Tuesday, January 13, 2009

A Record Store that Can See, Hear, Smell, Touch, Taste

The really good stuff is downstairs.

Northampton, Mass. is more than just the home of Rachel Maddow.

For more than 100 years, it was the home of McCallum's Department store, an upscale multi-level building with gorgeous wood, a huge central staircase, stained glass windows, and a community theater space on the third floor. The McCallums were a local family whose store survived the Great Depression but closed their doors for good in 1973 (oddly enough, the year Rachel Maddow was born). The building was sold, refurbished, and re-opened as "Thorne's Marketplace," a hippy-dippy mall filled with galleries, performance art spaces, and stores that sold incense, unicorn stickers, hand-crafted soaps, and funky clothing.

And then, in late 1977, a small record store took over a space on the second floor. Since Thorne's was on Main Street, it seemed a no-brainer to call the store Main Street Records. They carried the great music you thought only you knew about, the records you'd play over and over again for all your friends. The staff would talk to you about great British bands (to win you over to great music, not to make you feel small for what you didn't know) and make recommendations that were almost always spot-on. (They were even nice to my Mom when she went searching for a Christmas present for me.) Within months, Main Street Records became known as the place to go for punk and new wave records (as well as anything obscure and English). Before too long, they outgrew their space at Thorne's and moved across Main Street (and 100 yards up the block) to a storefront next to a vegan restaurant where you bussed your own tables.

The new location of Main Street Records had a small upstairs area (for new records) and a basement mecca of used albums and import 45s. A sign above the stairs promised that the really good stuff was downstairs (and the sign was almost always right). I easily spent hundreds of hours in that store, rifling through bins, juggling my desires against my budget. Every one of my purchases had a story -- different moods, sounds, tones, sleet, rain, and sun mixed together and wrapped up in the records. Best of all, the owners liked Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson, but they loved XTC and always featured their music prominently (edging aside bands that were much more popular). (Link for Gmail subscribers.)

For three or four years in the early 1980s, XTC was easily the best band in the world, turning out a series of classic albums, brilliant singles, and bizarrely compelling B-sides spanning a broad range of styles. But XTC was always feuding with their record company (Virgin) and they bounced between a series of labels in the U.S. When the band released English Settlement in early 1982, Virgin proudly put out the 15-song album as a two-record set, but Epic (then the band's U.S. label) decided to eliminate 5 songs as a cost-cutting measure so they could release the album as a single record.

This led to a crisis at Main Street Records. A clerk explained to me at the time that they held a staff meeting to decide what to do. Some felt it was morally wrong to even stock an incomplete album that bastardized the band's vision. Others pointed out that cash-strapped customers might prefer the American version to a more expensive double-record import, which would reward Epic's "reprehensible behavior." After a long (almost rabbinical) debate, they reached a Solomonic decision.

The store would stock both versions of the record, but do everything they could to encourage customers to buy the imported English version. To help customers get the hint, they displayed both versions of the album in the front with a sign saying the American version had eliminated 5 of the songs.

And they jacked up the price for the American version by 2 or 3 bucks and took a small loss on the English version... so (as it said on the big chalk board near the entrance), for an additional 19 cents, you got the album the band wanted you to hear.

This was why I loved Main Street Records. And I wasn't the only one -- the June 1985 issue of Spin called Main Street Records the best record store in all New England. It never occurred to me that it wouldn't last. But all of a sudden, it was too late. (Link for Gmail subscribers.)

In March, 1982, Andy Partridge from XTC collapsed on stage and suffered from such debillatating stage fright that the band never toured again (and never quite became the superstars they seemed destined to be). Musical tastes changed and Main Street Records closed its doors in the recession of the early 90s (although they contributed picture sleeves and musical knick-knacks to Rhino Records' great DIY compilations).

After a few years on the west coast, I came back East, went to Northampton, and found Main Street Records gone. A huge part of my past had been ripped out (and replaced with a Benetton). I went home, took out my copy of English Settlement (ensconced in a plastic sleeve with a Main Street Records price tag on the corner) and listened to all four sides, thinking about my favorite record store in the world.

But nothing really dies in the Internet age... and a zombified version of Main Street Records still haunts the web, feeding on the Bad Brains and selling more than 60 items by XTC, but not the import double-album vinyl version of English Settlement -- maybe they got tired of taking the loss.


XTCfan said...

Hey, I've been to that store! Bought Love on a Farmboy's Wages and The Meeting Place EP there...

Mark said...

You should have bought the rights to the ame when the store closed and opened your own web site.

Stuart Shea said...

What a great post. And I agree--in the early 80s, XTC were the best band in the world.