With hundreds of independent music stores going out of business every year, our resident rock correspondent spent two weeks working behind the counter of one of the last stores left standing—and found a place where metal still rules, vinyl still sells, and the 16-year-old clerk ringing you up has never heard of Hannah Montana
by dan kennedy; photograph by tom schierlitz
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Under the racks are large boxes of used albums, taken from what seems like a thousand dank basements. The smell of unburned incense permeates the store, and fluorescent light falls on purple walls. Tacked-up flyers flicker key words to a story you’ve heard in doorways like this for as long as you can remember: That rarest of drummers is needed—the type who is not a flake, is not a drug addict, and has his own transportation; a blues festival and barbecue is happening next month in a town just a few miles away; there’s a car for sale that runs great, and someone needs $1,100 or best offer in exchange for it.
As I stand in the doorway of Kiss the Sky, I’m awash in memories of my first job, eighteen years ago, when I was a record-store clerk in Chico, California, at a place called Sundance Records. I remember that the album Tim by the Replacements took up one-third of a face-out rack. I remember thumbing through copies of the Pixies’ Doolittle, which came on CD and cassette. The cassettes were always in one of those long skinny WEA boxes that you’ll never see again. I used to rip the paper seal open with a key or a ballpoint pen. I remember spending hours memorizing release dates, unboxing, pricing, filing, and displaying CDs on whatever Tuesday they dropped.
But the record store is only a nostalgia trip if, like me, you’re one of those people who stopped going. That Chico store shut down years ago. And both of the record stores I used to hang around when I lived in Seattle have folded shop as well. But in Geneva, Illinois, Kiss the Sky is still here. In this tiny town, thirty-five miles outside Chicago, the neighborhood record store still lives. I’ve come here to remember what things were like before I started buying my music on a laptop; to remember what it’s like to kill a five-hour shift; to remember what it’s like to even be in a record store.
As I head toward the back of Kiss the Sky, my eyes land on a Fender Stratocaster hanging on the wall, with the sunburst finish cracked and worn to the wood. The guy behind the counter notices me admiring it.
“Yep. Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Strat, man,” he says.
Slack-jawed, I stare at the guitar with renewed appreciation. Then the guy starts cracking up. “I’m kidding. Totally kidding, man. You should’ve seen your face.”
This is how my first day on the job begins.
Hello, My Name Is Trainee
I’m standing in front of the register, awkwardly, for a good fifteen minutes before my first customer approaches the counter with a used copy of the Beatles’ Revolver on vinyl that he wants to buy. He’s got long hair, and he’s wearing an old Led Zeppelin T-shirt, jeans, and one of those leather belts that looks like it could have his name branded onto the back of it next to the Zig-Zag man. I haven’t seen this particular ensemble since a derelict uncle wore it daily in 1976. He was maybe 40 years old at the time and spent his weekdays in a trance of ignoring unpaid parking tickets, developing minor respiratory infections, and not showing up for court dates. The man standing in front of me in this getup, however, is 14 years old at most.
Suddenly, the panic of being a clerk for the first time in eighteen years hits me. Should I say, ‘Can I help you?’ or ‘Welcome to Kiss the Sky’ or something? Jesus, I’m so much older than this kid. I wonder if he thinks I was placed at this job through some drug-rehabilitation program. I open my mouth to say hello, but what comes out is some strange World’s Greatest Dad monologue I didn’t know I was capable of. “Okaaay, all set there, guy? So, is this a gift? No? Okay, hey, you’re buying it for yourself? Well, that’s great. I first listened to this one when I was your age, too. Pretty cool, huh?!” The kid is expressionless. He kind of nods yes but mostly looks away while Mike, a co-founder of Kiss the Sky, reaches around me to ring him up, gently instructing me along the way.
“So, first you ask him if that will be cash or charge,” Mike tells me.
“Will that be cash or charge?” I parrot back.
“Okay, so you take the cash, put in the amount—$10—then hit your total button. Out of ten…” It’s occurring to me that Mike thinks I might be mildly stupid.
“Out of ten…,” I slowly repeat, confirming his suspicion.
“And it tells you that $1.80 is his change.…,” Mike says.
“Annnnd, $1.80 is your change,” I say, a little too boldly this time.
“And I’ll usually tell them: We do have a return policy on used vinyl. If there’s anything wrong with that, you can just bring it back for store credit. But taking a look at it here, it looks like it’s in pretty good shape, so you should be all set.”
I just stand there smiling politely while Mike lays out this longer, impossible-to-memorize nugget.
Mike says thank you.
The kid says thank you.
I say thank you.
My Co-Workers for the Next Two Weeks
Steve | 56 | owner and co-founder
VIBE: A character out of a Steely Dan song; super laid-back, like someone who knows that the note you don’t play is as important as the one you do.
AREA OF EXPERTISE: Steve is the numbers man at Kiss the Sky, an aging hippie completely comfortable using the word capitalize.
TYPICAL QUOTE: “We can adapt, and we can adapt fast. Faster than a big store.”
RELEVANT BIO INFO: He walked away from the CEO salary, the 401(k), and the corporatepied-à-terre in Brussels. Because twelve years ago, when he was 44, he realized he and Mike had been talking about opening a record store together ever since their
Mike | 55 | co-founder
VIBE: Picture a corn-fed version of a tech nerd. Mike laughs a lot. Loudly. At me.
AREA OF EXPERTISE: He knows every piece of music coming and going from Kiss the Sky, down to the day it goes and the day regulars can expect it to be restocked.
TYPICAL QUOTE: [after a huge guffaw] “Jesus, Kennedy! Well done! Damn!”
RELEVANT BIO INFO: Even though he has told this story a hundred times, Mike is game to rehash how Kiss the Sky was kicked out of its old location in Batavia, Illinois. (It involves a Shaggy 2 Dope in-store that went horribly wrong. Six hundred kids painted like satanic clowns played some game where they kick each other in the nuts and spray orange Faygo soda on everything.)
Mat | 23 | manager
VIBE: Tall and broad enough to inspire the phrase “Are you a cop?” But maybe that’s because he’s always busting Mike and Steve (his dad).
AREA OF EXPERTISE: Knows hundreds of indie, small-release, will-never-go-platinum bands you’ve never heard of.
TYPICAL QUOTE: “Where were you yesterday? You were sleeping in, weren’t you?
What do you mean you were mowing the lawn? See, if you’d get a cell phone, people could reach you when you’re doing things like mowing the lawn. [long pause] You weren’t mowing the lawn. Just tell me the truth. [and the encore] You were sleeping in, weren’t you?”
RELEVANT BIO INFO: He graduated from college this year, and the question that hangs over him is whether he can really find something out there that he loves as much as his gig at Kiss the Sky…and his bartending job.
Lauren | 16 | clerk
VIBE: Mildly bored but perfectly polite, like a miniature version of the town’s prettiest bank teller.
AREAS OF EXPERTISE: A little bit of alternative pop, but really anything ‘60s garage and anything Iggy Pop.
TYPICAL QUOTE: “I don’t know the stuff that’s quote-unquote hot right now.”
RELEVANT BIO INFO: Has a knack for making customers fall in love with her. Some bring gifts.
Everything in Its Right Place
If you ever wonder what a record-store clerk does with his time, the answer is simple: He files. And as I stare at a bunch of new CDs that I need to scan and place into the racks, I realize that this is pretty much what I’m going to be doing for the full two weeks.
Lauren is tasked with showing me how the filing system works. She’s putting these clear plastic rectangular security frames onto each CD. “So, these are the plastic things we put on the CDs that are to keep people from stealing them. You just…take a CD…” Lauren has a way of sounding bored no matter what she’s talking about. It’s completely intimidating. “But the thing at the front of the store that beeps if they go through hasn’t even been plugged in since we moved here. They have to, like, put in another outlet or something. But…anyway…” The process of filing is pretty simple. Once you attach the plastic frame, you place the CD in the right section behind the appropriate alphabetical card. It’s kind of a drag when you first start it, and then a calm washes over you, like the feeling you get when you’re washing dishes, folding laundry, or doing just about any other wonderfully repetitive task. There is nothing like this calm.
As I organize the stacks, I start to realize that I have no clue how to tell punk from metal. I’m familiar with the staples, like, say, Black Flag (punk) and Iron Maiden and Judas Priest (both metal), but a lot has changed on the landscape since my record-store days. Lauren is patient with all my questions, but only to a degree. Right, so a guy in a cowboy hat looking pensive and standing in an amber field of grain will henceforth signal me to “file under country.” Got it. To spare her further grief, I concoct a rule of thumb: If the word hate is in the band name, it’s metal, not punk.
Take your Hate Eternal, Hate Plow, Hatebreed, and Hatesphere and set them aside. All hate, all metal, period. I know what you’re thinking; you’re thinking: Yes, but how can you tell punk from metal when it comes to the Atomic Bitchwax, Dead Child, Cock and Ball Torture, Blood Tsunami-—how can you be sure of where to file these nuanced trios and quartets? Excellent question. That’s where the second part of my simple system comes in: If they don’t have hate in the band name, the art will show you the way. So when any of the following elements are on the cover, it’s metal:
• Well-muscled corpse men with insect-like mandibles, often wearing a gas mask or a scuba breathing apparatus.
• Red swamps, especially red swamps filled with armored skeletons.
• Hot zombie women performing fellatio on corpses that are half man and half goat or ox.
• Muscular Grim Reaper/hooded executioner appearing to hump a big pile of skulls under a sky that’s on fire.
• Huge robotic/skeletal spider with bloody fangs standing next to a pretty woman in a dress whose abdomen has a large wound exposing intestines and other vital organs.
There is one tricky exception, and that’s the band Naked Raygun. On the Naked Raygun cover, you’ve got your basic apocalyptic swamp diver wearing a futuristic mask/breathing apparatus in a lagoon of sewage, and they are filed under punk.
Thank God that there is also filing to be done in rock and pop. The metal section is kind of making me a little bit hopeless or lonely or something, as if everybody is a mall shooter waiting to happen. But maybe that’s the point?
i’m working an afternoon shift with Mat, and he’s playing something on the store speakers that I can’t quite place. “The Deadstring Brothers,” he tells me without making eye contact. I’m starting to think that Mat doesn’t trust me. It’s as if he’s deputy Barney Fife and I’m the big-city writer whose car has broken down, leaving him stranded in Mayberry. A typical conversation goes as follows:
me: Afternoon shifts were always my favorite when I worked in a record store.
me: Afternoons. Those were, um, definitely…
mat: [Nods suddenly and slowly, not so much in agreement, but as if to confirm that he heard me the first time.]
The only time Mat really lets his guard down is when he starts talking about his band—which is on a break right now. Their guitarist just moved into a new place, and they’ve been rehearsing in a barn. “I think we’re going to try and record some new stuff there. It’s just weird right now, you know? I mean, a lot of stuff is changing.… I’m graduating. And we’re all into different kinds of music now.” I say as little as possible, hoping not to ruin the moment, hoping that he’ll continue to forgive the fact that I’m writing everything down.
The one thing that gets under Mat’s skin about working at Kiss the Sky (other than my presence) is the customers who challenge him on the price of something. “It’s on used stuff. They’ll come up and ask me why something is priced at, you know, $9.99 instead of $7.99, or something ridiculous. They want to haggle a dollar off the price. I don’t know why they do it. And they always end up buying it anyway.” Then, with eerie timing, a twentysomething guy with a knit cap pulled down a little low over his eyes comes up to the counter holding up some vinyl. He looks at Mat. “Is this really $9.99?”
“Yeah, that’s really $9.99,” Mat says.
The guy makes his best what-ever face, and with a sort of community-college-acting-class flair, shakes his head, audibly scoffs, turns around, and walks back to the racks.
And then, just like that, Mat looks at me accusingly, as if I had cued this guy from central casting with my special magazine-writer wand.
The guy keeps flipping through racks and bins. He comes back to the counter again to do a less intense version of the what-ever face—it’s now more of a what-ever pout—and buys the album anyway.
when I meet mike ptack for the first time, he eyes me from the front door and heads for the counter. Unlike the other customers at Kiss the Sky, Ptack is special. Steve and Mike set aside music for him—stuff they know he’ll like. Stuff that just came in. Used, rare stuff that he has earned first dibs on. Because after coming to the store for eleven years straight, Ptack has rightfully earned the title of regular.
Mike and Steve had filled me in a little on Ptack, told me that he’s 52, married, and works for a construction company. What I didn’t expect was that he would look nothing like how I imagine a fiftysomething music-store regular to look-—he resembles Frank Black from the Pixies. If Frank Black were ten years older. And a corn farmer.
I come out from behind the front counter to shake Ptack’s hand, and as if it’s the only language he knows how to speak, he immediately starts telling me about music.
“You have to listen to the new CD from Old 97’s. Period. I’ve been playing the hell out of that thing,” he says with authority. Then he starts adjusting his pants at the waist the way, like, dads do, except for the fact that he’s now talking about which Black Flag album was really the best one.
“Henry Rollins…he, you know, he did it right. If you ask me,” I say, trying to show him that I know a thing a two.
Ptack agrees quickly, then jumps straight to “Tell Steve or Mike to play that new Kooks album for you. It’s back there somewhere in one of the stacks; they opened one, I think. You’ve got to listen to that before you leave,” he says, rapidly tapping his foot. “I’d be interested to hear what you think of that.” I stammer toward answering, leaning back on the counter with my elbows as if to steady a reply.
Then he turns to Steve and starts talking about how the last two Nada Surf records are the most underrated albums he’s heard in the past ten years. It’s as if he’s been storing this information since the last time he was at Kiss the Sky, as if these are the only people he can tell these things to. And in a lot of ways, it is. Because where else can people like Mike Ptack go, kill a few hours, and talk about music with other people who care about it just as much as they do?
The morning shift is coming to an end. I grab my backpack, and we all, Ptack included, walk a few doors down to the pub where we’ll raise a toast to Mat, since he’s graduating this week.
Drinks with the crew and the regular, a record-store rite of passage that, until this moment, I never knew existed.
WHY I CAN NEVER OWN A RECORD STORE
“one death cab for Cutie? You think we should bring in one copy of the new Death Cab for Cutie?” says Mike.
“Are they really, like… Will enough people…?” I stammer.
He practically hoots. “Wow, good thing you showed up to help us out, Kennedy. Should we serve beer and take bets on Tuesday to see who wins the fistfight over the one copy of the new Death Cab when ten regulars come looking for it?”
We had played this game, done this thing where Mike sent me home last night with the distributor catalogs of the next week’s new releases and told me to just order what I would order if it was my store. In short, we found out that I’d be demoted.
Mike pipes up again with my order sheets in hand, “Jesus, it gets better! We’re bringing in one copy of the new Death Cab but four copies of something called Hell Girl, which, according to the description in the catalog, is a Japanese cartoon on VHS.” His laughter reaches a new loud.
There were descriptions?
When I was looking at the catalog, I couldn’t even get past the pricing. The wholesale price of most new releases is about the same as the list price at places like Best Buy and Starbucks. Which means that Mike and Steve pay the same amount on new music that I do. If they want to make a living, they add a couple of bucks to the wholesale price. And even then, all I can think about is: How the hell are you supposed to keep a store afloat on a $2 profit margin? Looking at a couple of pages of this, things went from a feeling of Cool, what should I order? to How do these guys eat?
Mike will likely order ten copies of Death Cab. On a superbig new release—something like Radiohead or Coldplay—he might bring in thirty pieces of it. Maybe. Six or seven years ago, he would have brought in a hundred of something like that. And most of it would sell right from the boxes they were shipped in.
Mike disappears to correct things on the order for this week. He’ll write over my pencil with pen so he can get it all ready to call in. Single pieces instead of cases. Mike and the sales rep will bullshit a little bit about the old days, the rep will put the order in. The CDs will ship, the CDs will sell. The following week, the whole cycle repeats itself. I try not to think about the fact that maybe there will come a time when it simply doesn’t.
A WORD ABOUT HOW PEOPLE GET THEIR MUSIC
during my brief, eighteen-month tenure working in the New York offices of Atlantic Records back in 2002, just before a thousand of us were laid off in budget cuts, I sat in plenty of marketing meetings where executives focused on how to get music into places that could move large volumes at discount prices. I can’t really recall hearing much talk about record stores at all in these weekly marketing meetings.
Instead, they focused on sending promotional copies to video-game manufacturers in hopes of getting a song licensed. Or setting up exclusives with places that had the largest retail footprint, with millions of customers—places that seemed to specialize in selling everything except music. Get the music next to coffee and baked goods at Starbucks. Get the music into places moving tons of televisions, dishwashers, and microwave ovens. The thinking seemed to be that if small stores are moving only ten copies of a new release, and Wal-Mart can put a CD in front of 130 million customers a week, why cut a deal with the small independent record store at all?
Somewhere along the line (maybe when record companies never came through on lowering that $18.99 list price; maybe when Steve Jobs introduced iTunes and proved that when a CD was sold as digital files, everyone involved could make a reasonable profit), consumers started thinking that the price of a CD should probably be about $9.99 to $13.99, at the most. And these record-industry dudes with four houses, who prefer to fly private instead of commercial—maybe they realized they’ve got to sell 20 million CDs to have a hit and preserve their lifestyle.
So, high-volume retailers it is.
ONE OF THE MANY CUSTOMER QUESTIONS THAT I AM COMPLETELY UNABLE TO ANSWER
“what is a good ‘50s sampler? I need one CD that kind of covers all of the popular doo-wop ballads and the fun stuff, too. There was a boy who helped me the other day when I was here. A younger man. Is he in?”
kiss the sky is completely empty. This happens a lot on weekdays around 2 p.m. Steve is telling me and Mike about a spice mixture he’s been making since taking his cooking classes at night. He’s got a few jars of it for sale up by the cash register now, and he’s going to be selling it at a blues festival on the Fox River this year, too. Mike and I admire the bottle of spice as much as anyone can admire a bottle of spice.
“Oh, okay, look at that,” I say. “That does look good. You’ve got your, what is that, maybe, garlic in there? Tarragon?”
“Yeah, there’s some garlic in there,” Steve responds.
“And, what, it looks like I’m seeing some kind of leek or red onion maybe?”
“Well, there’s a whole bunch of things in there that I’m combining,” he says.
“And I see some red pepper or cayenne, too.…” This one falls like a brick into silent seas, and I realize we’re done talking about what I can see in the seasoning.
Our focus drifts back to “Arizona,” by Kings of Leon, which is playing on the store stereo. Steve is on the tall stool behind the register; Mike is standing to his right, half thinking about scanning in some new inventory; I’m on the business side of the counter, hunched onto the Formica, the palm of my hand supporting my head.
And then… Holy Christ. Do. Not. Look.
This has to be what every record-store clerk is hoping for, day in, day out: The moment when Gorgeous Rock Woman comes into your retail domain, the store you man, the counter you work, the vortex and physical manifestation of all of the musical love and knowledge inside you that you can certainly impress her with. And she pretty much has to talk to you, because all aisles lead to the counter. It’s as if the Romans built this place.
God, she’s beautiful. She is Candy-O. She is Phoebe Cates. She is every box-office-smash movie-poster girl from 1986, and perhaps the best thing about her? She’s holding her résumé and a job application. We could be hanging out with her every single day.
Steve steps up to the bat as Mike and I keep talking to each other, very deliberately pretending not to notice she’s even there. I don’t quite have the heart to tell Mike that his voice has gone a half step up, somewhere around the F-sharp-above-middle-C note. His eyes have also widened into mild shock, and he’s suddenly infusing our conversation with thesis-grade, quasi-genius bits of cultural theory. It was, only moments ago, if I recall, a simple conversation about how the guitars on a particular Ryan Adams record sound so awesome. To his credit, Steve is handling speaking to the girl with flying colors, but he’s choosing his words very carefully, like he suspects he’s being videotaped by some kind of human-resources department.
And then the universe mercifully delivers a cold shower—her Kiss the Sky application. We huddle around it as she stares off into space. Apparently her favorite blues artist is Phil Collens [sic], she does not like jazz, and she wants to work in a record store because she “is a fast learner, enjoys providing good customer service.”
Her spelling is atrocious, but her penmanship is playful. The effect is like a female gang member writing a love note from prison. There isn’t a single thing on her résumé or job application that indicates that she loves music. In a weird way, there’s nothing to indicate that she even likes music. And this is enough to make us completely free of her spell.
Steve tells her that he’ll be in touch. As she says good-bye, she turns and strolls down the center aisle: Rock and Pop H–Z on her left and Country, Jazz, and Bluegrass on her right. My head starts the compulsive tic of trying to recall every lyric about Her walking out the door. In my mind, Broken Social Scene sing, Now you’re all gone, got your makeup on / And you’re not coming back. John #1 from They Might Be Giants sings, And I just stood there whistling “there goes the bride” / As she walked out the door. Jim Morrison sings, Don’t you love her as she’s walking out the door.
HEART ON (INNER) SLEEVE
a brief guide to pricing used vinyl: Look up the title and the artist in the price guide and it might tell you, say, $12 if it’s in particularly good condition, $8 or $10 if it’s in merely good condition. If it’s got someone’s initials written on it and some sleeve wear, I dunno, knock off a dollar or two. If it’s a copy of Every Picture Tells a Story by Rod Stewart, with crossed-out and blacked-out loopy girlie ballpoint-pen scrawl on the inside sleeve that says “Greg and Karen 4-ever” in a curvy heart, well, that seems like it should be worth $40 or $50, if you ask me.
Some of the inside sleeves have marketing messages that invite you to join fan clubs. There are fading color pictures of younger versions of bands.
There’s one sleeve, a summer sampler album from the ‘70s, that has all of this down-home copy about why the album is being priced at only $1.99: We’ll be honest with you: We’re not making any money selling this fine record to you for only $1.99. As a matter of fact, we’re just barely breaking even. My boss here at the record company thinks I’m crazy! So what’s the catch? Well, we’re simply hoping that once you hear these great new songs you might decide to buy a copy of the full-length album that it’s featured on.
I spend a solid two or three hours pricing the endless parade of slightly edge-worn, good, like-new, and near-mint mile markers of the past four decades. Aja by Steely Dan. Cheap Trick at Budokan. Mars Needs Guitars! by the Hoodoo Gurus. So many people’s initials staking claim. Sometimes the initials are small letters in the upper corner; sometimes they’re written on the back of the cover and repeated like a clever, lo-fi security watermark on the inside sleeve, then again on the actual label at the center of the vinyl. Sometimes the initials are backed up by some serious improv legalese: property of j.m.
Mike comes up from his desk in back to ask if I’d like to grab some dinner after work. Pizza with him and Steve and Mike Ptack. Standing there holding my price gun, “Mike Ptack” is converted in my head to “M.P.” the second I hear it.
THE HARDEST PART
after two weeks of selling vinyl to customers, I decide to take a used copy of Toys in the Attic, by Aerosmith, over to the store turntable and listen to it. I can’t remember the last time I listened to a record. Maybe that’s because about twenty years ago, I replaced all of my vinyl with CDs, and what I didn’t replace had been abandoned in different apartments I lived in during my twenties.
Out of the sleeve, headphones go on, press the power switch on the store’s old walnut-grain-and-brushed-silver amp. I heard the title track on the radio when I was little, then on CD when I was in my twenties, and now on my iPhone almost daily. Needle drops slowly and suddenly Joe Perry’s riff rolls into my head and chest. Warm and electric. It hits so big that you can hear the metal wrapped around the strings. The guitar and bass amps sound like the wood, wire, tubes, and speakers they’re made of. Rich like you forgot it could be.
Damn, this is the way I used to listen. I grew up holding album covers, taking in the art and the names of everyone who had something to do with what I was hearing. Another 12-year-old in the suburbs reading tiny type and thinking: Mastered by Doug Sax at the Mastering Lab, Los Angeles… Hmmmm. I used to spend hours listening to just one album. Picking out each instrument, committing the lyrics to memory. I used to care so much about my record collection: what it was missing, what I had to buy next.
The sound from the black groove spinning in front of me is peaking. In the headphones, a guitar amp leans on the edge of feedback as a high note fades just before Steven Tyler howls that line about how we’re leaving the things that are real behind. I turn up the volume. I console myself in that futile way we do when we realize we have our hearts invested in something. This record store I’m standing in might survive, or it might go away forever like all of the others that have disappeared over the past four or five years.
I turn up the volume again.
I tell myself that there are two comforting truths about matters of the heart:
(1) Everyone does their best to make it last.
(2) Nobody knows how these things end.
dan kennedy is the author of Rock On: An Office Power Ballad.