You know those videos they show on the news around Black Friday every year? The onrush, the initial penetration of the masses through various double-doors all over the country, but never anywhere you can imagine having ever been?
Like, I’ve seen footage from my hometown, but I’m pretty sure those clips are all filmed in some Walmart soundstage in Studio City. Who knows?
Maybe you’ve been a part of them. If so, where does the excitement come from? Is it the mob mentality, the opportunity to participate in something bigger than yourself? Is it actually the savings, savings, savings being passed on to you?
I’m inclined to eliminate the latter. How good can the deals really be?
I’m also inclined to believe there’s something deeper. Something I have actually experienced before: the thrill of being a part of a select few (or, in this case, many) that have gathered at this spot. This store. This day.
You can picture, in a general sense, what lies behind those doors. But what else will you unshelve? What will you get your hands on that nobody else will? It’s unfathomable; it’s exciting; it’s embarking on a controlled exploration. Like if Lewis & Clark had known they’d encounter something big and furry, but couldn’t have sketched a bison.
At least in part, I think it’s this sense of discovery that drives millions through doors in a matter of seconds every November. It’s the same feeling I have when I swing open the doors to a record store.
Record stores get an interesting rap. It’s not exactly bad and, for some, myself included, they exist in a sort of rarified air. A place where anything playing on the overhead speakers sounds like the best thing ever, even if it turns out to fall flat once you put it on at home.
Some are havens for the heads, positioned down a narrow flight of stairs, and organized loosely by the whim of the aging gawd/owner in decaying cardboard boxes and splintering, raised crates. Others are well lit, well organized, and cellophane-wrap their used stuff. You don’t fall in love with the latter, but they allow the former to exist and to charge exorbitantly for records you can find in better condition on Amazon for a hundred dollars less (hello Trout Mask Replica).
But given the rise of online shopping, music streaming and illegal downloads, how do these stores persist?
My favorite record store in Seattle was the now-closed Easy Street Records in Lower Queen Anne. There were others, probably better options for a variety of reasons, but I never got that rush of discovery walking into Silver Platters (the cellophane-wrapped variety) or Everyday Music (probably an objectively better store based on sheer volume). There was a sense of calm walking through Easy Street’s doors. I’d be compelled to pause, take a deep breath, and then dive headfirst into the relative unknown (relative in that I’d probably been there a few days before).
There’s an unspoken sort of community that still tangibly exists in record stores. You recognize the staff and convince yourself that they recognize you. If the aisle is narrow, customers and employees alike silently accommodate each other so one might browse or restock where the other had been. It’s a wonderful symbiosis if you’re in the flow of it. And the thrill of uncovering something you never thought you’d find is a different kind of euphoria than I’ve ever had elsewhere. It leaves you wanting to chase that feeling again, and again, and again.
The end result is great. I mean, I buy records and CDs for the music, but the discovery is far and away the most exciting part. And the idea that I’d find something that had been passed over by maybe hundreds of people before me was what ultimately kept me coming back. There are easier, cheaper ways of getting to the music, but the record store, the book store, and really any other purveyor of niche interest, continue to function because of the excitement of potential discovery. There’s a big red X marking the store’s location, it’s up to you to start digging.
Regardless of the establishment you’re patronizing, as a customer, you’re a part of a disparate corps of discovery. Some people are looking for Nick Cave B-sides, and come across Johnny Dowd, some found the new She & Him they had set out to purchase, but picked up a used Jenny Lewis album along the way, and across town, somebody decided that, along with the couch they’d picked out, a few throw pillows really would tie things together. You walk into Goodwill looking for a coffee table, and you leave with a $5 dollar J Crew button-up. A wandering eye may be a bad thing for maintaing a relationship, but it’s an invaluable tool for shoppers and shop-owners alike. Even without a pronounced implication of community, we all want to uncover something we hadn’t thought of before.
I think that customers all share an ethos beyond just a desire for stuff: the desire for discovery. My sigh of relief and excitement after walking into Easy Street is a microcosm of the collective thirst of millions of people bursting through the thresholds of thousands of stores next week. Or maybe the other way around if I want to get a little solipsistic. It’s rewarding to find what you’re looking for, but we’re compelled to come back for the things we weren’t.