Wednesday, April 18, 2012

text for Used Rare New book, 2008

by Simon Reynolds

I love record stores. I particularly love the second-hand record stores in New York, my home for 15 years now. "Used" is what they say in this country, rather than second-hand: a word that totally fits the vibe of seedy melancholy that often clings to these shops. "Used" might make you think of the accusatory tone of discarded lovers ("you used me, abandoned me"). But mostly it vividly communicates the sense that these things were previously owned, the word "used" bringing to mind grubby fingerprints or dog-eared and yellowing paperbacks with particles of dried bogy lodged in the fold.

The people who own and operate these used vinyl stores are often strange sorts, psychologically if not physically mis-shapen people, who you can't imagine really making it in another occupation. They've gravitated to selling old stuff because its slow pace and intermittently interrupted solitude suits their borderline misanthropic natures.

In one store a few blocks from our apartment, the young-ish man behind the counter could be straight out of a Daniel Clowes comic book: indeterminate in age and appearance (his short hair and clean face could almost allow him pass without notice in the 1950s), and always wearing the same expressionless expression. Typically he'll be sat there cleaning his newly acquired vinyl in a bulky-looking and noisy machine that you can't help feeling is stripping off several layers of protective sheen from the platters. There's a palpable air of imploded emotion given off by this affectless man and the sallow-tinged perpetual twilight of his store, a truly Ghostworldly aura.

Particularly fascinating to me are the second-hand stores which appear to be almost always totally deserted. Where the prices are unreasonably high, way out of alignment with the market (as now firmly established-- regrettably for tight-fisted bargain-hunters like myself-- by online systems like Gemm, Popsike, and Ebay). You'll go in these places a couple of times and eventually you realise that you've never, ever seen any kind of monetary transaction take place there. No one ever buys anything. And then you start to think: maybe the prices are like that to deter repeat visitors. Like maybe, the store is a front for something. But then one glance at the wizened, choleric owner and you realise that this can't be the case: no, he's just some Scrooge type who thinks the stuff is actually worth that, that what you're witnessing is some kind of Freudian money-as-excrement, anal-retention syndrome taken to a chronic degree. The guy is a collector who uses having a store as an alibi, and like those mentally ill folk who hoard anything and everything (bottle caps, old pizza boxes, bus tickets) he doesn't intend to part with these records.

Recently, though, I've noticed some changes in Manhattan's used record seller landscape. A new breed of smart-looking and well-organised vinyl store, without the chaos, the cardboard boxes of moldy $1 LPs. The racks will be nice-looking boxes made of unvarnished wood, and the wares will be selective and uniformly highly priced. The range is old skool hip hop and everything that kind of backpacker-sanctioned lineage draws on in terms of beats and samples: soul and funk, bebop and fusion, soundtracks and library , exotica and Latin. Often, this type of Manhattan store is run by English guys, and by their hair and clothes and manner you instantly peg them as connoisseurial curator types, knowledgeable in that peculiar snooty Brit way about black music of all sorts. These stores are essentially boutiques purpose-built for crate-diggers; what they offer, in fact, is crate-digging without the dust and the toil (but also, I'd wager , without the random epiphanies ). I find these places quite depressing, but in a totally different way from the older style of shabby second-hand outlets.

Generally speaking, though, vinyl-specialist stores seem a lot less empty than they used to be, at times even bustling with punters. There's been a discernible resurgence of interest in the analog and the tangible, doubtless a reaction against digital culture with its mp3s and music piped straight into your phone. Nowadays it's the used CD stores that are melancholy and Marie Celeste-like. The second-hand compact disc, with its scuffed plastic hard-shell and reduced-scale cover insert, is becoming the most uncherishable artifact. I wonder if the CD's time will come again, just like the cassette, in defiance of all expectation, appears to be doing. Could the compact disc ever be re-enchanted as a retro commodity fetish? It seems unlikely, and for now the used CD stores really are like the mass graves of mass culture.