Whatever happened to Record Store Guy?
Nick Hornby ponders what happened to the folks from Championship Vinyl
If anyone should know what happened to the fascinating species that anyone who ever walked into a record store had to deal with, it’s Nick Hornby. After all, along with this infamous story from The Onion (though this one was also smartly on the money), Hornby’s High Fidelity did much to place some flesh and blood on the guys (and it was usually guys) on the other side of the record store counter who always knew more than you about the music you were thinking of buying. They also, naturally, had better taste than you. In music, anyway. And probably film too. And, yep, books as well.
Hornby has written a piece in the current issue of Billboard where he muses about what happened to the characters who populated his mythical store Championship Vinyl. If he was to write a sequel, where would people like Rob and Laura be now, 20 years on? What would they be doing to make a living in 2015?
In real life, the record store guys that Hornby used to know have scattered to the four winds. “The owner of the independent store where I used to hang out is now a real estate agent; his former partner part-owns the lingerie shop that now occupies the same site. And when I asked Facebook friends from all over the world where their record-store guys had disappeared to, it was hard to see a pattern in the information they provided: postman, vintner, pornography writer, psychotherapist, drummer, bookstore assistant, waiter, tropical fish breeder … All one can say for sure is that selling scratched copies of Replacements albums didn’t help anyone lay down a conventional career path.”
But if you think all those record store clerks have completely disappeared and taken up alternative careers, think again. Hornby makes the point that there have been some survivors in his ‘hood and elsewhere too. “A surprising number of the old places simply never closed. They have seen off Borders, Tower and Virgin, and they have the place to themselves. They’re not getting rich, but those clerks are still there, still sneering at your bad choices, offering you an understated but supportive raise of the eyebrow for your good ones.”
Moreover, they’ve survived the real onslaught of digital, the competition that most observers thought would really finish them off. Back when Hornby wrote High Fidelity, there was mutterings about the internet coming down the track, but a world where every single tune or album in the world was availabe to you a click away was still the stuff of vivid imaginations and jetpacks to many minds. But that day arrived and some stores stuck around to keep selling music to their constituencies, surprising many – including some of the owners – in the process.
It’s down to social networks, says Hornby. Like the bookstores which have resisted the rise and rise of Amazon and other online sellers, these stores still exist so we can show off our tastes. “The arts are the most elaborate and most precise social network ever invented, but if it’s going to work properly, you have to get out of the house sometimes and show who you are and what you love. You have to go to shows and galleries and bookstores, you have to ask for what you want out loud. And this expression of taste must involve an impulse that, at its heart, is anti-democratic: Somewhere you have to believe that what you like is better than what all those other losers like.”
It’s a decent theory. You might have every track by every new hip indie and alternative act out of Williamsburg on your laptop, but you don’t want to just stay in your bedroom or at your desk listening to them unless you’re a particularly joyless form of loser. You want to go out there and hang out with people who like the same kind of music. Many would argue that this social network now gathers around live shows in clubs and smaller venues, but there’s also a place for the record stores that have stayed open in all of this. They really did become the community centres we thought they were after all.