Keep on Spinnin', Baby
Sitting behind a monotonous stretch of pastel, cookie-cutter strip malls on Dania Beach's Stirling Road is a one-of-a-kind addition to Broward's cultural landscape. Blue Note Records, Miami's legendary music store, has moved its vinyl and collectibles collection into town.
The new shop is located west of the railroad tracks in a midsized warehouse. A small, temporary banner hangs from its unmarked beige door; it could be easily missed if it weren't for a couple of chatty 20-something hipsters stepping out with a large stack of vinyl records in their hands.
"It's a hip spot," says Blue Note Records owner Bob Perry, giving his new industrial digs a sweeping look. "There's a whole subculture of things that are hip, and we are concentrating heavily on vinyl: with rock, funk, blues, gospel, indie, and old 45s... " For niche collectors, though, Blue Note staff will pull out vintage lunch boxes, autographed memorabilia, original posters, and Technic turntables.
While cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles could count on sweet spots like Amoeba Records and Rockaway Records, bristling with stock and knowledgeable sales clerks, Blue Note filled the gap in sleepy South Florida, serving the vinyl-loving community since 1984. In the process, Blue Note has outlasted scores of larger corporate competitors.
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Perry, a lifelong music junkie, knows a lot about the hands-on commitment required to run a record store. These days, however, he spends a lot of time sitting behind a white desk in Blue Note's second floor office, fidgeting with his computer's mouse and arranging to ship records to remote locations. A good chunk of his income comes from selling the shop's most unusual collectibles — like an $800 autographed Paul McCartney CD — on eBay. Thus, the Internet — responsible for the closure of so many brick and mortar music stores — has ironically helped Blue Note Records stay afloat.
"People find us through eBay and then they come to the store," says the 60-year-old Perry, a lively and energetic man who looks ten years younger than he is. "As a result, people all the way from Paris, London, and Berlin come to visit us when they are vacationing in town." They've also had some famous customers over the years, including Jimmy Page, James Brown, and Snoop Dogg, to name a few.
Now those visitors, along with the locals, have to travel a little farther up the road to get to the shop. After 23 years in its original North Miami location, Perry decided it was time to move closer to his Broward residence. Rising rents, of course, played a large part in his decision. Two years ago, a new stadium-sized Wal-Mart opened next door to the old North Miami Blue Note, stirring up the real estate market around Perry's old location.
The change seems, if anything, to have lifted Perry's spirits. The new spot, unlike the previous one, is a true industrial loft, complete with high ceilings and cool white walls decorated with rare posters.
The familiar old Blue Note Records neon sign now hangs proudly on a wall next to the register, and many vintage collectibles, like a tiny yellow 1960s Fisher Price turntable, give the new place a familiar look.
For Perry, who began his career in the music business as a promotions man in 1967 for Atlantic Records, there's little doubt about what the future holds for traditional music stores.
"We are a dying breed," he says, looking though a large stack of records lying on his office floor. "The days of the big music store are limited. Now most people get their music through the digital format, and you can't get the genie back in the bottle. But I'm moving more into the vintage market and things like rare beats for DJs... I'm not interested in the Top 40 [market]. Besides, it's more fun dealing with vinyl."
In ancient times — well, before Napster and the iPod — folks had to actually leave their homes to get their music, and Blue Note was the spot for hard-to-find items. Over the years, this writer has purchased many items at Blue Note, including a vintage space-age 8-track player and an original sealed copy of Leonard Nimoy's Mr. Spock LP from 1967.
At one point, the store had 15 employees and an extra annex housing its rare jazz vinyl collection. But as the digital age forged inexorably ahead, Perry was faced with some tough times. He wasn't the only one, of course; the last decade has seen countless record stores fold in the tricounty area alone.
So what keeps Blue Note's door open?
"Stubbornness," says Perry. "When everything was closing up, I cut my expenses. What really kills a lot of indie [music stores] is that... young people don't come to the stores to buy the new releases."
Today's Blue Note is also considerably smaller in square footage, and it has a pared-down staff of three. On any given day, you may run into Leslie Wimmer, the store's resident indie music connoisseur, who for the past 12 years has been dispensing her valuable advice on everything from Joni Mitchell to Cat Power.
And there's the always-affable Bobby Wells, who's been with Blue Note for 15 years. "He's the man with an ear for rare beats, old-school funk, and electronica," Perry says.
Knowing the store's viability may depend on its ability to evolve with the times, Perry has decided to expand its collectibles sections with more high-end items. Among them are some original concert art from the '60s and '70s, including a series of highly sought Fillmore Theater Jimmy Hendrix and Jefferson Airplane psychedelic posters. This is real art, Perry says, and prices start in the $2,000 range.
Like the old store, the new Blue Note supports the local indie scene. "The landlord is very cool," Perry says. "We can do events with local artists — like a Saturday afternoon show — and give them a chance to sell their CDs."
As for those vinyl fanatics looking for record expertise, Blue Note is still the place to go. Like a real-life version of record store owner Rob Fleming in Nick Hornby's novel High Fidelity, Perry knows just where to look for that odd bit of metal or Motown memorabilia, and he often drops nuggets of rare information along the way.
"Right now I'm listening to the Beatles White Album," he said the other day. Mind you, this is not your average copy of the Beatles classic. "The White Album was released in two different versions: mono and stereo," Perry explains. "The mono version never came out in the U.S. and it has a completely different mix with a [powerful] in your face sound."
While you may be able to glean such details from an on-line Beatles forum or an encyclopedic rock 'n' roll textbook, there's something to be said for the singular human touch provided by Perry, Wimmer, and Wells that keeps many customers going back.
No one is more aware of this than Perry. "We are not going anywhere," he says. "I feel an obligation to all the people that helped us come this far."
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