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Ode to the endangered record store



Our landlord jacked up the rent to five times more than what we were paying. They're turning this building into a bank."

A short, redheaded record store clerk is ringing in my purchase — Yo La Tengo's new album, Fade — and talking down to me, both literally and figuratively, from a raised platform behind the counter at Seattle's Easystreet Records.

He is prickly, dismissive, unsmiling — in short, a record store clerk — and he seems acutely aware he is part of a dying breed. Despite his lack of charm, I feel an instant affection for this stranger. I know if I were to ask him about any LP, EP, CD or 7" in the whole sprawling, cavernous store — plastered with posters large and small advertising new releases and what appears to be white picket fence posts hanging from the ceiling with genre tags painted on them in deliberate fonts — he would immediately soften and talk endlessly about my selection.

These creatures aren't to be feared, but revered in an age of faceless music curators like iTunes Genius or streaming music sites. A few hours later, a dozen of his dwindling tribe are standing on stage in the same store, some weeping, others embracing, as the owner gives an impassioned speech on this, their last night in business, ahead of a show by the band whose record I bought earlier that day.

In his "High Fidelity" moment, the owner quotes The Boss' Atlantic City, "Everything dies baby, that's a fact," he says. "But maybe everything that dies someday comes back."

The rest of the night is a glorious funeral: two employees get engaged on stage, Yo La Tengo plays a wonderful free set for a packed house (then sticks around to sign records and meet fans. Swoon.) and someone standing on a counter hurls tall boys of PBR into the air for whoever can catch them (with their skull or hand). I feel weepy throughout, not necessarily for this store, as great as it seems, but for the record stores I've loved and lost and those that are sure to follow — unlike what the owner's Springsteen quote suggests.

As I've moved from city to city during my adult life, record stores have been a steadfast source of community, with their handwritten concert listings, earnest employee picks and intimate in-store performances. It began with the now-defunct Record Runner in Ottawa, where I learned to shrug off that feeling of intimidation and fully exploit the wealth of music knowledge contained within its walls. There was also Vancouver's Zulu and Red Cat Records, Edmonton's Megatunes (now a donair shop) and Blackbyrd Myoozik and Manhattan's Other Music.

Vinyl sales, which are almost exclusively from independent record stores, were up last year in this country by 47 per cent to 130,000 units. In the U.S. they climbed 17.7 per cent to 4.6 million units from 3.9 million in 2011, according to Neilsen Soundscan, via Digital Music News. It's encouraging news (if not baffling to many) but it's doubtful it will be enough to save brick and mortar record stores.

When they eventually go, we will be stuck with downloading services like iTunes (or your illegal method of choice). Sure, it's fast, easy and, in smaller places like Whistler, the only convenient option, but we lose more than we gain by turning our hard-earned dollars over to Apple's empire. For one, those of us who lack basic modern world skills (here's a test: have you ever uttered the words, "What do you mean back up my hard drive?") there's a high risk those downloads will eventually disappear into the bowels of Computerland.

But, more importantly, downloaded records kill the concept of the album as a collection of songs enclosed in carefully selected art, complete with liner notes to pore over. When you have the world's music catalog at the click of a mouse, a single record seems infinitely less significant. It just becomes part of the clutter.

Though record store fans might not be able to stop the demise of these cultural hubs, we can enjoy — and support — them while they last. I encourage you to try this at least once before they go the way of the dodo bird: pick a forthcoming album about which you're excited and fight the urge to scour the Internet for a leaked copy. Instead, anticipate the Tuesday it will appear on shelves. Drive down to the record store, pick it up, turn it over in your hands, revel in its weight and art and the mystery sounds contained within.

And smile at that curmudgeonly record store clerk because his days are numbered.

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