In a digital world, Portland seeks to redefine the mom-and-pop record shop.
Times aren't getting any easier for traditional record stores. As iTunes sold 5 billion tracks between 2003 and 2008, some 3,100 record stores across the nation shuttered. Yet there's a feeling—in Portland, at least—that interest is growing again for physical media. We asked Jenny Tatone to write about it.
The Internet pushed us in one direction, we said OK. And then we pulled back. We dug the speed and ease and infinity, but we missed the smell and touch and humanity. As the Apples of the world took over, we fondly recalled the feeling of being able to hold something in our hands.
Katie Schawaroch did, too. "We had to ask ourselves, 'What do we really want to do with our lives?'" she says. Schawaroch sits at a table in a Southeast Portland space soon to house a dream three years in the making: Hall of Records, a combination record store, cafe and bar. She's co-founding it with her boyfriend, Justin Meyers, and friend Dameian Zabona. "We knew right away that we'd definitely have to do something different," she says.
"The digital age pushes people, but people push back," says Meyers, a local drummer and longtime record collector. "As monolithic as the Internet is, there are always going to be people who are passionate about records—they're a form of social currency. With records, you get that sense of community."
Even while folks bury themselves in Facebook and disappear into the ear buds of their mobile devices, they yearn also for kinship and music that spins about 33 times per minute. Collectors' love for vinyl is nearly immune to advancing technologies. Still, in order to compete with the MP3—which accounted for about 30 percent of all music sold last year, not including the impact of illegal downloads—record stores today must try something new.
Hall of Records aims to do exactly that when it opens at the end of this month. Offering a unique, specialized and sometimes obscure selection of vinyl—alongside local coffee, beer, wine and food—Hall of Records looks to engage all five of its customers' senses. "You can't hold onto an MP3, which is why no one has a close connection with them," Meyers says. "There's alchemy to taking the needle and putting it on the record. Just show a kid and watch their face—it's magical."
And he's right. My friend's 12-year-old daughter, Lili Moss, recently discovered the joy of vinyl when her uncle—local musician Sean Croghan—gave her a turntable and collection of 45s. "You should see Lili and her friends up there in her bedroom, on their bellies, just staring at the record player," says her mom, Chrissy Olivera. "They're totally hypnotized."
Vinyl carries a spirit no other musical format has been able to replicate—a raw presence that has withstood the tests of time. "I like vinyl," Lili Moss says. "Even though you can't take it anywhere, it's such an awesome sound. We get to listen to older music and I love that we can listen together."
Amid the dust of transition inside the space that was formerly home to It's a Beautiful Pizza, Schawaroch and Meyers (Zabona, a DJ, is out of town, record-digging) sit at one of the many tables they made themselves, on chairs they painted black, beside the sleek wooden record bins they built and near the oversized bar they pieced together from slabs of salvaged wood. A large steel chandelier sits on the floor—a floor they installed themselves—and portions of a soon-to-be-installed DJ booth sit in one corner. Newspaper still covers the floor-to-ceiling windows, waiting for a greater light to come. "There are already some cafes that have a crate of records for sale," Meyers says. "But we'll have a heavier emphasis on records—soul, funk, jazz, collector-oriented records. It's going to be for people who want music that's off the beaten path."
With a handpicked, revolving inventory of unsealed records for anyone to play (bring your own, too, says Meyers); a revolving beer tap; and a famous Polish-on-rye sandwich recipe handed down to them by a longtime Portland food-cart owner, Hall of Records is what happens when passionate people seek clarity in buzzing times of transition.
"There's a huge community of people who are passionate about records—that has never gone away," Meyers says. "We want to break up the monotony of just digging. You can stop, have a beer, eat some food and get the energy to get back to the records.
"And we want it to be packed," adds Meyers. Like Voodoo Doughnut and Potato Champion, "we want it to be one of those places that you tell your out-of-town friends about."
You might also tell those out-of-towners to check out Tender Loving Empire. The record label/art gallery/craft boutique is also the result of passionate people seeking clarity and a return to the multisensory experience. The couple behind it talks with the same passion as the founders of Hall of Records.
RECORD COLLECTION: Brianne and Jared Mees at Tender Loving Empire. IMAGE: Jeff Luker
"We couldn't stand our dead-end jobs, so we started thinking, 'What do we really want to do with our lives?'" says Jared Mees, who co-founded TLE with his wife, Brianne. "We wanted to help the artists we already know and love break out and be noticed."
And they have. In 2007, their vision manifested as a tiny, mixed-used space in Northwest Portland. It has since grown its own wings: The Meeses opened a larger, lofty storefront downtown in early May, making room for their ever-expanding roster of artists, which ranges from musicians like Boise rock outfit Finn Riggins to Portland one-man band Boy Eats Drum Machine to screenprinters, wood-whittlers and independent greeting-card designers. The store's interior is drenched in pastel softness, with tiny robots, pinecone-shaped light-switch covers and pillows shaped as musical instruments. The space is an eclectic, locals-only endeavor and a new kind of record shop that works directly with local labels and artists to stock its inventory. The store is both a reaction to the Internet and, ironically, a community that might not exist without the Web.
"We found a lot of the artists we now know online," says Jared Mees. "We wanted to take them from making art as a side project to making it their main project. The success of our store is entirely dependent on our community—our culture is so rich here."
With new multi-use storefronts like Hall of Records and Tender Loving Empire, we're reminded of just how nice it is to have the art in our community—vinyl albums, crisp local ales, hand-woven trinkets—touch our senses in ways the Web just can't. All hail the return of the mom-and-pop.
GO: Tender Loving Empire is open now at 412 SW 10th Ave. Hall of Records opens in early June at 3342 SE Belmont St.