Killed by death...and the dreaded download: Earl Root's biz hits the final countdown
Bill Kelley

I feel like I might be crashing a funeral when I walk into Root Cellar Records on a recent frigid, drizzly evening. It's just days after owner Earl Root announced the closing of his store on an internet chat board on November 7. But the mood in the store is relaxed, even lively for a Wednesday. Customers pop in for tickets and KFAI premiums or to flip through the upstairs stacks.

Root's tired from being up until 5:00 a.m. coordinating Motley Tuesday, the weekly metal karaoke night at the Spring Street Grill in northeast Minneapolis. But he still quickly manages to explain why he's closing his doors. Sales for "The Dungeon" downstairs--where the exhaustive collection of heavy metal lives--and the used vinyl upstairs have fallen drastically over the past three years. Root isn't optimistic about the future. The store's final days will coincide with the holiday season.

Root has lost count of the times he's heard Dude, don't buy that. I'll burn it for you in the Dungeon. Employee A.J. Stewart notes, "The better metal's done, the worse our store has done. It's almost a correlation." The presence of CDs by indie-metal bands like Lacuna Coil and Dimmu Borgir in Target's racks are a boon for young fans, but it means insurmountable competition for specialty stores.

Ironically, Root got his start in a good year for metal, 1990. By first selling records out of his van, Root then parlayed a few consignment bins at St. Paul's House of High Fidelity into a shop in the store's basement. A move to a space on Snelling Avenue, just north of University, followed in 1993. The Cellar's mix of classical, jazz, and old-school rock albums, seasoned with death metal and pricey rarities, reflected DJ and guitarist Root's broad tastes. But the jazzhead and headbanger factions never quite coexisted peacefully, so the metal CDs moved--first next door, and then to the Cellar's basement. But no matter where it was, "The Dungeon" was a linchpin of the Minneapolis/St. Paul metal community, often importing discs unavailable in the States that debuted on Root's 17-year-old radio show. (The show, called The Root of All Evil, airs from 1:00 a.m. to "666" a.m. Sundays on KFAI, 90.3 and 106.7 FM.)

Around 2000, things changed. The store's proximity to Hamline University stopped mattering. "I don't think records hold enough allure for kids anymore," says Root. "They're competing with DVDs and SurroundSound and widescreen TVs." He recalls having a younger friend over to listen to vinyl. "He's like, 'Is this it? We're just going to sit and listen to this record?'" Root continues. "'Yeah, and then we're going to talk about it afterward! And then we might listen to the whole other side if we really like it!'"

Many no longer share Root's old-school enthusiasm, even the record geeks. Root says collectors--mainstays of a business like his--don't visit anymore. "You can sit in your underwear and the world is selling stuff to you. If you're looking for something, [you have] more chance of finding it on the internet than if you just wandered into the shop." Even finds from Grandma's attic have been picked over, leaving so much BTO and Abba LPs for the two-dollar bins.

Root Cellar's sales have fallen by 50 percent in the last decade. It's enough to keep the business afloat for a few more years, but Root has borrowed $40,000 against his home in the past three years and wants no more debt.

"The community's going to hurt for it and my employees are going to hurt for it, too. Truthfully, I'm not getting any younger," says the 42-year-old, adding that he's focused on his band, Aesthma Daeva. "I don't want to sit here and work for 10 to 12 hours a day and not make any money, when I could be taking that time and becoming a better guitar player." Root will still sell his wares on the internet and at conventions, and the radio show and record label will continue.

But he's still going to miss the "regular regulars," like Jenny, a 16-year-old girl infatuated with classic rock records. "She doesn't even own a CD player," says Root. Jenny's been devastated since she heard the news. Earl told her, "Unfortunately, there's not enough of you being born."

I head downstairs to the dungeon, where co-worker Stewart is assisting a stocky college kid with a courtesy usually reserved for coddled celebrities. After sussing out the kid's tastes, he plays a CD by Viking-metallers Einherjer. (Stewart later steers me to an Amorphis CD good enough to make me rethink my animosity toward the group's "Elegy.")

Moe Kharrazi, another Cellar devotee, drops a stack of Impaler CDs on the counter, wanting to know how the previous Saturday's sale went. "Man," says Stewart, "the first 10 minutes of the day I spent watching everyone just mill around, and the next hour I spent ringing stuff up. We should have been like Kiss and had a going out of business sale every three months."

This is news to the college kid who's now flipping through the CD stacks. "Are you guys shutting down?" he asks.

"Yeah, in December," says Stewart.

"Then I gotta go someplace else."

Moe chimes in matter-of-factly, "There is no other place."

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