Waxing on Detroit

Cliff Thomas’ Buy Rite Music (7324 W. Seven Mile Road, 313-864-0219) has been a linchpin in our dance community since 1980, when he opened his first store on Detroit’s west side. To DJs including the Electrifying Mojo and Ken Collier this was, as Thomas claims, “the club.” To producers, from Kevin Saunderson to Blake Baxter, it was a place where records could be distributed via the Music Master imprint. To others it was simply a place to work while they produced and DJ’d, attempting to feed themselves and their families. Thomas says, “We slept and ate off the music.”

Alexander Robotnick, Martin Circus and Kraftwerk all broke out to Detroit’s ears via this store; Thomas takes great pride in his place near the center of Detroit’s vinyl dance culture for more than 20 years.

Today, though, the store seems caught in 1990. Though there are current R&B and hip-hop records in the bins, the vinyl hit wall contains still-in-the-plastic 12-inch singles and (now) old-school techno compilations from a different time, long before the explosion of white labels, bootlegging, digital downloading or the advent of Apple’s iPod.

Thomas argues that it is a conscious attempt at exploring the history of the art form, which he says has not been very easy. He talks of the rampant drug problems and gang wars that raged through the city in the 1980s. Thomas’s eyes grow wide as he explains how the scene splintered into subgenres and the music became, in Thomas’s words, “diluted” in the 1990s. “We lost the people who wanted to live the music.”

At the same time, places such as Submerge (3000 E. Grand Blvd., Detroit, 313-964-1025) and Record Time (262 W. Nine Mile Road, Ferndale, 248-336-8463; 27360 Gratiot Ave., Roseville, 586-775-1550) were taking the Buy Rite model of store/ record label/ distributor and cutting into the latter store’s dominance.

There are movements to take Buy Rite into the 21st century. There is new paint being applied and construction is obvious in the barnlike space that holds the vinyl wall and CD counters. But it is difficult to believe that Thomas can really bring the store back to its glory days. In many ways, vinyl picking and listening has never seemed so anachronistic. Many DJs use a program called Final Scratch which allows them to use MP3 files like records, allowing for scratching, matching beats and remixing in real time. Even CDs are threatened by even easier methods of downloading, and burning. Finally, with Apple’s new iPod and online music service, there is a user interface that at least theoretically cuts out any need for brick-and-mortar stores, whether they sell vinyl or not.

Record stores, it seems, may be going the way of the drive-in movie theater.

Say goodbye to mom-and-pop

There are a string of west side record stores that have weathered the storms, and even the first wave of the e-music attack. These include Damon’s (20124 Plymouth Road, Detroit, 313-838-3500) and Kendricks (12828 Fenkell, Detroit, 313-862-8555), both of which sell dance, R&B and hip-hop vinyl. Some have made it by offering unique niche environments, like Strictly Roots (15734 W. Seven Mile Road, Detroit, 313-836-8686), another west side establishment that specializes in dance-hall reggae culture and music, as well as African- and African-American-centered books. The current incarnation of the shop, which has been family-owned in the area since the early ’80s, has lasted seven years.

On the east side, Car City Records (21918 Harper, St. Clair Shores, 810-775-4770) and Melodies and Memories (23013 Gratiot Ave., Eastpointe, 810-774-8480) have both survived, despite rumors of each store closing up from time to time. Melodies has its own dance room that has, in the past, been competitive with Record Time’s farther to the north.

Car City is considered the home of Detroit garage rock, if only because of its employees. Many Car City vinyl jocks have peppered the bands, clubs and studios of the last two decades in the city. But it is the store’s jazz vinyl and regular supply of used CDs that brings in the regular customers.

Perhaps the most unknown, and most hazardous to your health, survival story is Mays’ Used Records (126 W. Eight Mile Road, Hazel Park, 248-547-7470). Record collectors know that this shacklike record store is an essential stop. However, strains of mold in the place and old man Mays lighting up every five minutes reinforce that there is no cross-ventilation. But with thousands of 45s, a small record player to play them on, and LPs to the ceiling, it is worth the potential asthma attack.

But many more stores come and go. CD shops throughout the city open and close in seemingly six-month rotations. Some of the great stores of the last 20 years in the metro Detroit area, The Hip-Hop Shop, Kaboodle’s, Sam’s Jams, Coachman’s, Detroit Audio & Art and many more have closed. The reasons seem to be extremely complex.

Technology is important to the story, but economic drops from the ’90s heyday, and the day-to-day stresses of running a business in Detroit (never an easy thing to do) seem to be significant here too. The dwindling market for older vinyl mixed with the aging of the generations that bought vinyl the first time around also make things difficult. Coachman’s Records did not survive the Detroit blues cheerleader’s death in December 2000.

Not only have the inner-city stores been affected, but the more profitable mom-and-pop chains, many in Detroit’s wealthier suburbs to the north and west, have bitten the dust. In the early ’90s there were a number of these chains, including Record Time, Off the Record, Repeat the Beat, Play It Again, Shantoniques, Detroit Audio & Art, Dearborn Music, Desirable Discs, The Record Collector, and the regional giant Harmony House, which rose to more than 40 stores. Today most of those “chains” are down to one or two stores or closed altogether. Harmony House is now down to two stores, the only vinyl shop being in Berkley (28297 Woodward, 248-544-1700).

Record Time still maintains two stores, though its ad with the Detroit Music Retailers Collective (“What Happened to All the Real Stores?”) seems to point to a disbelief in the reality of changing market conditions. There are two locations, one in Ferndale (262 W. Nine Mile Road, 248-336-8463) and the other in Roseville (27360 Gratiot Ave., 586-775-1550). What Buy Rite was to the ’80s, Record Time was to the ’90s, providing a place where all facets of the dance community had become a way of life for everyone employed there. Record Time has been brought to earth in the last few years, though it is still the major player in dance music in the city. Though Roseville is the flagship store with a near-definitive techno/ house dance room, Ferndale is the place to regularly shop, with better service and without the Eight Mile R&B/ hip hop vs. rock segregation that makes Roseville feel so problematically old school.

But overextension is an issue and two stores may be the limit for anyone wanting to make it in the retail industry in the early 21st century.

Desirable Discs at one point covered Dearborn, Garden City and Dearborn Heights as well as western and Downriver suburbs that lacked their own wax resources. Now they are in a transplanted store (13939 Michigan Ave., Dearborn, 313-581-1767), after a fire took their Garden City location; their Telegraph store will close this month. Though the remaining store is still one of Detroit’s best, especially for collectors specializing in mint LPs, the feeling of the original street-corner store and its oceans of vinyl downstairs has been lost.

Of course, you can leave the metro area if you must. Ann Arbor still boasts a number of strong record stores, including the indispensable, musician-staffed Encore (417 E. Liberty, 734-662-6776), Wazoo (526 1/2 S. State, 734-761-8686) and Schoolkids in Exile (332 S. State St., 734-663-7248) run by the original Schoolkids Records owner. Out east Brian Gillespie of Family Funktion and Throw Records fame continues a fairly fantastic dance shop inside DJ Supply in Warren. It’s called Hearwax (3854 E. 13 Mile Road, 586-582-0871).

In Royal Oak there is Wendell’s (511 S. Washington, 248-336-9246). The place is busy, and currently there are three White Stripes magazine covers on the wall. The 45s in the bins are current and powerful: Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the Rapture, and Detroit’s own Clone Defects, etc. Though a mainly a rockist venture, eschewing the techno and dance beats that Neptune (see below) does so well, Wendell’s has improved since it opened only a few years ago. The place is now a must stop for any scenester rocker. Down the street, Fun House, Noise and Toys (525 S. Washington, 248-336-9900), has taken up residence on the corner, featuring a fine selection of rock from the ’60s to today.

In Hamtramck, two shops make the drive on the Davison or I-75 well worth it. Record Graveyard (11303 Joseph Campau, 313-365-8095) was recently honored in an all-Detroit article in UK’s NME — along with Car City Records and in the pages of the current Blender magazine. The positive press likely will not change the store though, which continues the great tradition of long bins, long aisles and tons of records. Detroit Threads (10022 Joseph Campau, 313-872-1777) is run by a red-haired Iggy fan named Mikel Smith whose love of good electronic wax and vintage clothing is only matched by his commitment to the 24-hour party he always seems to be enjoying.

Downtown ’03

A newer generation of record buyers, though, weaned on the Lager House and the Bronx Bar, may be ready for a new twist, and a few inspired people might be prepared to give it to them. Idle Kids (4470 Second Ave., Detroit, 313-832-7730) has been open for a short time in the basement of the old Zoot’s coffeehouse, supplying punk records and anarchist books for the skater-punks and fellow travelers south of Wayne State.

There are also two new stores in the works, one of them set to open soon on the second floor of the CPOP gallery (Woodward at Willis, Detroit). Called Young Soul Rebels, its owners are Dave Buick of Italy Records and Dion Fischer, record producer of the highly anticipated third LP by Slumber Party. Brad Hales, the undisputed DJ king of detroit contemporary’s funk nights and an unrivaled record collector, also plans to open his own shop this summer.


Brett Marion is strangely confident about the future of record stores.

After years of working in retail, first at Play It Again, and now, for six years, at Neptune Records (503 S. Main, Royal Oak, 248-586-0519), Marion has created an underground haven that is competitive with any cutting-edge record store this side of Other Music in New York.

Like Stormy Records (22079 Michigan Ave., Dearborn, 313-563-8525), run by Detroit noise duo Windy and Carl, Marion and his two partners have built up a community of musical believers, much in line with the dreams that Cliff Thomas and the Buy Rite movement put together 20 years before, built on living and breathing the music. Neptune’s patrons DJ, produce, promote and distribute some of today’s most important music, from skippy Germanesque techno and electro to garage rock and shimmering avant-pop.

Asked about whether he is worried about the iPod or any other threat that may come along to threaten vinyl or his store on Main, Marion, normally the Woody Allen-like worrier, relates an optimistic story: “Neptune just recently had its best-ever sales day — that includes the busy Christmas and Thanksgiving seasons … It’s hard to do the all-purpose mom-and-pop,” he concedes, “but in many ways it has never been a better time to run an underground store with a niche market and a community to cater to.” As one of his two employees, Nathan Justice, perhaps prematurely states, “No matter what, the iPod isn’t going to tell you what to buy.”

But even if it does, one can imagine Marion and the boys surviving, and perhaps Buy Rite too, and all the rest. There is a community here in vinyl, an energy, that speaks of youth, new adventure and the wide-eyed feeling of seeing art work that you can touch and be mystified by. It is an acquired taste but also a communal taste, best served up with other people.

Back to Amateurs write, like, prose

Carleton S. Gholz is Music Director at Pure D. Vinyl (Fisher Building, Suite 101, 3011 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit, 313-873-7873). E-mail [email protected]
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