December 14, 2010 | 8:00am
Music vet and New Times scribe Lee Zimmerman shares stories of memorable rock 'n' roll encounters that took place in our local environs. This week, trolling for tunes in the days when the record stores reigned.
I'm the first to admit it. I'm decidedly old school. I like my music as physical discs, on either vinyl or CD. I shockingly don't own an iPod and I pine for the days when buying new music meant going into a record store and actually thumbing through the racks.
Publicists these days insist on sending me streams or downloads, and frankly, decent record stores -- make that music stores -- are less and less plentiful around South Florida. There are still some stores of note -- Radio-Active, Sweat, Blue Note, Uncle Sam's and Specs among them -- but the legendary shops like Yesterday & Today, Yardbird, the Magic Minstrel, the Bookworm and CD Solution have been gone more than a decade, and in some cases, several. I remember frequenting those shops on a regular basis, taking time to peruse the new release bins, looking for the coolest trade-ins and simply soaking up the ambiance and chatting with other rabid music enthusiasts like myself. There's not much of a shared experience when listening on ear buds or ordering music from iTunes.
I'm still a rabid music collector and whatever discs I don't get from the publicists I work with, I eagerly seek out on Amazon and Half.com. While their used selection compares favorably with what I once found in the store bins, the separation in time between doing an online order and actually holding the album in-hand makes the gratification much less immediate. Besides, having to pay for shipping, and hoping that I'm dealing with a reputable seller puts certain obstacles in the way of the transaction that I didn't have to worry about before. Yes, drawing from a worldwide inventory means a better opportunity to fill in the gaps in my collection, but then again, the anticipation of picking through a bargain bin at the old Virgin Records in Miami's Sunset Place or raffling through the overstock selection at South Florida's homegrown Peaches stores made the entire shopping experience so much more exciting.
In addition, live concerts were also a draw at some of these stores, and while some of the surviving brick and mortar operations like Sweat and Radio-Active feature live music on occasion, I'm still drawn to the memories of seeing some stars onsite at those former environs. Some 20 or so years ago, the Bee Gees did a rare and intimate in-store acoustic concert at Spec's flagship store in Coral Gables, and while I had to strain to see over the top of the heads of the other audience members, it was, nevertheless, a one of a kind performance. Pat Metheny did a similar show at a Peaches store just down the street a few years later; since it drew less people, I actually got the opportunity to speak with him after his one-man showcase.
It was equally impressive to see some of the big names that were attracted to Yesterday & Today, drawn to the store's reputation as the place to find the newest and coolest discoveries. (By my estimate, Y&T was, at the time, the rival of any other independent shop in the country. I still stand by that assessment.) It wasn't uncommon to see Henry Rollins wandering around, all but ignored by the other shoppers and left to browse undisturbed. I recounted in a previous column
the time Natalie Merchant and her band 10,000 Maniacs came by in their rundown touring van and did an informal in-store. Likewise, Y&T hosted the Ramones for an autograph signing session, and while the group was as dour as ever, it was a treat for fans to be able to line up and get a few minutes to chat with each member.
There was also inherent drama in the retail wars at that time. When CD Solution opened a shop only two doors down from the aforementioned Specs locale in Coral Gables, Martin Spector, the founder of the chain, stomped over to his new neighbors and demanded they vacate the premises. The competition it seemed was a bit too close for comfort. An altercation transpired and rumor has it the elderly Mr. Spector ended up striking his younger adversary out of frustration.
Then again, the privileged enclave of Coral Gables seemed ripe for controversy. My first off-campus job after graduating from the University of Miami was just across the highway at a store called Viscount Records. Actually, it was part of a national chain called Discount Records, but being that the Gables strictly guarded their image (a pick-up truck parked in front of a Gables residence is still verboten), a marquee that boasted anything identified as "discount" apparently cheapened the city's image. Viscount would have to do.
My own adventures as a retailer will be documented in a future column, but suffice it to say, the experience didn't deter me from opening my own store, dubiously dubbed "The Heart Of Rock 'n' Roll" several years later. The opportunity to continue in the record biz after being unceremoniously dumped by Capitol Records, my employer for eight years, was too tempting to resist. Unfortunately, the store didn't survive even an entire year. There were days when sales wouldn't even top the $30 mark, and with a wife and two small children to support, it was a stressful experience to say the least. I will state unequivocally that there's nothing so tortuous as sitting in your store alone and watching people passing by on the sidewalk outside, oblivious to your wares, and then realizing if you tried to forcibly pull them in your door, you might be subject to arrest for assault and kidnapping.