This Friday is Black Friday, the uniquely American occasion in which citizens of all economic stripes and strata are encouraged to spend as much money as they can afford—unless they want to spend more than that; they’re encouraged to do that, too—enticed by merchants and markets that offer their wares at ridiculously early hours and markedly lowered prices.

Scuse me while I stifle a yawn.

I admit, I used to enjoy Black Friday. A lot. Loved going to K-Mart with my old man at the then-stupid-early hour of 6:00 AM (which is laughably late today), or heading to the mall with my friends later in the day, fighting through car and foot traffic to buy … I don’t know … a sweatshirt or something. Mostly my friends and I just people-watched; the fast pace and visible desperation of our fellow mall-goers certainly made for great entertainment.

The last time I took part in the post-Turkey Day fiesta of retail was 13 years ago.  I went to a Circuit City, to purchase two DVD players (for my parents and in-laws) and a bunch of stuff to play on them. I recall parking at the farthest north portion of the parking lot, and making my way to the farthest point south, where the store was located, dodging sniper fire and engaging in hand-to-hand combat with another patron, over a shopping cart. It really was like a Rambo movie, complete with a torture scene and an ending in which everything behind me exploded in flames as I made my escape.

So I abstain, with one exception. Black Friday is also the second Record Store Day of the year (the first comes the third Saturday in April), an occasion in which music lovers and vinyl fetishists can converge on their local independent merchants of cool and purchase stuff, whether it be used records, new music, or special editions that artists and record companies release in small numbers (and often, with large price tags). At some point Friday, I will trek out to my favorite local indie shop—Record Connection, in Ephrata, PA (and possibly also to Mr. Suit Records, in nearby Lancaster)—and spend some time digging through the goodness in their stacks and crates.

One of the items I’m likely to see there is a gorgeous extended soundtrack for the David O. Russell film American Hustle. It contains 20 tracks (six more than on CD) across two slabs of 180g colored vinyl—one red and one blue—which are nestled in a double-gatefold cover. If you’ve seen the movie, you know how vital the music is to the story, from Irving (Christian Bale) and Syndey’s (Amy Adams) first dance to Duke Ellington’s ”Jeep’s Blues,” to the borderline hallucinogenic disco sequence soundtracked by Donna Summer’s ”I Feel Love,” to the way Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) sings along with ”Live and Let Die” with a conviction I doubt Paul McCartney could ever muster. Those tracks are here, of course, alongside hits from Steely Dan (”Dirty Work”), Tom Jones (”Deliliah”), ELO (”Long Black Road”—one of the odder selections), and others, all choice cuts.

It’s a great package, and it sounds great, too—I played the thing at a fairly obnoxious volume this very morning, and it rattled one nearby window, but the music never sounded broken up or distorted. Twas very clean, very clear, and, as with most expertly produced vinyl, very deeply textured. In other words, a terrific listening experience, and a fine reminder of a fine film.

And that’s what’s important to me—the sound, the grooves, the way the thing plays. Truth be told, I typically don’t get into Record Store Day exclusives. I’ve purchased exactly two of them in years past—a Foo Fighters covers album (Medium Rare) and a red vinyl reissue of Here’s Little Richard, both of which I stumbled upon quite accidentally. Nothing against anyone who collects the stuff—it’s all very aurally and visually alluring. Sometimes, I’ll go looking for some special edition thinger or another and not find it, because I got there too late, so I just wind up buying $30 worth of dollar-bin Pablo Cruise and Leo Sayer records.

And that’s fine; the point is to support the merchants. I am vociferous—nay, aggressive, perhaps even belligerent—in my support of any effort (short of physical intimidation, though I could probably be talked into that, too) to keep independent record stores living, breathing, and viable in this, our troubled 21st century. They need our help; they are wounded compatriots on a cultural field of battle, around whom those who value them must circle, metaphorical bayonets at the ready, repelling all adversaries—virtual or otherwise—who would do them harm.

And we do that by buying stuff from them, because it’s good stuff and we need music; but more to the point, we need them. I can’t tell you how often over the years I’ve found a modicum of peace and pleasure in the midst of intense periods in my life, simply by flipping through CD and record bins in these soulful sanctuaries, from coast to coast. I’d like to give shout outs to a few:

  • Schoolkids Records, Raleigh, NC. I bought Phil Collins’ No Jacket Required, Queen’s The Works, and Prince’s Under a Cherry Moon there and, during one brilliant afternoon (while my parents were off shopping somewhere else for God knows how long), I heard Joni Mitchell’s Blue and Steve Winwood’s Arc of a Diver back to back, on CD, and thought I’d just landed on a very cool, mellow new planet.
  • Music Merchant, Hummelstown, PA. I was miserable when my family moved to central PA—midway through my junior year of high school—for reasons I would just as soon forget. One oasis in the midst of my barren emotional landscape was this strip-mall store, which was stocked with music both popular and obscure, and staffed by indescribably cool people. When I received my very first summer job paycheck (for $6.92—about two hours’ work), I cashed it at the bank, went over to Music Merchant, and bought Van Halen II. On the day the band released OU812, late in my senior year of high school, I drove to the store immediately after school to pick it up. Years later, after the store changed hands and was rechristened Record Revolution, I spent eight brilliant months working there part-time—to this day, my favorite of all my employment experiences.
  • Backstreet Records, Indiana, PA. A goodly portion of my early college years was spent in this dinky but well-stocked indie mall shop. It was a long walk to get there and back—didn’t have a car at school then, and didn’t want to bother with the bus—but I gladly got the exercise. I remember getting the Smithereens’ Green Thoughts and Terence Trent D’Arby’s abysmal second record there during one trip; I purchased Todd Rundgren’s Back to the Bars and Dire Straits’ Alchemy during another.
  • Cheap Thrills, New Brunswick, NJ.  The latter half of my college experience—classes, sleep, etc.—was merely time spent between visits to this wonderful place.  I bought Elvis Costello’s Armed Forces there, and many other things, mostly from their voluminous stock of used CDs.  My most memorable experience, though, was my first.  I was 15 and visiting my aunt and uncle over Easter week.  My cousin was supposed to take me to four of his classes at Rutgers, to show me what they and campus life in general were like.  We made it to one class and blew off three (a .250 average—one I strove to maintain when I myself matriculated there), and spent the rest of the time elsewhere, including my inaugural Cheap Thrills experience.
  • Iko’s Music Trade, York, PA. My friend John took me to Iko’s once in 1992, and marveled that I could spend so much time in one store and not get bored. ”You touched every record in there,” he said as we left—he empty-handed, I with Peter Wolf’s Up to No Good. ”I just watched you touch every record in the damn store.” We’ve never again gone record shopping together.
  • Record and Tape Traders—Towson, MD and Rehoboth Beach, DE. In 1996, on a rare day off from work, I decided to point my car in one direction and drive for 90 minutes, then stop, look around, and either find something to do, or turn around and come home. I chose to head south, which led me to Towson, and I remembered a colleague had gone to school there and had told me of RTT, which I found, in a little shopping enclave across the street from an enormous mall. After two hours of rooting, I left with a bunch of CDs, including Everything But the Girl’s Walking Wounded. For a number of years, there was also an RTT in Rehoboth Beach, near where I and my family vacation for a bit each summer. Spent lots of time and money in that place, and was bitterly disappointed when I went back one summer to discover they’d closed up shop.
  • Electric Fetus, Minneapolis, MN. A trip to the snowy hinterlands to stay with the Minnesota contingent of my wife’s family is not complete without a side jaunt to the brilliantly named Fetus. One memorable visit in 2001 yielded a trove of fine tuneage, including the Allman Brothers’ The Fillmore Concerts, a Velvet Underground box set, and a couple Waterboys CDs, to which my father-in-law and I listened the entire drive back home (yeah, that year we drove out. Twenty-two hours each way. Long story. Great road trip, but long story).
  • Village Music, Mill Valley, CA. Perhaps the greatest of all record stores, this was one of the destinations I most looked forward to visiting when my father and I traveled to the Bay Area when I was 20 or so. Few if any patrons who allowed themselves to get lost in the floor-to-ceiling musical immersion that was Village Music will ever forget it, and it hurts my heart a bit to know the shop closed up back in 2007. My copy of Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk came from there. When I paid for it ($1.98; the price tag is still on the album jacket), I asked store owner John Goddard what he thought my chances were of getting a copy of Buckingham Nicks; he told me probably not very good—at the time it was very hard to find. Three years later, on my second visit to his store, he sold me a copy of Buckingham Nicks. The purchase I most treasure, though is my copy of Richard ”Groove” Holmes’ 1965 album Soul Message, which my father bought for me that first trip. To this day, I can’t hear Holmes’ smooth take on ”Misty” without thinking of that weekend, and that store, and Dad.

So many memories, so much music, so many great indie record stores. Visit one on Black Friday, and while you’re there, keep an eye out for American Hustle, talk to some cool people, listen to some cool tunes, and maybe let yourself get carried away a little.

About the Author

Rob Smith

Rob Smith is a writer, teacher, wage earner, and all-around evil genius who spends most of his time holed up in his cluttered compound in central PA. His favorite color is ultramarine blue. His imaginary band The Dukes of Rexmont tours every summer.

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