Earlier this week, The New York Times had a nostalgic little piece about the Princeton Record Exchange, a music store in the eponymous New Jersey college town.
It was, as one might expect, the sort of narrative that could be written about any beloved indie-music haven these days: it's a quirky anachronism in a world that really doesn't need it anymore, but it keeps on trucking.
It was a story that hit close to home for me. I lived in Princeton, which lies roughly halfway between New York and Philadelphia, for roughly 15 years, from preadolescence into my early 20s. For a sizeable chunk of that time, I was a Record Exchange regular. I'd pick through the shelves, hunting for something that looked kind of cool or bugging the staff for recommendations. Plus, it was two blocks away from the ice cream shop where I worked in high school. It was a nice place to blow a paycheck on the way home.
Would I do that now? No. Reading that Times article turned me on to the realization that music stores like the Record Exchange no longer have a place in my life. As a music fan who's eagerly plunged into the Digital Age--I had an iPod back when they were chubby!--this is somewhat of a disconcerting revelation. But I realized something else: I'd gladly fork over that $4.99 for a second-hand Pavement album, but I wouldn't take the CD with me. I'd really just like to keep the store in business.
I wonder if I was part of the last generation of teenagers to consider browsing through record store racks to be an essential pastime. The iTunes Store launched in 2003, when I was 18. Ten years from now, will the whole industry be digital, save for a few holdouts, retired hippies, and former indie-pop boys who don't look so cute, now that they're going bald?
I, for one, can't remember the last time I bought a CD, since my entire music collection is now on a hard drive. I haven't been to the Record Exchange in ages, nor do I poke my head into the scattered record shops that line the streets of the neighborhood where I now live in New York.
Call me a terrible excuse for a music fan, but I don't have any use for it; since I was never a vinyl collector (the story would be very different if I were a DJ), I welcomed the opportunity to free up bookshelf space by getting rid of all those darned CD cases.
But the real reason I don't go back to record stores isn't because I can buy music online, it's because I can discover it there. In my days of frequenting the Princeton Record Exchange, it was the late '90s and early '00s, before I owned a laptop or even a cell phone, when my house still had dial-up AOL. It was also the age of Clear Channel radio domination, rife with pre-bizarro Britney, 'N Sync, and embarrassing excuses for "rock" (who remembers when Fred Durst was cool?)
I didn't live in a city, so I wasn't surrounded by concert venues; I found new music by listening to a few good radio stations (Princeton's indomitable WPRB, as well as a now-defunct indie-rock station from the Jersey Shore that I could get only by taping makeshift antenna wires to my bedroom wall) or poking around the Record Exchange.
Before Last.fm, Hype Machine, and Muxtape, this was how I defined "music discovery." It was a lot more of a gamble. There were more than a few occasions when I picked something up at the Record Exchange just because the album art was cool. Bad idea. Now that I have the ability to preview something on Stereogum, read an appropriately convoluted review on Pitchfork, and stream it on Imeem before opting to plunk down $.99 for it on Amazon MP3, I'm saving money in addition to space.
Last year, a popular independent bookstore in Princeton (another frequent drain on my ice cream store paychecks, back in the day) succumbed to the Amazon juggernaut and shut its doors. Now, I still go to bookstores, namely the droolworthy Strand near Union Square in Manhattan. Most of the time, though, I don't know what I'm looking for--I'm there for the search, not the retail. If I have a specific target, say, if my editor wants me to pick up The Complete Idiot's Guide to Punctuation, I load up Amazon and order away.
"Book discovery" online is eons behind music discovery, perhaps because you can't toss Hemingway and Hardy into an algorithm quite as easily as Hot Chip. But still, my offline-reading experience is migrating increasingly online; I've recently become a fan of Goodreads, and I subscribe to Flavorpill's Boldtype newsletter. Then there's the fact that my addiction to the contents of my Google Reader means I'm already reading fewer books and magazines (sad, I know). It's made me start to wonder, in light of my Record Exchange realization, if one day I'd also feel like supporting a small bookstore, just to keep it alive.
The notion of paying to keep something obsolete in business effectively makes it a museum. And the Times profile of the Princeton Record Exchange, with its quips about comically pretentious staffers and eccentric clientele who drive for hours just to get there, not to mention the decor ("early-dorm room with dorky posters, wood-plank ceiling, gray linoleum and an emaciated gray carpet"), reeks of a This American Life-worthy cultural vignette.
The digital-media revolution is all about efficiency, convenience, and accessibility, none of which apply to small-time music stores, where you have to flip through racks of CDs to find the one you want, only to learn that it's sold out. But is that all bad? Perhaps one day, we'll put that kind of musty inefficiency on a pedestal as a charming relic of the old days, an alternative to the everything-at-your-fingertips world that Larry and Sergey brought us.
And indeed, if I had the cash on hand, I'd support an independent record store for the same reason that some well-heeled philanthropists funnel money into historic-preservation funds for landmarks they'll never see. We don't necessarily need them for ourselves; for one reason or another, we just need to know that they exist.