the period that produced it. Jennifer Scheussler’s New York Times Book Review article in September, with a neat slideshow, alerted me to the door’s colorful history and I’ve visited the Ransom website many times since. I love that Van Loon’s spontaneous signature became an inspiration for hundreds of contemporaries, all eager to scribble on a plank of wood, leaving a small imprint of their existence. It’s a veritable time capsule, or even better a time machine taking us back to bookselling and publishing ninety odd years ago.

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#Fridayreads/Nov. 25

#fridayreads Finished ‘The Whore of Akron,’ @scottraab64′s gonzo fete of Cleveland sports history. This old Clevelander loved the fierce takedown of Lebron and Raab’s scalding humor.

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