There's a battlefield face-off approaching on the retail warfront, with South Florida's put-upon small record stores providing a longevity litmus test. That's why a recent rumor struck so ominously -- that revered outlet Blue Note Records in North Miami Beach might be shuttering its rock room.
"No, no, no," insists Blue Note fixture Leslie Wimmer, admitting that times are tough for indie record retailers. "Christmas wasn't bad, unless you've been around a long time and remember what it used to be like. In that case, it was dismal."
Blue Note's bread remains buttered thanks to its thriving hip-hop and R&B selection, which includes loads of novelties and rarities, mostly on vinyl. A recent visit proved that stacks of wax still flow in and out of the store hourly. Wimmer mentions that eBay has been instrumental in aiding Blue Note during these uncertain times, as the store constantly puts collectibles up for auction, with excellent results.
True, Blue Note's comfy jazz lounge, a record store/performance space with a coffee-klatch vibe, has relocated to the Blue Note Annex down the street. The room now belongs to a small grocery and patty shop. But the store's local section remains stellar, from stacks of seven-inch singles to new CDs. Plus, enough oddities stand out to satisfy a true collector. (A sealed cassette of Negativland's infamous U2 parody? For only $30? Get on down there and snag it, son!) Blue Note is also the leading choice for local musician types looking for the old-school record store experience -- we spotted the former Spooky Kid once known as Gidget Gein browsing the bins and making off with a copy of The Creek Drank the Cradle, the luminous debut from Miami's own Iron and Wine.
Increasing Blue Note's precarious position is the virtually abandoned 163rd Street Mall across the street. Rumors have wafted for weeks that Wal-Mart might move in as a new tenant -- which worries Wimmer. "But they won't carry the stuff we do, especially the R&B stuff," she notes. "You won't be able to find Sam Cooke over there. They don't even know people are looking for that. Unless they send someone over here to spy."
Already, our choices are too few. Uncle Sam's does an OK job, but the selection is far from comprehensive; the same problem plagues all the worthwhile shops, including Broward's two CD Warehouse stores. The new CD Collector in Fort Lauderdale's Gateway Plaza carries a decent set of new and used stuff, plus cool rarities, but its stock is similarly skimpy. The same situation could be found at Sound Splash in West Palm Beach, but as its recent demise proved, it's nicer to pay a buck or two extra for a disc at a deserving outlet and hang out in a cool place with other music lovers for a few minutes, than to have the option removed.
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Due to its own ineptitude, All Books and Records (its two locations won our award for Best Used CD Store last year) likely won't be granted that same status again. Its policy is far too restrictive and arbitrary to be anything but infuriating. Whereas most used stores will take in your castoffs and allow you to trade for any product in the place (and give you cash back if your input exceeds your purchases), our last visit to All Books' Sears Town store was a study in frustration. Though the staff will accept most trade-ins, used CDs are redeemable only for other used CDs. Nothing new. No vinyl. No DVDs. Worse, only the stalest used discs are permitted to leave. Anything remotely recent or interesting is stickered "May not be purchased with in-store credit." Further, they won't part with cash under any circumstances -- even for a few dollars' change -- issuing credit slips only. This is an effective way of preventing this discerning shopper from darkening All Books' doorstep with a shoebox of trade-ins ever again.
Of course, Broward boasts a Borders and a Barnes & Noble with decent selections and competitive prices, but if you're going that sterile route, why not stay at home and buy everything you want via a visit to Amazon.com or a cooler web retailer like Darla.com?
Every time we pick up the web's double-edged sword, we cut into sales in the alternative sections of shops like Blue Note. Now, mouse-clicking a box and entering your credit card number on a secure site -- with a warehouse of competitively priced product -- is so simple, no wonder it supersedes the pleasure of the process: the journey, the search, the hunt, the find, the conversation at the cash register.
Which is the best thing about shopping at Blue Note, by the way. Hope it never changes.