Life in record stores can be frustrating. From happy couples who have never patronized your shop taking engagement photos in the aisles, to bargain shoppers photographing items just to walk out and buy them online, the brave souls who devote their lives to selling records face specific challenges in addition to the usual retail headaches.
I spoke with a cross section of folks in Chicago's vinyl community and heard horror stories ripped out of some demented Goosebumps series: The Cursed White Power Record Collection. The Shockingly Shitfaced Instore Show. I Come at You with a Two by Four!
While some of the stories were utterly unique, many of them shared commonalities, showing that whether you’re shopping for white label house or obscure garage rock cassettes, a little customer courtesy to the folks behind the counter goes a long way.
I spoke with Glenna of Gramaphone Records about dealing with the woes of “bros being bros” over plates of shrimp in a small mariscos restaurant. They perform under the name Sold and serve as techno buyer for the Lakeview shop that’s been providing DJs dance music since 1969.
“The biggest thing is a dude coming in with his girlfriend and either ignoring her and not trying to engage with her, or even worse, explaining every record to her in a condescending way. Oftentimes I'll overhear something, and I'm like ‘Nope, that's wrong.’ You're talking down to your girlfriend and not even saying it correctly.”
More bad bro behavior: Glenna often notices customers asking male employees the same question non-male employees just answered five minutes ago. “If they give an exact same or similar suggestion, they’ll listen to it then, even though I said it already. They don't believe me when I say we're out of a record until they ask a guy.”
An anonymous source who’s pulled stints at record stores like Waxie Maxie's and Reckless Records since the ’90s also noticed sexism in their work environment. “There's a lot of harassment for female or female-read employees, for sure. Not different from any other retail environment, really, but it can be so intense in record stores because of the fetishization/minimization of women who know about music.”
Bric-a-Brac Records & Collectibles is a haven for nostalgia, allowing you to indulge by scoring rare reissues of seminal 1977 punk or replacing action figures your cousin stole back in 1988. The sunny lemon yellow shop serves as a Midwestern magnet for the national DIY community by hosting free all-ages instore shows from bands like Froth, La Luz and Nobunny.
“People think we're a straight-up venue. Just expect us to be dying to book shows. That happens on the daily,” Nick Mayor explained, standing behind the cash register with his wife and business partner Jen Lemasters, as their portly corgi Dandelo patrolled the shop’s perimeter.
“Jessica Hopper had a nice piece a few years ago about bands trying to get their band booked. We get tons of emails from touring bands. Then local bands, specifically, will ask to play here. All these bands that are here and are hounding me about playing shows: I've never seen them in here. I don't see why they wanna play here so bad if they don't shop here, or support us in general. Why should we support them? Just come talk to me!”
As if to illustrate his point, a young man who’s been flipping through records during our conversation cautiously approaches to ask, “Y’all book shows here?” Nick tells him that while he can’t guarantee anything, he’s happy to listen to his band and reach out if an upcoming bill seems like a good fit.
As Nick’s business card walks off in the young man’s hand, he explains, “I prefer that. We've had plenty of bands here that I've booked because they did that, and not because I liked their music, or think they're good or whatever. It's just like, they made the effort to get off their computer and come talk to me.”
Anyone who works in a record store eventually runs into patrons who insist that music began and ended with the Beatles. “There's some overlap with audiophiles, the guys who spend forever on online forums arguing over copper speaker wire and SACDs, but not a ton,” the former Reckless employee explained.
“These guys are always incredibly mad you don't want to pay a billion dollars for their Beatles records. Only a few are really collectible; remember, they were the most popular rock band in the world for some time? There were gazillions pressed?”
Nick reports a similar phenomenon happening over at Bric-a-Brac. “Elvis records, that happens a lot. Anytime anyone tries to sell us Elvis stuff, they think it's worth a ton. Someone came in and had an 8-Track box set of Elvis stuff, and they were like, ‘This is like two hundred dollars.’ It's like, ‘No.’"
Jen laughs. “Show me an 8-Track player and I’ll buy it!”
You’d think people passionate enough about records to support their local shop would treat the merchandise for sale with a little care and dignity. You’d be wrong.
Everyone has a pet peeve. For Nick, it’s Bric-a-Brac’s dollar bin. “People root through the dollar bin stuff and just leave it a whole mess. They pull everything out and just shove it back in. That's annoying."
Gramaphone’s environs are often given a gloss of glamour by appearing regularly as a setting for Boiler Room sets, livestreams and photoshoots. On a more mundane level, however, the meticulous filing system is routinely sabotaged by bad customer behavior.
“We have a Put Back Bin, and they'll try to put it back in the section they think they got it from even though there's a big sign: ‘Put it here, we'll put it away for you,’” Glenna notes with hint of resignation. Not only do the records end up misfiled, the packaging is also often damaged without a chance for an employee to correct the error.
“People don't put records away correctly. By and large, they don't even put it back in the little paper sleeve to put in the jacket. They'll put it in the jacket and just throw the sleeve somewhere. Sometimes we'll just have all these Mystery Sleeves… I don't know where this came from, where it goes.”
Despite the everyday frustrations that come with being the lifeline between shoppers and their collection’s newest aquisition, selling records for a living was still incredibly rewarding for everyone I spoke to.
“The record store was the first place I worked where I actually really liked most of the people I worked with and got along with them and wanted to hang out with them after work,” my anonymous source confessed. “You get to learn a whole lot about music and the way the industry operates (for good and for ill), listen to music you never would have heard otherwise, share it with people.”
Record stores are not only part of the community, they serve as a third place for that community to connect by discovering new music, bonding over old favorites and listening to live performances. Next time you’re flipping through the stacks, remember that showing them your appreciation starts one sleeve at a time.
Lorena Cupcake is a writer who covers all facets of culture and cannabis. Thanks to their work with a local dispensary, they were voted Best Budtender in Chicago in 2019.