[JPL] TNR Leon Weiseltier on the demise of a D.C. record store

Larry Appelbaum jumpmonk at hotmail.com
Thu Mar 29 10:21:48 EDT 2012

Thanks for this, Tom. The store was one block from my house, and as a recovering record collector, I felt as though an old friend passed. Still, I think Leon's eulogy misses the mark. It wasn't price point or big business vs little shop competition that ended the life of this and many other record shops. It was the fact that people under the age of 40 (50?) by and large have given up on physical media, at least for music. You could have gone into the shop any time in the past 5 years and seen that their customer demographic skewed older. And once those older customers bought all their favorite recordings from the past on CD, they grew less and less interested. It certainly didn't help that there were so few monster hits that would drive people to the the last remaining record stores for that got-to-have purchase. Those compulsive (or impulsive) buys were being done online. And even for that older age group that did want to purchase an actual disc, it was much more convenient to purchase from an online supplier rather than take the time and expense to go to a shop and hope they have it in stock. Believe me, I miss that shop, and so many others like it around the world. I enjoyed the experience of finding things i wasn't looking for. But my feelings are now more wistful and nostalgic about that era of music shopping, like looking at it in the rear view mirror. Maybe Leon takes it more seriously? 


Date: Thu, 29 Mar 2012 08:24:45 -0400
From: tr at wfcr.org
To: jazzproglist at jazzweek.com
Subject: [JPL] TNR Leon Weiseltier on the demise of a D.C. record store



      GOING TO MELODY by Leon Wieseltier




      In a country as injured as ours,
          there is something unseemly about all this sagacious talk of
          creative destruction. A concept that was designed to suggest
          the ironic cruelty of innovation has been twisted into an
          extenuation of economic misery—into capitalism’s theodicy.
          Where there are winners, there are losers: praise the Lord and
          pass the Kindle. I have always believed that the losers know
          more about life than the winners, though I wish affluence upon
          us all; but it does not romanticize the poor to demythologize
          the rich, and to propose that sometimes creative destruction
          is not very creative but very destructive. The brutality of
          large businesses toward small businesses, for example, is
          neither brilliant nor heroic. They do it because they can.
          Last week a record store in Dupont Circle announced that it
          was closing. The immediate cause of its demise—it had
          outlasted national and regional chains—was Price Check,
          Amazon’s new idea for exterminating competition. It is an app
          that allows shoppers to scan the bar code on any item in any
          store and transmit it to Amazon for purposes of comparison,
          and if it compares favorably to Amazon’s price, Amazon’s
          special promotion promises a discount on the same item. In
          this way shoppers become spies, and stores, merely by letting
          customers through their doors, become complicit in their own
          undoing. It will not do to shrug that this is capitalism,
          because it is a particular kind of capitalism: the kind that
          entertains fantasies of monopoly. For all its technological
          newness, Amazon’s “vision” is disgustingly familiar. (“Amazon
          is coming to eat me,” a small publisher of fine religious
          books stoically told me a few weeks ago.) Nor will it do to
          explain that Amazon’s app is convenient, unless one is
          prepared to acquiesce in a view of American existence
          according to which its supreme consideration must be
          convenience. How easy must every little thing be? A record
          store in your neighborhood is also convenient, and so is a
          bookstore. There is also a sinister side to the convenience of
          online shopping: hours once spent in the sensory world, in the
          diversified satisfaction of material needs and desires, can
          now be surrendered to work. It appears to be a law of American
          life that there shall be no respite from screens. And so
          Amazon’s practices raise the old question of the cultural
          consequences of market piggishness. For there are businesses
          that are not only businesses, that also have non-monetary
          reasons for being, that are public goods. Their devastation in
          the name of profit may be economically legitimate, but it is
          culturally calamitous. In a word, wrong.

      WHEN MY FRIEND at Melody Records
          told me about the death of his store, I was bereft. This was
          in part because he is my friend—after my father died, I
          received a letter from the Holocaust Museum informing me that
          he had made a donation in my father’s memory—and now he must
          fend for himself and his family and his staff in the American
          wreckage. But my dejection was owed also to the fact that this
          store was one of the primary scenes of my personal
          cultivation. For thirty years it stimulated me, and provided a
          sanctuary from sadness and sterility. “Going to Melody” was a
          reliable way of improving my mind’s weather. The people who
          worked there had knowledge and taste: they apprised me of
          obscure pressings of Frank Martin’s chamber music, and warned
          me about the sound quality of certain reissues of Lucky
          Thompson and Don Byas, and turned me on to old salsa and new
          fado. They even teased me about my insane affection for
          Rihanna. When they added DVDs to the store, my pleasures
          multiplied. (Also my amusements. Not long ago Marcel Ophuls’
          great film arrived in the shop, and the box declared: “Woody
          Allen presents The Sorrow and The Pity.” Beat that.)
          Of course all these discs can be found online. But the motive
          of my visits to the store was not acquisitiveness, it was
          inquisitiveness. I went there to engage in the time-honored
          intellectual and cultural activity known as browsing. 

      IT IS A MATTER OF some importance
          that the nature of browsing be properly understood. Browsing
          is a method of humanistic education. It gathers not
          information but impressions, and refines them by brief (but
          longer than 29 seconds!) immersions in sound or language.
          Browsing is to Amazon what flaneurie is to Google
          Earth. It is an immediate encounter with the actual object of
          curiosity. The browser (no, not that one) is the flaneur
          in a room. Browsing is not idleness; or rather, it is active
          idleness—an exploring capacity, a kind of questing
          non-instrumental behavior. Browsing is the opposite of
          “search.” Search is precise, browsing is imprecise. When you
          search, you find what you were looking for; when you browse,
          you find what you were not looking for. Search corrects your
          knowledge, browsing corrects your ignorance. Search narrows,
          browsing enlarges. It does so by means of accidents, of
          unexpected adjacencies and improbable associations. On Amazon,
          by contrast, there are no accidents. Its adjacencies are
          expected and its associations are probable, because it is
          programmed for precedents. It takes you to where you have
          already been—to what you have already bought or thought of
          buying, and to similar things. It sells similarities. After
          all, serendipity is a poor business model. But serendipity is
          how the spirit is renewed; and a record store, like a
          bookstore, is nothing less than an institution of spiritual

      MY FATHER HAD furniture stores. I
          grew up with the pathos of retail: you throw all your money
          into a location and an inventory, you hang out a sign, you
          trick out a window, you unlock a door, and (if you lack the
          resources to advertise formidably) you wait. If they come in,
          you use your skill; but they have to come in. When my father
          was ill, I would quit the library and mind the store. One day
          I set a house record for sofas sold because the store was
          located in a neighborhood where many U.N. people lived, and I
          knew more than most furniture salesmen about the crises in
          Iran and Cyprus. Eventually the store failed. But the failure
          of some stores is more repercussive than the failure of other
          stores. The commerce of culture is a trade in ideals of
          beauty, goodness, and truth. A hunger for profit exploits a
          hunger for meaning. If the one gets too ravenous, the other
          may find it harder to subsist. The disappearance of our
          bookstores and our record stores constitutes one of the great
          self-inflicted wounds of this wounding time.

      Leon Wieseltier is the
            literary editor of The New Republic. This article
            appeared in the February 2, 2012, issue of the magazine.




Tom Reney

"Jazz à la Mode"
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Amherst, MA 01003-9257
tr at nepr.net
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