A chronicle of planning, waiting, searching, and scoring on Record Store Day 2012

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The line outside Other Music on Record Store Day (Michaelangelo Matos)
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I mapped out my Record Store Day 2012 route on Friday, the night before the actual event. If that doesn’t prove that I’m a beginner at this, nothing does.

Record Store Day seemed quixotic to me, in the sad way, when it first began back in 2007. It didn’t seem likely to save the physical-goods end of the music business—not even to maintain it at its much-depleted current level. And frankly, it still doesn’t.

But now it seems quixotic in the heroic sense. Record Store Day consistently gets people genuinely excited—it’s a pep rally done right. The WFMU Record Fair types who hoard rare pressings and limited editions are ardent about getting good stuff, and they arrive early to snarf up eBay-able goods like truffle-hunting pros. And making it a loose concept, ripe for tweaking by individual shops, gives it a community-mindedness that invites people who simply like music a lot, “collectibles” be damned.

I don’t much collect music as a physical good myself these days, so I’ve never much participated in the event except as a haphazard, after-the-fact bystander. Once, in Seattle, I went to Sonic Boom in Lower Queen Anne on a Sunday evening, the day after Record Store Day. I’ve never seen a legitimate shop—a big one, with consistently high-quality merchandise—so utterly ransacked. The diehards had gotten everything that was even a little bit good; nobody with any sense would have wanted to listen to what was left, in every category, vinyl and C.D., used and new.

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It was hugely impressive—and made me realize how easy it was to be as cynical as I was. There was still some kind of hunger this thing brought out in people, a hunger I could relate to. I wondered what I might find myself.

(That said, they really ought to schedule Record Store Day before Tax Day—especially in New York City. Just a thought.)

10:55 a.m.: Bleecker Street Records  The best-laid plans often go awry, and my plans weren’t all that well-laid to start with. The idea was to wake up at 8 and head up through Brooklyn—I live in Kensington/Borough Park, by an F/G station—to the East Village, then over to Williamsburg, then home again. My planned first destination was Halcyon, near the York stop.

Instead, I discovered the night before that the G train was running partly on shuttle buses, killing Williamsburg as an option. So I set the alarm for 9 and woke up a half hour later. I got out the door quickly—but weekend rerouting meant that between Jay St. and West 4th St. we were on the A line. I hadn’t intended on hitting the West Village at all, but once I arrived I headed around the corner to Bleecker Street Records.

As is increasingly the case with record stores, I know Bleecker Street Records’ stock so well that my trips there never last more than five minutes—no juicy-looking new Ace Records anthologies or necessary-looking box sets, oh well. Such associations can be hard to lose, but they were out the door pretty quickly when I saw a line of 30-plus-year-olds patiently waiting their turn at the counter, to which three printouts of Record Store Day exclusives were taped. Several items were already crossed off—to get close enough to see what’s on them without getting in line seemed jerky, so I observed from a medium distance as the last vinyl copy of Luna’s Romantica—their next-to-last album, from 2002—went to a man in a comics T-shirt.

The Luna L.P. is typical of the kind of R.S.D.-exclusive item that goes fast, if not too fast. Luna were a New York band, giving them special resonance here—I’ll go ahead and guess that far fewer of the 1,000 vinyl copies of Romantica or 2004’s Rendezvous were sold to L.A. stores than New York ones. Still, even locally, Luna’s draw is puny compared to the Flaming Lips’. That band put together a collaborative album, Heady Fwends, featuring guest spots by Bon Iver, Erykah Badu, Nick Cave, Chris Martin, Jim James (of My Morning Jacket), and—on one song—Ke$ha and Biz Markie. (Talk about trollgaze.) Though Heady Fwends is ten times more widely available than either Luna L.P.—10,000 copies were made—it would prove ten times harder to find.

11:13 a.m.: Other Music
There were 121 people standing on line, wrapped around the corner of Lafayette St. and 4th St., partly blocking the entrance to the coffeehouse on the corner. A store employee named Michael enforced a one-in-one-out policy. He’d been manning the door since 9, when 30 people were already standing and ready.

"People are really hanging out,” he said. It’s not surprising. Other Music has long specialized in the sorts of indie-centric limited-edition items that constitute much of the Record Store Day feast, and rather than holding everything behind the counter, the booty was put in the middle of the stock, with additional floor space created by moving the “Americana” shelves onto the sidewalk. As I passed the line’s tail end, a tall, college-age kid told someone who had just joined it that he’d been waiting about 20 minutes.

11:53 a.m.: Kim’s Video & Music
Not much happening—a dozen or so people milling about, normal for a Saturday; the only real signs of R.S.D. were extra vinyl on display and a D.J. gamely spinning old reggae 7-inches in the middle of the shop. The bulk of R.S.D. merch went early—a bearded counterman told me there was a line when the store opened at 8. Both Luna and the Flaming Lips were sold out. After he rang up my copy of the new issue of The Wire, I said, “Have a good day.”

I will,” he muttered. Record stores may be in danger, but record-clerk behavior is apparently timeless.

12:11 p.m.: Rockit Scientist Records
I hadn’t expected to come here—I wanted tea nearby and decided to walk along St. Mark’s Place. About ten people hovered expectantly around the gate—it wasn’t open yet, despite having an 11 a.m. Saturday start time printed on the door—and I joined them.

Rockit Scientist used to be the smaller second location down the street from Norman’s Sound & Vision, on Bowery between 7th St. and St. Mark’s. I worked at Norman’s for a short time in 2001-02; I popped into that store on my way to Other, and was unsurprised to find it not participating in R.S.D.: the shop’s owner goes his own way on pretty much everything. (There was no one even manning the front counter.) Rockit stopped being a Norman’s concern not long after I stopped working there; it focuses heavily on oldies, reissues, and collectibles. Surely some of the pre-punk-oriented R.S.D. items—special 7-inches by Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie, the Blues Magoos, and the Byrds, for example—might be up the Rockit clientele’s alley.

I spoke with a tall, dark-haired kid clutching two bags—one from Bleecker Street Records, the other from its neighbor shop, Rebel Rebel—named John, who showed me his copy of Icelandic ambient band Sigur Rós’ Hvarf / Heim, a 2007 album receiving its first vinyl issue (2,000 copies) for R.S.D., and a split 7-inch by Feist and Mastodon, covering each other’s songs—she does their “Black Tongue,” they do her “A Commotion.”

“I didn’t have a map, but I had a very specific list of things I wanted,” John said. “I’ve gotten everything I wanted, but there’s a Ryan Adams 7-inch it’d be nice to have. The lines were pretty long at most places. By the time you got to the front, most things were sold out. It’s pretty fun. Rebel Rebel is about the size of a walk-in closet, so you open the door and everyone wedged themselves in. There were about two boxes of Record Store Day stuff.”

A few feet away, I saw a colleague and waved. He and a coworker had a deal to buy one for the other if they saw it first. He wanted the Flaming Lips; she wanted Here’s Little Richard!, a 1958 album issued specially for R.S.D. on red vinyl.

The line expanded. The guy manning a pipe/bong-heavy bodega next to Rockit asked us to move; we tried to accommodate him while keeping our places. It wasn't tense, though, partly because it’s a —gorgeous—Saturday afternoon, partly because the gathering was too full of dorks to offer much threat.

Finally, at 12:20, a Rockit employee hustled across the street and opened the gate, shut it behind him, and delivered word to the head of the line, which got back to us: "He's waiting for his boss." Five minutes later, the boss arrived: “We have regular merch only,” he said. The gathering took less than a minute to fully dissipate, and my friend headed elsewhere, still looking for that Flaming Lips release.

2:03 p.m.: Other Music  The line had lessened, but not by all that much—49 people were still waiting to get in. About two-thirds of the way back in the line was an older guy with a black leather jacket, shades, a shag hairdo, a broad Noo Yawk accent, and an excitable demeanor. He was on his cellphone, checking in with a friend

“Yeah,” he said. "They're not giving anything away anymore." 

He didn't seem particularly put out about it—not judging by his bulging new bags of vinyl. He also seemed keyed up in a way that the college-age kids surrounding him on line did not. It’s not the only time I’ve noticed just how much more voluble and sociable older Record Store Day shoppers are compared to younger ones, either—I imagine it’s the difference between learning most of what you know about music alone, on a screen, versus doing so in the company of others.

I talked briefly with another longtime Other employee I know decently well, Scott, who had just arrived to relieve the door. He waved me in to have a look. One big reason Other is so popular today is the D.J. lineup they have set up for the day, and I arrived just in time to hear Kieran Hebden, a.k.a. Four Tet, spin techno that resembled Drano unclogging a particularly nasty sink. Even with the extra space, Other was crammed—about 50 people swarmed about, not all of them looking at or for the R.S.D. specials in particular.

Record Store Day is obviously about the fellowship of being in a room with other fans, however awkward you all may be. But I was starting to realize more that it’s really about the thrill of the hunt—and that’s something the older fans seem to be more attuned to, overall. Younger kids are used to the metaphor of the stream—not just in the Spotify sense, but in the Twitter/Tumblr one, where you dip in and out at your own pace, and sift through what’s there, figuring there will always be more later.

Record Store Day turns that logic upside down. It’s a treasure hunt, or maybe a scavenger hunt, that has less in common with Napster or iTunes or YouTube or Rdio or Turntable.FM than with "the Sims." You show up early and wait and hope the shop doesn’t run out of the thing you want, or you hustle around town looking for it, and you do it in real time. Making all that more difficult is the amount of prospecting that goes on—like ticket scalpers, R.S.D. “flippers” who invest in the good stuff so they can resell it at a profit on eBay proliferate.

By midday, though, those folks were back at home furiously typing the word “***SEALED***” into auctions. Everyone else seemed to be enjoying themselves. I ran into an old roommate I hadn’t seen in a few years. We’ve both lost some weight. He recommended a tax accountant. Now he tells me.

2:49 p.m.: Cake Shop
You wouldn’t maybe expect Cake Shop to be a Record Store Day participant, but the coffee-and-pastry-house/rock venue has sold C.D.s and vinyl for years. There was almost no one there when I arrived—there was a small hubbub around 8:30, when it opened, but, I was told, it had been mellow since, mostly with just the occasional walk-in, such as a small family who arrived shortly after I did. The man of the family was clearly on the hunt, the woman going along gamely as she pushed their baby in a stroller. He picked out the St. Vincent 7-inch on the wall behind the counter where I was sipping iced tea.

Behind me were two boxes with R.S.D. stuff—including, I noticed, Sigur Rós’ Hvarf / Heim, right in front. Hmmm. Maybe I wasn't above a little Record Store Day prospecting myself. But even in a relaxed environment, you have to be fast. Fifteen minutes after my arrival, a woman named Michelle, who lives in the neighborhood, came in and snagged it. She’d just returned from the gym.

Michelle comes to Cake Shop regularly: “I wrote my thesis here,” she said. (She earned an M.F.A. in creative writing from Columbia four years ago.) “It’s Record Store Day. I had to buy a record.”

3:38 p.m.: Halcyon
The F train was making all downtown stops, if not all uptown ones, so on my way back home I made my intended first stop my last. Both Luna L.P.s were on wall. A lot of R.S.D. things were there, in fact—as I’d expected, this wasn’t everyone else’s first-stop idea (or second, or third). I decided to see if I could help my friend out, stepping to the counter.

"Are you out of the Flaming Lips album?" I asked.

“We had two copies left,” the manager said. “We sold them five minutes ago.”

I tried not to be disappointed. I shouldn’t have been—I didn’t even want the damn thing for myself. But I was. The thrill of the hunt is infectious.