John Cellura, owner of Bent Crayon. Photo by Jen Gómez
LWE launches a new series of features focused on people who are often overlooked in dance music journalism: the record shop owners and clerks who’ve provided access to and shaped the tastes of countless record buyers. We begin with Keith Pishnery’s interview with John Cellura of Bent Crayon, in Cleveland.
As an independent and dance music fan, attending Ohio University in out of the way Athens, Ohio was sometimes a trying experience. While the stores in a college town certainly cater to non-mainstream listeners, there’s always that level of specificity a collector is yearning for. Luckily, I had started shopping at a new store during the summers back home in Cleveland. Bent Crayon was started by John Cellura in the fall of 1995 and was the only place I could find releases by my favorite label at the time, Mo’Wax. Every week, I would get the all important mailing list and comb it for an hour, selecting everything I wanted and mailing it back. With my credit card on file, Cellura would dutifully ship out any bizarre request I had. More than snacks and underwear from my mom, this was the care package that meant the most to me those four years. For 15 years, he occupied the corner of W. 116th and Detroit Avenue, right on the border of Cleveland and Lakewood. Walking into the store, a visitor couldn’t help but be astounded by the records bursting from everywhere. When the bins got too full, stacks of leaning records started building on the floor, racks of CDs taking up the rest. A recent move to a brand new space has reinvigorated the store. As most other indie shops have closed or changed, Bent Crayon remains among the best places to acquire the most interesting and, as John would say, important records.
What’s your earliest memory of going to record stores?
John Cellura: Like any kid, I grew up listening to the radio and buying records. In the first or second grade, I went to some after-school activity thing at the YMCA, and they had this game room, and there was this jukebox — so it was just radio hits, you know? The first record I ever got my parents to buy for me was a live Aerosmith double LP, which I still have for all sorts of sentimental reasons. But I started going to record stores probably when I was 12. I’ll never forget the summer going into middle school and accidentally discovering the college stations, and I had a friend, who I’m friends with but not close anymore, who from those years until college, we discovered things at the same time, and we became fanatical. So it was like this perfect storm. And I lived close to Coventry and Lee [in Cleveland Heights] so my access to really good records and people in bands that worked at record stores was very fortunate. I got on this path. I was fiendishly cutting grass in the summer and buying records at 12 years old.
What were the record stores that you were going to?
There was a Record Exchange on Coventry, which is nothing like it is now. It was that, Record Revolution, Wax Stacks, Chris’ Warped Records. There were a lot in Cleveland at the time.
Did you have special relationships with any of the clerks there?
As I got older. I don’t know how to put it because I see it now with younger kids — I’m sure those clerks were just as enthusiastic, or just as excited, to see my enthusiasm as I am now. But yeah, there were people I would go to for sure. That’s an important part of it. At Wax Stacks, which was in Cleveland Heights, this guy Scott Pickering, who I’m still friends with now, was in post-punk bands, punk bands — Prisonshake and Spike in Vain. And he was the go-to guy. There was this guy Terry that worked at the Record Exchange that turned me on to dub records and On-U Sounds, Tackhead. And Michael at Record Revolution, when I was 14 he introduced me to Cocteau Twins and Dif Juz, 4AD and Throbbing Gristle. Those are the three people I remember. As I got older, I would go to other places, but no one after that locally had that kind of influence. I pretty much knew what I was doing at that point.
What made them the ones that you would go to and talk to?
Probably the success rate, you know? My path was college radio, hearing things — a lot of it that was already old; this would’ve been, like, ’83. So I was hearing things like Cure’s Pornography and mostly British stuff. Public Image Ltd. I remember being in the ninth grade taking the [Rapid Transit Authority] to buy a Public Image Ltd. record. My memory is precise. I remember all of this stuff. Public Image Ltd. is something I heard, but then being told by the clerk, “You should check out Swans’ Holy Money.”
When you went to college, did you ever think that you were going to be opening your own record store? Was that something you wanted to do?
Well, part of what fed my appetite — I was fortunate that Cleveland State had such a killer radio station with all these heads that were volunteers there like Mark Edwards from My Dad Is Dead and Robert Griffin who ran Scat Records, and I worked for him a couple summers. He had just signed Guided By Voices, and he did it — he ran his distribution part of his business so I sold records to other record stores and got to know all this. But it was at that point, I realized that that’s great: there are places to buy this stuff. I would drive to see shows, and I’d go to Chicago, I would go to New York for the CMJ, and I was like, “Man, why can’t I find acid records in Cleveland? Why can’t I find these Blueprint house and techno records?” And after my experiment with graduate school, I was like, “Well, I’ll try it.”
That lead to thinking about your own store?
I took this job at Borders for a year and a half in the buying department for music; they had just got into that game. And although it’s a totally separate kind of entity than buying for an indie shop, it was right before they went public; and maybe it was the people who were running the region, but they just kind of let me do whatever I wanted. The people I sold records to were friends, but you could never reach the people who in your mind you want to reach because you’re at this chain. And so I started dwelling on it. There weren’t stores that had this idea of what I wanted to be. I mean I guess that’s a common thing, I wouldn’t have opened one if someone was doing it already.
The only one I remember, at the time, that was selling dance music was Dan Curtin’s store, Deep Records, right?
Yeah, yeah, but even that, for me, it’s like I had this aversion to hard house and vocal house. I was always drawn to labels like Tresor, these things I couldn’t get, where I’d get out of town, and it’s like, again, “Why do I have to go somewhere else to get this?” Plus it was the dawn of the Internet. The IDM mailing list, the Detroit 313 mailing list. You’re suddenly finding yourself connecting to them, and it just the perfect storm, really.
You recently moved from a long time space into another space. What are your memories of the old space?
Yeah, I was there for 15 years. I mean, it’s a lot. Horrible things happen business-wise, you know, it’s — like I said the perfect storm for me to open a store, but little did I see the writing on the wall two years later when everyone started stealing music. But it was a combination of a lot of excitement, making a lot of connections, getting involved with doing events, meeting people within the industry and record fans who had become more. All my memories that I like to keep are good. There’s, of course, all the bad ones: the building was falling apart, stress, it was a lot of stress. A lot of good and bad.
In terms of the other independent stores that were around at the same time that you were growing, a lot of them have closed or moved. What was your impression of them?
I don’t really know because when I opened, I didn’t really go look for records anywhere else for the city. like going record shopping, and for a while I liked going out of town, but it became that, like anything else — I don’t really pay attention to what other people are doing. I’m aware of bigger entities and places I admire; none of them are here. Those places I mentioned to you earlier are all long gone or have changed. I mean I don’t even know really what’s left here.
Not very much anymore.
In my mind there are — I’m not giving you an exact figure — but in my mind, in America there are probably, let’s say, 10 stores that get it and maybe six that really get it. And the rest, I think, are — you know, and I don’t mean this in an elitist sense — it’s just, as a collector, I wouldn’t even waste my time going in them. It’s a combination of personal taste and then the sheep mentality of having a shop and stocking it with what other people are telling you you should have. No vision, you know?
This new space is in 78th Street Studios, which is home to mostly galleries and artist studios. Why did you want to be in this environment?
As far as Cleveland goes, there’s very few, if any at all, places that I think walk-by traffic, street traffic really means anything. And in the experience that I’ve had, part of it is the location I had, the neighborhood was going downhill, that those who walk in — these are not people I’m ever going to be able to sell records to. The people who came in knew where I was. I’ve always admired the concept of Submerge in Detroit or — I’ve never been to Hard Wax in Berlin, but, you know, I’ve followed it, I’ve bought records there. But I also think that this building, in the state that music business is in, if you’re going to carry really good records in the genres that I’m carrying, you are a curator. You are serving the purpose of putting these things out, having people listen to them, turning them on. And to me, despite the fact that it is an industry — what you are selling, it’s never been a commodity to me.
And that goes back to me being a teenager. It’s an art form, and that’s what I think of it [as] first. And I’m not stacking up the counter with hipster music just so it can sell. That’s not important to me. It’s more important to be around galleries and people who have studio spaces. Putting it at the level that I think it should be at. It’s like anything else: you can go into a Target and you can buy a Girl Talk CD, and you can go into a mall store and just buy some print of some piece of art. That, to me, is the commodity. It’s not going to mean anything to you, in terms of cultivating it, and really treasuring it. Here, I feel like people can come in and treat it as that — as the art objects they are. And it just fits.
John Cellura, owner of Bent Crayon. Photo by Jen Gómez
This was my next question, because I’ve heard you talk about this concept of buying music as art and not as a commodity.
I think the Europeans have always got it. I think part of the culture of growing up here — you don’t see it, unless you really think about it. Now, I can’t say I’ve always felt that way. I’ve heard things over the years like you have a business and you don’t really figure out what you’re doing until you’re 10 years plus in, and to me, that’s absolutely the truth. I’m horrible at it, but I know the product. And I know how to find good fits for it, I guess, and spread it. That’s how I approach it, and that’s how I’ll always approach it. Years ago, something would come out — a Pavement record or something. And I would get caught up with the idea that, “This is going to be big.” But I didn’t care about it. In a sense, I outgrew the scene. To me, at the time, that was moving units, and I’m not interested in that.
Aside from the store, you also have been bringing in performers a lot, especially lately. How do you select them and how has it impacted the store?
If anything, the store has given me the confidence and the connections to take a stab at that. And I’ve been fortunate over the years with places like Speak In Tongues and people like Ralph Hausmann who have been booking things — or Dan Curtin when he lived here, who would book weekly or monthly; just seeing that it’s a doable process. It always seemed so difficult, you know? And obviously, there are certain levels of things, but when you realize like, “Oh, I could — ” I remember the store opened in fall of ’95, and I think by mid-’96 I’d booked Panasonic on their first U.S. tour. I was like, “Man, it’s so easy to do.” [laughs] But I do take an approach that it has to generally be somebody or a group that means a lot to me — and the couple people that I work with — that we want to bring this to Cleveland, and there are people who will come and appreciate it. But then there’s other people we’d like to get to come, and that’s the game, you know: maybe you do or maybe you don’t.
When it comes down to it, you always know you’re going to lose money, and that’s why it doesn’t happen every week or every month. Every month would be great, on some level. Whether it’s some post-punk band or experimental music versus house or techno. But it’s also, I could drive to Chicago and I could spend a few hundred dollars; or I could lose that here. I’m very much a pro-Clevelander. I don’t get involved in all the cheerleading a lot of people do here or in other cities where it’s like, “Look at me; look what I’m doing.” But I like living here, and the people I’ve brought, I take them to the things I like. And people go back to Europe or whatever, and that’s helped. You know, Thomas Brinkmann tells somebody, “Play Cleveland. I had a great time.” People get it.” Or when I had Silent Servant play here, he tells the other guys in Sandwell District, and then those guys tell Morphosis, who just played here, “Oh, you should play Cleveland.” Then, you know, with that comes working with booking agents who get it.
America’s a funny game when you’re bringing people from overseas, and that includes the avant garde because people are treated better, for the most part. Dance culture, as you know, is a totally different animal, and the crowds are smaller, and then sometimes, they really hit. It’s just what it is. It’s like the new frontier. I mean I always think of, in the late 80s, I would read these articles about, Sonic Youth playing Moscow, and it’s like, you wonder about that. I bought some book about the underground in Beijing and Shanghai. It is like this new frontier. It’s been around, but I think America will always be more about hip-hop — and sadly not the kind of hip-hop I enjoy — it’ll always be more of a commercial thing. That might be true elsewhere, but it seems like there’s more of a balance.
The elephant in the room, of course, is the rise of digital distribution, whether paid downloads or file sharing. What are your thoughts on it? What do you think the future of the record store is?
I don’t really think about that because it is such a new frontier that I think they can exist. I think with anything, if you create something you are very much into and you’re able to turn people onto things, then it can exist. I don’t have these arguments about, “You shouldn’t listen to things digitally.” I mean a lot of it is just the integrity that I have kept with this place, and there are people who, growing up, going back to my roots as just being into punk rock and hardcore, you hear certain people talk, whether it’s Ian MacKaye, or it’s the Basic Channel guys, or Underground Resistance, about having the integrity. It’s incredible as you get older, how many people who shed that. For a while it was very hard for me to understand. To me it was just basic principles. I learned these things, this turned me on to all this, and I’ve kept it.
So if someone’s going to go out or go home and look at a new release from a record shop that they get in their email, and download everything, I mean I just feel sad for them. I mean sure, the market has gotten smaller, and then it’s harder, but it’s been hard for a long time. I find a way to do it. So it’s like I guess I’m already broken, and it’s like the phoenix, rising in terms of my spirit, and financially. But I figured it out. It’s been a murky thing, and I think good stores get it. There’s places that — they know how to find people interested, and I found that. It wasn’t until a few years ago, but there are kids who are rebelling against it. You know, they’ve grown up. They’ve never owned a CD, they’ve never owned a record. They would just download music. And then they’re learning about things like integrity and what art is and supporting art. It’s not a lot, but every year there’s more and more kids coming in who become these record buyers.
So maybe it is just kind of like this flux. In terms of people who buy it digitally, that’s their choice. I mean I’m glad they’re buying it. I don’t deal in digital music, and I’m not a listener of it. I prefer records, but I have issues with those — I especially have issues with people who claim to be of more of an independent, liberal mindset who steal their music and somehow justify it. But to me, I don’t think about them. I don’t want those people around. They’re not in my world, and that’s not being elitist; it’s just I can’t respect that, you know? You’re not going to come in here and buy a record so we have nothing to talk about. And I’m not going to be impressed by you telling me that you went on some file-sharing site and got the new Echospace record. I do think that there has been murky waters, and I think that places can exist. The market has shrunk. It could get bigger, it could shrink again. It could be a lot of things. I won’t say it’s healthy because I’ve seen way too many labels shut down. It’s horrible. I mean labels that I’ve collected. So we’ll see, I guess.
Lastly, what do you think the role of the record store is in this current musical climate?
I think a record shop and a place that has events, whether it’s a DIY space — I think it all ties together, and I think it’s all very important. I’ve always had this sense of being part of that community for the things that I’m interested in, and there’s other stores that are, say, into indie rock and, they have their role outside of that with putting on things, and I think it’s important. As I told you before, I’m very pro-my city, and I want to make these things happen. As hard as this is here, it still makes me bring in artists and make those things happen.
I think in terms of having a good record store, I don’t think many places are. I can’t really speak for used records, but, you know, there’s not that many places that sell new records. I’m kind of really against the grain because I’ve only ever sold new records. One thing this place did is it made me over time more of a confident person, in myself. I mean I was extremely introverted like most music nerds are, and I always feared that I would have to deal with people bringing in records. I’m like, “I can’t sell this.” Thinking about that conversation, I don’t want any of this. So I just figured I would never get into it. But in terms of selling new records, I think if you’re not out to bring in whatever it is that you specialize in, in any shop, the important records as they are coming out, then you’re failing. And sure,sometimes you can’t control it, but if you lose sight — if that’s not the mission, then to me it’s just not worthwhile.
You know, it’s like my motto — I don’t really say I have one — but when people ask what kind of music I carry, I tell them I carry important music because that’s what it is. If “x” amount of records I think are vital come out, it’s like I have to find a way to get them in here. And sure, a record that came out two months ago that we may have pushed, you know, like 25 out the door, I’m not bringing in again. That’s one of the drags about the market now: you kind of can’t. There’s only so many people buying records, and you have to know when to say “no,” sadly, to some things. Sure, if they’re still in print, you can get them, but to keep this deep catalog — there’s very few things I always try to keep the full catalog of. Things I grew up with: Spacemen 3, Basic Channel, Autechre, but, for the most part, you can’t do that anymore. It’s very important to me to bring in records every week as they are new, and that when I see them at the end of the week, that means, “OK, got through another week, and I’m doing my job.”