A Room of One's Own

Austin's Newest Record Stores Carve out Their Niche

by Jason Cohen

Whenever I go back

to my hometown of Philadelphia, there are but two things I have to do: First, I visit the family, and then I go home -- home being that nurturing, adventurous place where I spent the better part of my adolescence. Home being the Record Cellar, on not-so-bustling Bustleton Avenue, where, according to the store's T-shirt, "Records Are Like Life." A dingy room, staffed mainly by three guys named Neal, Craig, and Pat, who crammed it with wooden racks full of new and used albums, and a rack downstairs for 7-inchers. All through high school I bought and liked practically everything they recommended. It was a good store, but that's not particularly important -- it was my store. Everyone who's more than just a casual fan of music has a similar place or experience. For a long time the best indie store in New York was in New Jersey, and scores of Manhattanites took the PATH train to Hoboken just for the privilege of shopping at Pier Platters (if there was a show at Maxwell's that night, all the better). My Anglophile friend Mickey has walked into Greenwich Village's Rebel Rebel almost every Friday for years, certain in the knowledge that: a) his NME and Melody Maker will be there; and b) if one of his favorite bands has a British single it would already be set aside for him. And to take just one example from this city, back in the punk days Inner Sanctum was (along with Raul's) as much a subcultural community center as a retail establishment, drawing in people who went on to do crazy things like start rock & roll bands, or free weekly newspapers.

These days, the term "record store" doesn't even appear in the Yellow Pages anymore, which seems like a semantic loss regardless of whether or not you prefer CDs. Nevertheless Austin's cup does runneth over. In Waterloo, we have a homey and independently run store of uncommon breadth and size. Similarly diverse, with their own particular strengths and customer biases, are Sound Exchange and Musicmania. The welcoming used-only emporium Duval Discs keeps a stock that is both wide-ranging and up-to-date, and so does Technophilia, where you can also find a handful of new and imported products. There's ABCDs in the Lincoln Village, and way up north there's Soundways (in the Lake Creek Shopping Center), and Revolution, just off of Parmer Lane. And there's also Tower, which took a lot of flack when it opened (for both its corporate parent and its destruction of the Varsity), but it's always been the best a chain can be.

What a chain can never be, of course, is Neal, Pat, and Craig -- the guys behind the counter who own or run the place, and have specific pockets of knowledge that mean nothing to most customers but everything to certain ones. The bigger a store is the less identity it has, and while eclecticism is nice, so is minute expertise. Fueled by a combination of obsession, elitism, and the need for like-minded souls, people want more of what they like, or what they like faster, or to know that what they like will always be in stock. A great record store should feel a little bit like the owner's record collection and a little bit like our record collection. We want to see stuff we already have because that tells us we belong, and we want to see stuff that we always wanted but could never find, and we want to see stuff we've never heard before, because if we trust the store, we know we'll like it. Whether it's a blues or soul fan at Antone's, an indie rocker at Sound Exchange, or a Tejano lover at Maldonado's, a relationship develops.

So it makes sense that in a market that could be glutted, there are four new kids in town geared towards very specific genres and customers. Over the last year (more or less) Austin has seen the addition of Alien on 15th Street; Inner Mind on Lamar; 33 Degrees on San Jacinto; and Stashus Mule on 37th St.

The broadest of the newcomers (and the newest, having opened in September) is Stashus Mule, but even if you'll find Pearl Jam or Beatles CDs there, the store has a strong post-punk identity, epitomized by what owner Lou Cioci refers to as his "shrines." One wall is like a college radio history lesson, from CBGBs to Chicago hardcore to Seattle. Others display prodigious amounts of Replacements and R.E.M. records.

"There might not be too many people that need the REM Spanish "Stand" promo 7-inch, but if they do, I've got it," says Cioci, who worked in record stores in Boston and Manhattan before coming to Austin. On the one hand, he's kidding around, but on the other, he does have it in stock. Plenty of other goodies dot his bins, which put an equal emphasis on vinyl, including new releases. More desirable rarities (like PJ Harvey's limited edition Dry Demos CD) and a good number of those live "import" discs round out the stock, along with some jazz, blues, and seminal pre-punk rock.

You wouldn't necessarily know it from MTV, radio, or, okay, yeah, the print media too, but the club/dance music scene is more vibrant than ever. Austin has enough people embracing it, for the moment at least, to support two record stores, Alien and Inner Mind. Both shops are tied to local clubs, with Alien owned by head Proteus deejay Herb Agapetus and Inner Mind started up by the co-owners of Ohms, Michael Lawder and Reza Gohary. And both stores essentially spun off from larger entities -- Agapetus began Alien because he felt hemmed in as the dance buyer at Waterloo, while Inner Mind started out with the involvement of Sound Exchange's former dance guy. Both stores employ, and sell a good deal of their inventory to, working deejays.

Largely because of deejay culture, vinyl remains the dominant format, with both stores' on-display stock numbering in the thousands. These are the places to get imports fast, and dancefloor hits six months before they're on the radio. They carry dance-identified, remix-sympathetic mainstream artists like the Pet Shop Boys and Madonna, but Inner Mind's Grant Stevens says they barely sell any of it, at least not compared to the CD by Hardkiss, a Florida-based production team who drew a hundred-plus people to an in-store in October. Inner Mind has a mixing board set up on the counter for such occasions, which means the staff can spin at leisure, too. There's a case full of tapes by local deejays, and a Fruitopia fridge that the employees empty quicker than they can stock.

At Alien, co-buyer Chris Hernandez says new records come in every Thursday and Friday, and on each of those days the customers show up around 3:30pm to cram around the preview turntables, checking out new singles and white labels, and remix b-sides. What's fascinating about both of these stores is that within the label of club music there are more than a dozen rhythmically or sonically distinct sub-genres: trance, acid jazz, house, techno, ambient, trip-hop, dub, and so on. This fragmentation enables the stores to complement each other (for example, Alien carries more tribal, Inner Mind more Chicago house), and it's also what makes them special. Where the average store might have separate jazz, rock, indie, dance, or import buyers, these stores have people who specialize in only trip-hop or hip-hop or ambient. The depth of the inventory and the involvement of the staff is that much greater. It would be like having an alternative rock store with different people handling lo-fi, grunge, punk, garage, and indie-pop.

Which, in a way, is what's going on at 33 Degrees, a tiny little storefront tucked away near UT's campus, a few doors down from the Crown & Anchor. It's the combined effort of Dan Plunkett, who also publishes the magazine ND, and Bob Coleman, who runs the indie label Over and Out and does a garage show on KOOP Saturday nights. They'd been importing and distributing records on their own for several years, and also working the record convention; now they've put a roof over that process, creating a modest but thoroughly unique collection of new and obscure indie 7-inchers, avant-garde jazz imports, and experimental fare ranging from Krautrock and psychedelia to the current wave of Amerindie "post-rock."

"The idea is to offer what other people aren't carrying, and also feature it in a way that you can't see in the other stores," says Coleman. "I see some of the titles that we have [elsewhere], but they're all spread out." 33 Degrees is definitely not a store for everybody -- "some people come in and it's like they've walked into an Albanian-only bookstore," says Plunkett -- but for the right customer, it's a place like no other. As with Stashus Mule's Spanish R.E.M. 7-inch, there may not be a huge number of Austinites in the market for a tarot deck produced by a member of the German band Cosmic Jokers, but the day that person walks into 33 Degrees there won't be a happier customer in all of Texas. n

Jason Cohen is a former Chronicle "Recommended" Editor and is now a regular contributor to Rolling Stone and Texas Monthly

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