To open a record store in 2013, you have to be really stupid or really passionate. Vinyl may be undergoing a revival, but it remains a niche interest. And if the location of that store was Melbourne, Australia, your prospects are even poorer. It may not command the astronomical rents common to Hong Kong or New York, but the cultural jewel of Australia is now the seventh most expensive place on the planet to own a shop. Despite this, Johan Elgstrom says Melbourne is an “easy” place to live. The Swede should know: after stints in Austria, England, Spain and Cyprus, he settled south eight years ago and began working at DMC Records. Before it closed last November, DMC was a Melbourne institution with 20 years of history behind it. Today, its dilapidated signage and shuttered windows are easily visible from the vibrant shopfront of Bounce Audio, Elgstrom’s six month-old record store in the trendy suburb of Prahran.
Bounce isn’t much larger than the average bedroom, but its stock is expertly curated. On one wall sits brand-new records from names like Shed and Pittsburgh Track Authority, while on the other, various second-hand house and disco 12″s beg to be thumbed through. A sales counter and a table full of DJ gear occupy the back wall. Elgstrom isn’t naïve. He doesn’t expect anyone to come charging into his store and buy 20 records in one go. Having tried the digital route himself, he’s resigned to the idea that today, vinyl is a mostly considered a luxury, and people will be more sparing with their purchases. And yet, he still chose to open a store at huge personal risk. Thankfully, I really believe he’ll have long-term success. From the second I stepped into Bounce to gather Elgstrom’s story, his aura of genuineness and passion never disappeared. During one visit, I heard him spend 15 minutes on the phone to a complete stranger, guiding him through how best to record vocals for a new track. Good staff are the lifeblood of any record store, and if someone as warm as Elgstrom can’t make Bounce work, nobody probably can. Here’s what he told me.
Johan Elgstrom: I grew up outside Stockholm City, in Sweden. One of earliest memories I have from electronic music, when I wasn’t into it at all, per se — I was into punk and grunge, and I was playing drums in about three bands at the time — was actually “Deep Burnt” by Pépe Bradock. I think that was released in 96, or something. That’s kind of the earliest memory that I have, listening to the radio in Sweden. Swedes didn’t really embrace electronic music at all, it was mostly crap when you went out to a bar or a club. It’s just in recent years that they’ve started to more appreciate electronic music. And I mean, in the 90s, Swedish techno was massive, but I had no idea about it, because the big DJs never played in Sweden.
There was a local record store in my little town. They sold CDs and vinyl and I bought my first record, which was “Let’s Talk About Sex” by Salt ‘N’ Pepa. It was a 7″. I wish I had that record now, but yeah that was the first one I bought. Obviously, back in those days you bought one record and you just played it over and over again until it was almost worn out. Same with CDs; I used to know all the band members of all my favorite bands, know all the lyrics, I used to read the booklet and all that sort of stuff. With the whole digital thing, that kind of just went — I mean, nobody reads it any more, I guess. But I was a lot more immersed in music, because I think I had a lot more time, and I had a lot less music as well. Whereas now, there’s almost too much music.
I think just having more human contact is good. Humankind is always just stepping away from that in so many ways, you know with Facebook — venting your anger against someone you don’t know on Facebook. You don’t do that face-to-face. I think it’s the same with music; it’s good to go into a record store and actually see people. I remember back in the day when Limewire and all these download programs — I mean, I’m 33-years-old, technology has gone from crap to pretty amazing in my lifetime — I remember my friend, who had a Macintosh computer, and the downloading speed was so slow, it’d take you a week to download two songs or something, but it was “FREE!” So I would just download everything. If I found out about a good artist, I would look up all the albums and just download them all. That was kind of what everyone was doing in Sweden, back in the day.
I moved to Melbourne about eight years ago, and I had all this music that I’d converted from CD into my iTunes, and I’d downloaded some stuff, whatever, and I just had a meltdown one day, where I just went, “It’s too much. I lost it. I’ve lost the vibe for it.” And I deleted my whole hard drive of music. I deleted everything. I got rid of every single tune that I had, and I just started over. I started collecting music differently, and slower, and I wasn’t as greedy. And the whole sort of, illusion of entitlement that I had and that a lot of people probably still have is that, “If it’s there and I can just grab it, I’ll just take it, I’ll just take as much as I can, I’ll just store it away for a rainy day.” But you can’t really appreciate eight million songs, you know? So I just deleted it and started from scratch, and then got into buying a lot of records. And then I kind of did the same thing with records, where I bought everything that sounded cool, because I was new at it, I became a total vinyl addict. Through the years now, I’ve sort of refined the process when I listen to a song, I’ll put it aside and have a short list, and then I’ll listen to them again, and then out of five tracks in a shortlist, I might end up with two tracks. But they’re really good tracks.
I try not to listen to too much music at work, because it’s not the environment for me to do that. I try to sit down at home at night, with my laptop and headphones, and really get into what I’m ordering, so that I don’t end up with records that show up to the store and I go, “Oh, did I order that?” [grimaces] I’ve done a few mistakes like that. Not many, but the process is quite time consuming and I think maybe, that’s something that my customers don’t realize sometimes. They just show up to the store and they go, “Oh yeah, cool records.” There’s a lot of time and effort that I spend just filtering through stuff that I want to order for the shop. Do I want to have it in the shop? How many people do I think would buy this? And also, am I choosing not to order this record just because I don’t like it? So it’s a bit of a mental battle for sure. But it’s fun. It’s just music at the end of the day.
I opened Bounce Audio on the 10th of January, 2013, just after the craziness of Christmas and New Years. Before Bounce I was working at DMC Records, which was located just across the street from where Bounce now is. When I found out that they were closing, I made a quick decision that I still wanted to sell records and DJ gear. I had a few options: I could try and look for a job at another DJ store or I could… yeah, I don’t know what I would have done, to be honest. But I decided that I had a lot of ambitions to start my own business anyway, and I was running a small hire company where I was hiring out DJ equipment to private persons having house parties, and to venues. That kind of just continued, and I decided to just start Bounce Audio and have a shopfront where I could have records which I love. I just wanted it to be a place where DJs could come and get their fix, whether it was records, DJ or production gear, you know?
I think some people probably walked into the store and thought, “Oh yeah, he’s just slapped up a bit of paint, made it look cool, put in a bit of furniture.” I had one guy in particular who asked me, “Do you mind me asking how much it cost, roughly, to set this up?” I explained to him how much I had invested financially and also in time, and he kind of just went, “Oh, yeah. Right, OK.” It’s a bit of a wake-up call for some people. People probably look at the store and think it’s an easy job, but there’s a lot of stuff that led up to this. There was a lot of hard work, and a lot of sleepless nights for me. I was obviously really nervous, as well. It’s my first bank loan, you’re sort of figuring out, “Am I doing the right thing? Who needs retail nowadays, anyway? Everyone goes online.”
So you have all these questions running through your head and you’re out on your own. You sign a contract for a lease, you can’t get out of that contract. You’re locked in for at least two years. So for the next two years, you’re not making any money, and you have to work your ass off, six, seven days a week. And obviously try to have a private life, as well. But so far, it’s been a really good experience and I can’t say that there’s been anything negative for Bounce Audio whatsoever, so far. It’s just been really good. Financially it could be better, but it’s a new business and it takes time to build a brand and it takes time to get a customer base. I haven’t done any promotion just yet. It’s pretty much a one-man ship, as well. I don’t have any employees. I have people helping me out every now and then, but I try and do everything on my own, because obviously I can’t afford to hire someone full-time. It’s going forward, and it’s good. I’m happy.
Vinyl’s current place in the world is strong. I think it definitely went through a bit of a tumble there a couple of years ago, when even I was playing Traktor with a laptop. Mind you, I was playing with turntables and no sync — that’s what I liked about it — but I definitely had a crack at the whole digital thing. And I sometimes play with digital means anyway, depending on the gig. Some gigs won’t have turntables, some gigs won’t have CD players or whatever, but aside from that, vinyl has never left my form of DJing. I’ve always bought records from the start of me DJing. I think I just had a bit of a stint where I bought less records, and now I’m at a very comfortable medium where I buy a reasonable amount of records, but not as much as I used to. Because records aren’t really the norm any more, so not every cool song is released on wax.
In the last two years, vinyl has really become a lot more common though. I see a lot of the younger dudes now buying records again, and they’re buying good stuff, as well. So they’re not coming in asking me for David Guetta; they’re coming in asking for Marcellus Pittman, and old school stuff, and really good records. In some way, in terms of digging for records, I think YouTube is kind of where it’s at. You go to YouTube and then you click on one video and then it shows you another five videos, and then you click on those. So it’s just a different way of looking for records now, and I think the more modern medium of looking has influenced greatly how people buy records today.
It’s not like these kids can’t get these records anywhere else. If they looked hard enough, they’d get them. And some records, they’re quite commonly known. You can get those records from digital mediums or whatever. You can get them from online stores or whatever. But that’s not what it’s about. I’m well aware of that, and so are my customers. I think the reason they come into this store is because they like the selection, they like hanging out, they can have a chat, I’m a nice guy, and I kind of sift through all that crap, and I spit out the good stuff and put it on my shelves. I think that’s what they like. The idea of just coming to get a couple of records in a store is much more attractive than going online and listening to a few tunes, and then grabbing two and then paying an outrageous amount for postage, or whatever the reasons are.
People like coming in and having contact — that’s what I love — and I can see that in a lot of the younger clientele that come in here. They support the store. They don’t buy 10, 15 records like we used to do, because vinyl is not the norm any more. You can get a couple of tunes digital, you put them on your USB, and that’s great, and you buy two or three records instead. They come in, and they listen quite critically now, because they’re spending a lot of money on records, so they’re not just gonna buy anything that sounds cool. They’re gonna listen and think, “Oh, is this a really good record? Do I really want to pay $17 for this?” So that’s kind of where it’s at now.
The other thing with record stores that I think was lost for a while, was just that connection with, you walk into a record store, you’re a DJ, you’re looking for gigs, and it just so happens that another DJ is in the store who’s doing a gig, and you start chatting. You have a good time, or whatever, he invites you to play at his party. That doesn’t happen online, and I think people just missed that connection; the whole networking part of it, as well. You know, coming in, maybe grabbing some flyers for local events and also getting a discount every now and then, even getting a free record every now and then. It’s working — I think people have kind of reverted back, in a way, and it’s cool.]]>
New York has always been something of a haven for record stores, but it’s not immune to the peril that digital media have put them in. Not only have the big, well-loved chains such as Tower Records and (both) Virgin Megastores closed down, but countless indie shops have shuttered their doors; and in a city with the dance music history of New York, that means loads of record stores focused on house and techno. One of New York’s most revered stores of recent times is Halcyon, previously located on Smith Street in Carroll Gardens, and a real community hotspot where big names such as Jus-Ed and Levon Vincent used to hang out. Halcyon has since moved to the waterfront district of DUMBO, and whenever I head down there it’s usually Taimur Agha handing me records and tipping me off to the best new arrivals. LWE sat down with Agha recently to chat about how he got started as a record clerk, the record stores that shaped his taste upon arriving in New York, and some of his personal pet peeves. He also fashioned a mix for us (available after the interview) representing the breadth of music on offer at Halcyon, as well as what you can expect Taimur to put in your hands when you head over.
What are some of your earliest memories of going to record stores?
Taimur Agha: I never purchased records before; I grew up in Abu Dhabi, in the Middle East, in the Emirates, and we didn’t have any record stores. So when I came to New York, my first experience was in ’99, and that was — I’d say Satellite Records was the first one. They had a really small store down on the Bowery, and it was one of those shops where you go every Wednesday for the new arrivals. And you’d have a room full of people, and there would be one of the clerks playing records, and it was kind of like an auction — he’d play it, and if you were the first person going, “Hey, I want that,” he’ll throw it right across the room to you. So it was really cool; it was really small, intimate. I would be there every Wednesday at the front of the line.
Through that I kind of walked around town, and Sonic Groove was around, there was Dance Tracks, as well, that was the Lower East Side. I think those three, mainly, were my first experiences in New York, for records stores. And you had Other Music and Tower Records, when it was open, would have records there so we’d go in and buy from there. It was cool. I didn’t really stick to one store; I went all around New York, see what I could find and just collect from that. And we would also order from the UK from Massive Records, when it used to be open. It was one of those things where they didn’t have an online site so you would call them and the guy would be like, “OK, I’ve got these records,” and then he would play them for you on the phone, and you’re like, “Oh, I want that one!” So it was cool.
Were there certain people that you bought from?
I bought records from James Ben, who was from Astro & Glyde. They were kind of like a big progressive duo. Leo Lipsztein was another one, from Satellite Records. And — who else was there? Ori who now works for Made Events. I bought records from him, as well. I would go in and they would give me stuff, but I would also dig because I wasn’t always satisfied with what records there were.
How did some of those early experiences record shopping inform how you approach how you do your thing?
When I came here, I was going to all the night clubs in New York, mainly Twilo, then you’d have Vinyl, you’d have Limelight. It was my first experience with a big DJ on a big sound system, and back then the parties were special. It was kind of like a free-for-all. You’d meet all sorts of people there, and progressive house was really big then. We would go see Sasha and Digweed at the end of the month religiously, Danny Tenaglia, Deep Dish were there, Richie Hawtin would come. So from all that I was buying progressive records, and then I heard Craig Richards and Lee Burridge as Tyrant, so I started buying different music. I got more into tech house, breakbeat, the minimal techno stuff, and then listening to the 112 Crew, which was Bill Patrick and other guys. And I guess it just evolved after the late 90s to 2000s: my sound evolved, in terms of what records I was buying. You know, then you start getting more stuff from overseas, like from Juno, Phonica, yeah. And Halcyon, as well, is one of the stores I’d buy a lot from — in New York, back in the old location.
So when did you start working there?
I’ve known Shawn [Schwartz] since 1999, but in 2008 it came to a point where I really hated my advertising job, and they were laying off people and I wanted to get out. So it was one of those things where they wanted to lay me off and I just got out at the right time. I was like, “If I don’t start this music career that I want to do, then I’m never going to do it. And I’ll regret it for the rest of my life.” And I did it. It was a struggle for two years, and, you know, now I’m good. I’m happy with where it’s come.
What made you specifically want to work at a record store?
You know, when it comes down to artists names and remixes and tracks, I just had a really good memory, and I knew what I was buying. When I had spoken to Shawn he said, “Do you want to come to Halcyon?” And I said, “Honestly, I’d like to give it a shot because I have nothing to lose.” And it’s good to have all the music at your fingertips and, you know, sell it to everyone in the city, or people coming in from out of town. You know, I feel [that] what I’m purchasing, people are buying. So it’s a good sign for me, seeing that it’s working.
How do you approach what you buy?
Yeah, I’m a buyer. I basically — you know, we started with a few mailing lists I was given by Shawn for local, U.S. distributors, and then it kind of grew into, “Let’s start doing import orders,” because we weren’t getting the full amounts of records that we had ordered from these U.S. distributors, the full fills. And just from doing my parties, I felt that I knew all these artists and labels and their contacts to direct me to distributors in Europe. So it kind of opened the doors for a lot of things. For example, right now we’re exclusively doing all the Ar:pi:ar stuff from Romania because those guys come to play for my party in New York, and through just becoming friends with them, now we get all the Romanian labels directly from Romania. We’re in ties with Ricardo Villalobos’ Sei Es Drum label. There’s a lot of artist friends we have who also live in New York, they just come and sell to us direct. So I just feel like having all those connections, with working the record store, with doing all the buying that I have, it’s just a perfect circle. It works fantasticly.
Is there anything you buy that you don’t personally like?
We have buyers for all sorts of genres in the store. I mainly focus on techno, tech house, and deep house. Sure, there are a few records that I don’t feel I would play but I feel that customers at the store would buy so it’s kind of like trial and error to see exactly will sell and what won’t, at the store.
There are a lot of events thrown in the store, some of which you do, some of which other people do. What do you think the importance is of doing these events at the store?
I think it’s important. For example, my events with Blk|Market Membership, since day one, I’ve always had Halcyon as a partner. And I think it’s really good to have that record store establishment involved in all the nightlife parties. Even if it’s not at the store, people see your name and, you know, I have my radio show probably once every two weeks, called The Bandwagon. It’s really important to have those kids who come to the parties and never come to the store, and they’re like, “Wow, this place is great. There’s so many records.” And then they keep coming back. So now in my 74th episode, I’m starting to get customers who had never walked in here before, and a lot of the younger kids who have been playing Traktor for a little while and didn’t have the means to buy records are coming back and saying, “OK, forget this Traktor stuff; I want to try the vinyl.” So it’s a matter of educating and talking to your crowd. If you can pull them to your parties, I don’t see why they can’t come to the record store. It’s not that far away. And it’s pretty important for me; I’m happy to be part of a really good establishment.
How does your job as a buyer inform your DJing, and vice versa?
I’m very selective of what I buy. A lot of the buying that I do, it’s — I have a kind of sound that I’ve figured out after DJing since ’99, which is a long time. I went through all the phases, like progressive house, deep house, techno, electro, and tech-house, but now I’m kind of all across the board, and I just feel that the buying I’m doing, it’s really keen for what I’m playing these days, as well. I feel it just plays a vital role. Like, if I wasn’t necessarily working here, I don’t feel like I would have the style that I do today, by having so much music at my fingertips, which is great.
Halcyon sells digital files. What’s your take?
Yeah, we have a digital site. I honestly — I don’t like it, per se. I feel like it’s worth a shot, especially in this day and age where you see a lot of record stores closing, and, you know, in order to survive in today’s market, you have to do more things than just sell records. In terms of digital sites, you know, Beatport, I just feel like it’s kind of lost what it used to be. I really don’t go looking on it much anymore because anybody can put up stuff on it. It’s not filtered. It’s kind of like, “OK, you have a digital label? Oh, let’s put it up; just pay the money.” I get promos. It takes me a month and a half to go through everything. So I’m really focused more on vinyl. Like, 95 percent of my buying at the store is vinyl, you know?
Satellite, Sonic Groove, Dance Tracks: we’ve seen all these stores disappear. What’s your comment on that?
You know, I think in every evolving stage of the years I’ve been here, I feel like all of them were an institution for learning. I’ve learned more of the techno stuff from Sonic Groove, you had the progressive stuff from Satellite, and I feel like if I didn’t go through all those, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing right now — even with the nightclubs such as Twilo. They are very relevant to what’s been happening in New York, and I feel like it’s a shame that a lot of them are closed, but there’s still quite a lot of record stores in New York. I’d say off the top of my head there’s about 15 or so stores, and all have their own different niche. In terms of, “Will the record stores stay open?” I clearly think they should because this year record sales have gone up and been the highest since 1991, from what I’m reading, which is great.
People talk about this vinyl resurgence, but have you really felt it?
I’ve felt it. A lot of it actually has to do with our mail orders, as well, other than people coming into the store. We’ve started our Discogs upload in their database, and we’re getting buyers from all over the world because we have quite a lot of records that people don’t have in other parts of the country. They’re like, “Oh shit, these guys have got this title. We’re going to order from them.” So I think more and more people are hearing about us also, internationally, from Discogs. I feel like the store’s at a really good place right now. Record Store Day, that was just the other day, there was a line outside the block at 9:30 in the morning. That was a very good day for us.
Do you have an idea of what some ballpark figures are for mail-order orders?
We started at, like, five mail-orders when we first did Discogs, to now going up to 100, 100 plus in a week, which is really good for mail-order. People order from Australia because over there they have no more record stores, which is quite a shame. So they’re pretty excited when we have titles that they want.
Where do you see people getting their tastes from? I mean do you see people coming in sort of with an idea in their head, or…?
Yeah, they come in, they kind of tell you, “OK, I like so-and-so records,” and once I give them a stack of a few records that they work through and they’re like, “OK, I like this,” I can easily figure out what they like and give them the following records. And I think that’s kind of what all of us buyers at the store do, with each person from, say, the drum and bass department, or dubstep comes in, and it’s like, “Oh, I want this record, sounds like this.” It’s up to you, really, to put it in the customer’s hands. Through trial and error and working with a lot of people that do come to the store, I’ve figured out what the customers want. It’s a good feeling when they’re like, “Oh wow, all the records you gave me, I liked seven out of 10.” So it works. I feel that where they’re finding their education from, in New York especially, right now that the nightlife is — well, electronic music in general is on a boom right now, and New York is really good. So a lot of the local customers who come in I feel are coming from the parties, and they’re like, “Oh, I saw this guy. What records do you have of him?” Or sounds that he played, or who he is affiliated with. You know, they want to come and do research.
Halcyon also has a website — tell me a little about that.
Well, it’s really important to do reviews and Q&As and other write-ups about parties happening. So it’s kind of like an involved community to go hand-in-hand with the records. You have to educate people who don’t know, and also, if a big artist is coming through, people want to read about the person. It’s good to see it coming from our home turf here in New York City, from Brooklyn. So I really think it’s a vital element that should always be done for any store.
Tell me a little bit about the old space.
The old space was cool, it was another one of the influential stores for me. It was very interesting: it was everything in one. You had the record store in the back, there would be old antique furniture, which is kind of like the lounge setup, but you could purchase it, and they had a bar, which would sell vegetarian, vegan food. You could get juices or beers. They would have paintings on the walls that you could purchase, and they had a little garden in the back. But every day of the week they had a show, and there would be a proper DJ booth with lighting, visuals, and you would get to hear everything from, you know, left-field acid jazz to downtempo house. So you would walk in, didn’t know what to expect, but you could sit down there, have a coffee or a beer, read a magazine, and just enjoy the vibe. I kind of miss that, to be honest, because I didn’t feel there was any community like that, and Shawn did it with his friends: they felt an urge to have that close to their house when they lived on Smith and 9th Street. I wish we had that for this store, but, you know, never say never. Because it’s been on our minds.
What do you think the role is of the record store today? What does it offer than mail order websites don’t?
With the Internet today, it’s like people just want to be alone and just go on the Internet and order. For me, the experience has always been coming in and finding those records that you would not normally find on a website. Because most of the website stuff would be certain picks, whereas you go to the store, and they probably have another section of titles that they don’t list, or records that are in discount bins. I just feel it’s really important for someone who is buying music to come and have that experience. I feel Beatport — you know, for people who don’t have record stores in their countries and the only access is digital media — I think that’s fine. But people who do have access to record stores, if I were them, I don’t see why they wouldn’t step foot or take a look and see what there is, especially if they’re buying vinyl. We have some people who live in Manhattan here who order mail-order because they can’t come into Brooklyn, which I find kind of ridiculous. But I think if you’re a DJ or a collector, you should come to the store every once in a while and get the experience.
What are some things that irk you as a record store clerk?
Well, my peeves are that when people come to the store I kind of tell them once they’re done listening to please put the records on the table so we can put them back, because every Monday when I come to the store, I have a certain method of putting the records back. I put all the artists and labels together in the new sections, and when you come to the store, and everything’s upside down and sleeves are crumpled — yeah, it makes you cringe. But you see people come in and don’t know how to use a turntable; they put the needle on the slipmat and hit play. I mean it comes down to educating the crowd. Some people come to a record store for the first time, and you really want to make them feel welcome, especially when they have a knowledge of music. We get these young kids that come in and they buy rock and indie rock all the time, but they know really quite a lot about the music. From the first day they didn’t really know much, and now it’s been a year or so and their minds have expanded, as well as their tastes.
How many people do you see coming in just by chance?
When we do the radio shows, there’s — well, there used to be three radio shows: there used to be Bless Up, which was the reggae, dubstep, drum and bass, but that’s not happening anymore. I do Bandwagon, which is more of the house and techno stuff. When I usually do shows, I’ve got anywhere from 20 people to, like, 50 people in the store. People come hang out, listen to music, buy records, books. Then there’s Slow Disco on the weekends. So with those, you have more people come into the store on those days. When you have an art show, a lot of people come. On the weekends it’s pretty busy because people are off from work and they have time to spend.
But my customers come in usually Wednesdays and Fridays, when the newer stuff comes in. I call them and say, “Hey, all the new arrivals are in,” and then just spend an hour or so with them, giving them the latest stuff. So I kind of have my own clientele, as well, just from friends and people who come to see me. They know what days I work so they’ll come on those specific days. So in terms of how many people are coming each day, it varies. The shop’s been pretty busy, I’d say, in the last year and a half, two years. I’ve seen a big change in vinyl purchases. Because when we first moved here, it was really tough — nobody would really come down here, and once people started figuring it out, now we’re getting quite a lot of people coming in. I don’t know why people wouldn’t come down. It’s a really beautiful neighborhood. You ever walk down over here? It’s really nice.
Yeah, it’s great. It’s easily accessible.
Yeah, it’s right off the F train too, so it’s close. I’m happy where Halcyon is. I really don’t see any other record store in New York that is pushing what we’re doing or has the contacts that we’ve made. I respect all the other store in New York as well, but I feel like what we’re doing is really pushing the boundaries in all sorts of departments; be it writing, vinyls, or books and stuff. We’ve established a trust from a lot of buyers, worldwide and locally, so it feels good to have that.
Recordkeepers 001: Taimur Agha (84:16)]]>
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.”]]>