How can that be, right? We all know CDs killed vinyl in the 80s and downloads killed CDs in the 2000s. Maybe some esoteric shops in New York City would cater to DJs there, but Knoxville? As it turns out, Jay Nations, probably Knoxville’s best known guru of vinyl, tells me that he gets customers coming from Atlanta telling him they find “more and better records here.”
This past Saturday was Record Store Day and Knoxville had five that participated, The Disc Exchange, Raven Records, Lost and Found Records, Wild Honey Records and Basement Records. Ten years ago I would not have bet that Knoxville would have a surviving record store, let alone five thriving stores.
As for downtown, a small bin of vinyl records are available on Gay Street at Morelock Music and a larger selection may be found at Hot Horse Records and Vintage Store. There’s also a good rack of new pressings inside Urban Outfitters. But these aren’t full record stores. My rule, generally, is that I consider what I can walk to from my home in the center city to be downtown. On Saturday I walked to two of the five stores listed above. I’ve never made it to Wild Honey or Basement Records. Lost and Found Records is great, but I can’t walk there. I did walk to the Disc Exchange and to Raven Records.
Disc Exchange focuses more on CDs than vinyl, though in recent years they’ve really upped the vinyl they carry. In years past they operated two stores, with one in west Knoxville and the original anchor store in south Knoxville. That’s the one I walked to on Saturday. It isn’t an easy walk. Crossing Chapman Highway is not good for anyone’s health. The sidewalk only runs on one side. I did find that a walk down St. Paul Street on the western side, crossing a few parking lots and scaling a couple of embankments I was able to walk down that side without getting killed.
As a part of the special release and annual celebration day, Disc Exchange had bands playing, the Sweet and Savory Truck and the Three Bears Truck in the parking lot serving up food and coffee. I talked to my friend Jeff Scheafnocker and bought a cup of his Three Bears Coffee – which is what I grind at home, and walked into the store.
The crowd was good inside the massive store. Some of the featured vinyl albums on display were among my favorites in the past and I still have the old vinyl in my collection and, though the current pressings are likely far superior, I’ll stick to my old hisses and pops. The current pressings appear to run around $20.
The clue to what I believe to be the appeal of record stores comes across in the photographs of each of the stores. Look at the man talking to the assembled group of friends about his selections. Try finding that while you surf itunes. Record stores at their best are a gathering place for like-minded people looking for old favorites or a new find and making friends with fellow travelers in the process. I like itunes as much as the next person. I have nearly 10,000 songs on my ipod. But nothing is like talking to someone who knows and loves music as much as I do.
I put in some miles on Saturday. After visiting Disc Exchange, I walked to Happy Holler to Raven Records operated by my friend Jay Nations. There are various pieces of vintage pop culture assembled inside the store, but the focus is the music. People pored over racks looking for surprises, old friends and that one record that takes your breath away. Old friends gathered. Jay has been in business in one form or another since the early 1980s. I first visited his shop on Cumberland back in that era. He opened the shop on Central in Happy Holler a couple of years ago.
When I walked into the store Jay was talking, reminiscing and having fun with Jack, Sara and John, all of whom go way back. The photographs show the kind of relationships formed over those years. What they don’t show is the tension that built when a great record ended and all eyes turned to Jack who was charged with the next selection. He chose some great R&B and the moment passed. It was good-natured, but illustrates the point: the music matters. That’s what the chain record stores never got. It wasn’t a commodity. To some of us, the music mattered to our core.
So, how does this all relate to downtown. First, we “rock vinyl” as Jay told me. More directly, I think our vinyl culture is just a microcosm of our scruffy little city. We are passionate about what we feel matters and we are a close community. Our neighbors matter and that was on display as well as it could be on Record Day. It was also a good day for sales. Jay told me it was the best single day in the two years since the store opened at its current location. Here’s to many more good years for all the stores keeping the flame alive.