In honor of the fourth annual Record Store Day on Saturday, April 16, 2011, we dig into the archives to salute indie record stores with this article.
When people heard I was going to spend an afternoon at Bull's Eye Records on Milwaukee's East Side to work as a record shop clerk for this latest installment of the OnMilwaukee.com Shift Switch series, Nick Hornby's "High Fidelity" -- turned into a movie with John Cusack and Jack Black -- usually came up.
It was assumed I would make endless lists of great records and make snarky comments to show off my superior knowledge and holier-than-thou music snobbery.
I hate to tell them, but working with Luke Lavin -- who owns Bull's Eye, 1627 E. Irving Pl., and owned its predecessor Farwell Music next to the Oriental (Lavin also worked at the now-long-defunct Second Hand Tunes on Murray and Thomas) -- yielded no lists and, although we talked a lot about music, we didn't really rag on anyone. The record store business is much too fragile these days to risk losing customers to sarcasm.
As a customer of Bull's Eye -- and having known Lavin since his days at the now-departed Wax Stacks on Murray Avenue -- I feel at home there and I walked through the door with a pretty good working knowledge of where the sections were and that sort of thing.
Spending an afternoon working in a record store was also like a homecoming. I got my first job -- and my entry into the world of music -- at miniscule Backstreet Records, just off Kings Highway in Brooklyn. When I was 9, I stopped in and dropped $1.99 on a cutout of an album called "Let It Be" by a group called The Beatles, and I was hooked.
I soon spent all my free time at the record store a block from my house. In fact, I was such a regular that they decided to make me perhaps the world's tiniest security guard. In exchange for watching for shoplifters in the shop -- so small that three customers in the place meant the clerk couldn't see the exit anymore -- I was rewarded with two records of my choice per week. I was allowed to choose things like Stevie Wonder's "Songs in the Key of Life" (a double album with an EP) and Led Zeppelin's "The Song Remains the Same," another double disc. It was early October 1976, because both came out on Sept. 28 of that year, and it sure felt like a good value to me.
The key to running a business like Bull's Eye is savvy buying of used merchandise and good pricing. A lot of people come through the door looking to sell records and CDs. During my shift, I think the number of sellers might have even exceeded the number of buyers in the shop.
So, Lavin and his sole employee have to be smart about what they accept and how much they pay for it. It would be easy -- but financially ruinous -- to be excessively generous.
This means that Lavin needs to know a lot about records -- about the differences between original and later pressings, about what will sell in Milwaukee, what will sell on Ebay and what won't really sell anywhere at any price. He can't afford to buy what he likes. It's much more complex than that.
Lavin asked me to look through about 20 CDs brought in by a customer and decide which were worth considering for purchase for the shop and which ought to be passed on outright.
I selected about four from the bunch and told Lavin I had reservations about at least two of them. When he told me that I selected them exactly the way he would have, I was happy. "I still got it," I thought to myself with a self-imporant chuckle.
Another key to running the shop is talking to people. Greeting people when they come in so they don't expect the Cusack/Black treatment. Talking music is a means to helping lead them to records they might be interested in buying.
Two young fellas and a gal came in and spent about half an hour talking to each other and to us about Elvis Costello, Bob Dylan, Andre Williams and others. That allowed me to point out to them that I had just filed a couple Williams records, and I think one of them was in the stack of records totaling nearly $70 that one of them bought.
Knowing the inventory is essential.
And so is restocking that inventory. When there were few customers in the shop, we focused on bringing some overstock out from the back to replace titles that had been sold.
Doing that made me realize just how much inventory a seemingly relatively quiet place like Bull's Eye moves. It was at this point in the day that I also had the most fun.
Lavin and I looked at the small stack of American copies of The Who's 1970 "Live at Leeds" -- a perennial seller. Lavin had a great original U.K. pressing with all the inserts, but his numerous American copies were a hodgepodge. Some had vinyl in great shape, others less so. Some had all the materials, a couple had some of them and one had none of the inserts.
So, we took some time to really sort through them and price them accordingly. It was here that my full record geek-dom was stroked.
But pulling overstock and obsessing on Who records also reminded me why I should not work in a used record shop. Just as when I was 9 and 10, I would leave at the end of the week with records, but no cash in hand.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.