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We're not here to sell you Pampers or tube socks: Coalition of Independent Music Stores president Don Van Cleave
Jim Walsh

Like most of his comrades in the cat-eat-dog business of independent record stores, Dick Storms of The Record Archive in Rochester, New York, has a story to tell. As it happens, this one has ties to Minneapolis, which not only has historically been one of the nation's healthiest independent music towns, but has also spawned two corporate behemoths that have helped lay waste to businesses like The Record Archive.

"I think outfits like Target and Best Buy have seen the fecundity of the local record scene, and the type of money it can make, and I think they've spread their gospel across the world and had a hand in destroying same," says Storms. Were it not for the intensity of his delivery, or the knowing glint behind his Ben Franklin specs, the stringy gray-haired Storms could be Eugene Levy's fried anti-hero Mitch Cohen from A Mighty Wind. The fiftysomething music freak is sitting at a table at the Bryant-Lake Bowl, surrounded by 60 or so members of the 10-year-old Coalition of Independent Music Stores who gathered in Minneapolis for their annual convention last week.

"I had dinner about 10 years ago with a girl from Best Buy," continues Storms. "I said, 'Best Buy's moving into my town.' And she gave me a dog-eyed look and said, 'I feel so sorry for you. It's so sad,' proclaiming my imminent doom. Well, fuck her. Best Buy's still there, but the amount of floor space they (devote to) music has grown smaller, and the number of titles that they carry has grown smaller, and we pretty much remain the same, and do our thing, and promote local music, and continue to be a focal point of our regional music scene, and an active citizen in the music business in Rochester, New York. We're way into it. We're fans; we're not just merchants."

That philosophy became a credo, repeated over and over, last week. They're fighting words, a rallying cry in a turbulent time. At their peak in 2000, as many as 5,500 independent music stores dotted the national landscape. At the end of last year, that number had been pared to 2,600, with Let It Be Records and Garage D'or among the more prominent local casualties. And yet, at a time when music retailers big and small are reacting to changes brought on by the internet, the independents milled around the bowling alley with guarded optimism. Every year since 2001, the death knell for the compact disc has sounded a little louder, and the eventual obsolescence of the major record labels has grown more apparent. Much of the excitement among Dick Storms and his cohorts centers on how the indies will react to this changing environment with their strongest suit—taste-making abilities—by providing downloadable songs through the stores' websites.

And the convention itself has been an elixir. "It's meant a lot to the guys that are here," says Don Van Cleave, president of the coalition. "There's a lot of social camaraderie. We learn from each other and we talk about music, like Tapes 'n Tapes, a band that I don't think any of you guys locally understand how big they're getting out there. We're selling the hell out of that, and they just sold out two nights at the Bowery Ballroom in New York."

Minneapolis continues to be home to the likes of Treehouse, Roadrunner, Fifth Element, and Extreme Noise, which orbit around the granddaddy of all indies, The Electric Fetus, which everyone at the conference last week invoked as an inspiration for innovation and weathering corporate storms. The Fetus's Bob Fuchs returned the favor. "This is a group that's banded together to try to keep that spirit going," he says. "These are people who really have given their whole lives—some of them for 20, 30, 40 years—to keep independent retail and independent music alive. You get to see all these like-minded people from other towns; it's like a brotherhood you didn't know you were part of."

As he talks, the cherubic-looking Fuchs munches on his dinner and keeps score of his bowling game. He and many others wear promo shirts—Fuchs's features Neko Case; one woman sports the logo of School Kids Records in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on the back of her T-shirt, and "Wu Tang Forever" on the front. "It sort of validates your life," says Fuchs. "You know, you have questions: 'Is this really what I want to do?' And then it's like, what a great group of people. People who are completely dedicated to keeping music and independent retail (alive) in the days of Wal-Mart and Best Buy and all the things that are operating for the wrong reasons. Everybody who's here is a junkie of some sort. We don't sell appliances because they make margins, and we don't sell music as loss leaders. We sell music because we've given our lives to bands and because when we got out of college, after four years and $30,000 in debt we said, 'I want to work at a record store.' It was a no-brainer."

When it comes to defining independent record store merchants, Nick Hornby's book High Fidelity and the film version starring John Cusack and Jack Black remain the most stereotypical reference points. But members of the coalition and their brethren say they have learned from Hornby's lovably satirical take on their obsessive existence, and moved on. The silver lining to the ongoing David versus Goliath wars is that the competition has made the indies wake up and smell the customer service. Once upon a time, most of the coalition members will admit, the stores emulated the snobs of High Fidelity, who would chase people out the door for asking for the wrong record. No more.

"We loved the movie, but we tell our employees we do not want you to be like that," says Jill Epstein of Denver's Twist and Shout Records.

"Fortunately, I don't have to tell my employees that," responds Steve Wilson, of Kief's, from Lawrence, Kansas. "We are elitist, just inescapably, given the wide variety of stuff we can avail ourselves of. But on the other hand, you don't want to exclude people, you want to share. We want to be generous in spirit about what we think is good. Unless you do that, you'll be gone."

But some things can't, and shouldn't, be changed. They still revel in the thrill of the hunt—the new record that says something that hasn't been said before, the new band worth championing. Since the days of Sam Phillips and Sun Records, that sort of insatiable curiosity has been the lifeblood of independent music retailers and the people who believe in them.

"We're very well respected in the industry. We stay on top of what's going on," says John Bevis of Disc Exchange in Knoxville, Tennessee, who would like to introduce you to new records by Tim O'Reagan, Josh Rouse, Josh Ritter, Supergrass, Scott Miller. "We don't have the financial clout that the big (stores) do, but we have a lot of knowledge."

"The biggest thing that has hurt music sales is the big boxes like Best Buy have made it a promotional tool to sell appliances, and they've devalued music in the eyes of the consumer," says Andrew Chinnici, of Rochester, New York's Lakeshore Record Exchange. "You're serving a part of the music-buying public that is more actively interested in music. It's a bigger part of their life; it's not just background. Part of why they love music is the discovery of new things." Chinnici takes a sip of a Diet Coke as his wife listens in. "To be a viable store these days, you have to have relationships with people and point them in the right direction."

Jim Walsh can be reached at 612.372.3775 or [email protected]

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