Happy Record Store Day! Impose Magazine put together a great feature after asking people what their favorite record store is. I put together this quick piece about my own favorite.
My favorite and first real record store is the Princeton Record Exchange in Princeton, NJ. I think technically my first record store was a Sam Goody’s in my town in Morristown, where I bought a Hanson CD in 6th grade, but I’ll pretend that didn’t happen (just like I pretend my first concert wasn’t LFO, but Sonic Youth).
I did a radio show on Friday nights throughout my four years of high school, and the first two years I played a lot of albums that my dad had, or bad metal music that generally captured the attention of the typical slacker boys who ran WJSV. The summer between that sophomore and junior year, I went to Irving Plaza to see Phantom Planet (Jason Schwartzman was still in the band, but alas- this was just before I discovered Rushmore). I was asked along to the show by a group of girls who I wasn’t so much friends with as I was in all the same nerdy honors classes with. They wanted to go to the show to check out the band who did The O.C.’s theme song. I wanted to go with them because I always wanted to go to concerts, but never had anyone to go with. A beautiful marriage of necessity.
I remember looking aimlessly around Irving Plaza, still not totally understanding the rules of live music and wishing that I did. All of a sudden, a band came on who I quickly realized were not Phantom Planet, but even then, recognized as something much, much better. A goofy lead singer who jerked around the stage in an original Jagger impression, two guitarists shredding through power chords, one of them the coolest looking woman I’d ever seen. Who WERE these people? Their music was SO EXCITING! I was caught off guard and completely rapt. When their set ended, my friends complained how loud the band was and when would Phantom Planet come on, and I patiently waited the rest of the evening to get home and log on to AOL and look up this Washington Social Club.
WSC may not be the greatest band in the world (I still think they were woefully underrated), but at the time they represented an entirely new world to me. I went to Sam Goody’s to buy their record, and was met with blank stares when I asked about it. I mentioned this to my much cooler, older sister on the phone, and she suggested I make a trip to Princeton to go to the Princeton Record Exchange. It seemed a bit far to go to buy a CD, but I thought hey, why not? It was summer in suburban New Jersey and I had nothing better to do.
I mentioned this to my not-exactly-friends in my nerdy classes, and afterwards one of them, Lauren, asked if she could come with me. Turns out, she was also excited by the loud power chords and didn’t speak up, just like me. So, that weekend, the two of us got into my parents’ car and made the hour long trip.
I was dubious that this record store, in the middle of what had to be the preppiest town I’d ever seen, would be any kind of cool at all. But as Lauren and I opened the doors for the first time, I knew I had made it to mecca. I was scared of the clerks behind the high up counters covered in decades of concert posters on the right- they must know so much and know I know so little. The new record section was on the immediate left, where we immediately found the WSC album that we came all that way for. But the best part, the most important discovery, were the racks and racks and racks of used $2 and $3 CDs that lined the back walls. Oh my gosh. I was hooked. Since that afternoon, I have lost hours and hours of my life digging through those albums. I left that day with a $3 copy of Doolittle and a $4 copy of Nevermind. So little risk, so much musical exploration! It felt like home going through those stacks, and the Record Exchange helped me feel like far less of a freak when I was in high school. I knew there was a light at the end of the tunnel, and my Friday night radio shows got a lot more interesting.
When Lauren and I left that day, we put the WSC album into the car’s CD player, and listened to it on repeat the entire way home. That was one of the most memorable car ride experiences I’ve ever had- listening to a new album with the windows down, singing and laughing with someone who was becoming a friend. That’s the power of record stores- they’re a place to make pilgrimages to, a place that makes music more special, that makes it something worth exploring and connecting over. If I had gone home after that night at Irving Plaza and just downloaded what I was looking for, it never would have been such a powerful moment of youth and fun and friendship for me. I wouldn’t have discovered the Pixies on my own. I wouldn’t have walked around high school knowing that there were other people who would rather stay in playing records on a Friday than going to a party. Music isn’t something physical, it’s not something you can hold in your hand and keep. But it is something that defines us and binds us together and helps us make real connections. Record stores like Princeton Record Exchange don’t just sell music- they give us a space to discover it together.