Five O'Clock Land
Closing Encore Records is no walk in the park for Chuck Lokey
A third of the way into Charles "Chuck" Eldon Lokey's 300-page screenplay Carlisle Park, main characters and high school chums John and Chuck decide to blow some time (of which they have a lot) and money (of which they have little) at a new record store in their hometown of Lubbock.
"I like this place already," says John. "Yea. I know what you mean," says Chuck.
Chuck the character stands in for Chuck Lokey the man, owner of Encore Records, Video & Apparel for 27 years. The affection his character felt for "Discount Records" in Lubbock is mirrored in his opening a rejoinder here in Austin. Driving to his shop on West Anderson Lane is a lesson in the nuances of beige and grayscale, with row after row of business devoted to the frankly unhip needs of wholesale furniture, used car sales, and floral arrangements. For five years, Encore Records proudly supplied music and film to this part of town, even as the rest of the city spilled east and not north.
"This is five o'clock land over here," says Lokey when we meet on December 29, two weeks after he announced that he would be closing his business. The notice that his landlord was unhappy came the day after Lokey's 59th birthday. "All of these businesses, except for the Citgo, shut down early."
Lokey is a stalwart man with gray hair that he parts in the middle, and when conversing with him, your eyes zero in on his prominent nose. He speaks surely, with a sonorous drawl that betrays his Lubbock upbringing. His move into retail sales in Austin began after a direct-mail business and the opening of a store devoted just to video near Dallas in 1984.
"We lost our lease to a company that was opening up its third store – Blockbuster Video – and they paid my landlord double the rent to get me out. So we moved here, and at that time, we brought music into the mix."
Encore opened in the Arboretum four years later, moved to Burnet and 183 for 13 years, and then landed on West Anderson.
"We've had issues breaking into the local market," says Lokey. "There's always an issue trying to wrest the market away from somebody who is severely entrenched. In Austin, you have a really good record store at Sixth and Lamar."
Quiet nights on West Anderson Lane marked the first bad tidings, but a dedicated contingency of shoppers and the store's broad-based appeal kept the coffers healthy, if not bulging. Of online competitors, Lokey offers this: "You have to compete against someone who pays nothing for his floor space." For his 4,800 square feet, Lokey said he paid about $6,000 a month.
Walking through Encore's impressive holdings of vinyl alongside aisle after aisle of CDs, DVDs, and VHS tapes, reveals, like any other retailer that deals heavily in niche items, an obvious commentary on local arts culture. Every day, Austin loses some of its brick-and-mortar oddity, but until its final sale ends and the store closes – the end of February at the latest, posits Lokey – Encore remains dedicated to pleasing the hard-to-please.
Browsing, you'll find that the genre within a genre, British Telefantasy, warrants its own shelf space, though what's left after almost a month of clearance sale is mostly VHS copies of Doctor Who and the equally English, equally cultish Blake's 7. That leads to a shelf of Brit wit, which leads to the music videos and the Clash collection This Is Video Clash. A mature section holds a number of dated and nearly charming skin flicks like the Emmanuelle in Space series and soft-core collection Big, Bad, Bulging Bazooms, starring Kimberly Kupps.
In used vinyl, Ransom Wilson looks up from his Bach/Telemann suites LP, a flute to his lips, his eyes unsure. The techno section's been greatly picked over, with cards announcing where once you could find Thievery Corporation. Other soon-to-be casualties of the shuttering include the local section, featuring the Derailers, Greatness in Tragedy, and a compendium of employee Jason McMaster's band Dangerous Toys. Even with the sale in full swing, Encore's audio mainstay, its metal aisle, remains robust. A quick scan uncovers contemporary (Sarke), vintage (Immortal), Japanese (Gallhammer), and unpronounceable (Mephiztophel) black metal. Shirts and hoodies clog the rear of the store.
Lokey himself enjoys a broad swath of music.
"I've always allowed my buyers a lot of latitude on what they ordered," he shrugs. "I like rock & roll, and I do like some of the metal. Some of it I don't.
"I'm not a growler. I'm not into that."
Gary Rosas, Encore's metal buyer and vocalist for local doom outfit Mala Suerte, didn't have a record store equivalent growing up in Waco and isn't surprised his current employer became a magnet for the metal contingent.
"People come in from different cities, you know, Houston and the Valley and stuff," says Rosas, who pronounces the band name "Sepultura" with an addictive Spanish flourish. "They freak out: 'Wow, you guys have this?' People come in looking for something different than from chain stores, and you want to welcome them with open arms. It's a sad thing that it's going away."
Co-worker Travis Woodliff is also a depository of knowledge and specializes in metal minutia. He's not sure what to recommend to a hypothetical customer who likes Iron Maiden but has the "nautical doom" genre down pat. "We have probably four bands in that style that I can think of – Ahab would be the first one." Tom Pullen, a main buyer at the store, may be the most unmoored by the loss of Encore. He last worked for Camelot Music, an experience that seems to have left him shell-shocked, but unlike Rosas and Woodliff, who can take their experience online, Pullen's expertise will not soon see its mirror in cyberspace.
"I don't have Internet at my house and I don't have any plans to get it," he says unapologetically. "That kind of cuts me off a little bit."
More than a little, especially after a year when digital music sales topped physical sales for the first time ever. Encore's champions are slow to reveal themselves at the outset of the store's closing sale, but they're a type all their own – listeners with specific, off-the-beaten-path interests who value the input of professionals and know Lokey by name. They are a group, like Pullen, who are open to new sounds but don't feel the best place to foster that curiosity is in the anonymous world of online shopping and message board fanaticism.
One of these customers is Chuck Loesch, host of No Control radio, engineer for Emmis Austin Radio, and a shopper at Encore for about a decade. Loesch, who straddles old and new media with his metal program being featured both on terrestrial 101X and a 24-7 HD channel, knows what Austin's losing.
"They have a sensibility about them when it comes to music in general, but particularity about heavy metal, and that is priceless," he says sadly. "You can't get that anywhere. Having people turn you on to things is what record stores are all about."
Lokey is resolved.
"We've thought about relocating to a more desirable location," he admits, "and that's an option. But in some ways, I'm really tired. I want to move on. I want to write."
Pressed on his future plans, he replies with a low chuckle, "I'm going to the park." He means a literal visit to Village Creek State Park in northeastern Arkansas, where he hopes to find the pauper's grave of relative William Strong, the "king bee of a little political fiefdom he created in northeastern Arkansas." He also means a novelistic rewrite of Carlisle Park, a story that's meant everything to him but which has been read in screenplay form by very few.
Carlisle Park is based on a series of coincidences, premonitions, and disasters pulled from Lokey's teenage years. A speed-addled vision deterred him from making what became a fatal trip with friends to El Paso, and to this day, he values the power of coincidence and chance. He believes he has a sixth sense about him, but the gift reveals itself stubbornly.
"Some folks don't believe in that sort of thing, and I always like to tell 'em, 'It's okay if you don't believe in the spirit world – it believes in you.'"
Chance, or some semblance thereof, turned ugly in 1988. That year Lokey was convicted of, in his own words, "conspiracy to distribute and possess large quantities of marijuana – 2,000 pounds," and spent six years in a federal penitentiary followed by five years of supervised release. The timing of the arrest coincided with the passage of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which in turn formed the Office of National Drug Control Policy and its "drug czar." It was a perfect time to be made an example of.
"They considered us high priority," explains Lokey. "Basically, we were just a bunch of old hippies selling marijuana, but they acted like we were the biggest cartel since Cali."
Like the late Clifford Antone, who also served time for possession of a large amount of marijuana, Lokey was pulled out of his vocation and Austin business at a crucial time. Also like Antone, it was Lokey's sister – along with hired management – that kept the business afloat while he was in prison. With the store closing, Lokey has wondered aloud if closing the store after he was arrested would have been the wiser decision.
"The way things have worked out, potentially we would have been better off if we had exited then instead of continuing," he offers.
While his words are disheartening, Lokey doesn't look like a man dogged by regret. He's a perpetual optimist – a man disposed to always seeing the bright side. At our final meeting he relies on a cane, but instead of complaining about the pain in his leg, he marvels that now he knows when a cold front is coming in. He seems at peace even in the face of an unclear future.
"I've been sober 11 years, and it's been two years since I ate high-fructose corn syrup and sugar. I feel the best I've ever felt. It's helped me fight off depression through this conflict. I've not been down but maybe a day through all this. I look at this both sadly and gladly."