This culture has a very odd relationship to the past, which it generally regards as an obsolete version of the present — and really obsolete version of the future. Nowhere is that oddness more evident than its attitude toward physical objects.
There is no perfume quite like that new-car smell, and no occupation more dubious than used-car salesman. That which has been used is seen as peripheral, at best, when not downright suspect. “Secondhand” is another way of saying “second-rate.” What’s unused but outmoded is that much worse. At least something used had its day in the market-economy sun. Something outmoded isn’t just yesterday, which is bad enough. It’s a today that failed to happen.
For some people, though — maybe you, if you’ve read this far; certainly me — a today that failed to happen isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Such failure can be a Proustian seal of approval. “The Past Recaptured” Proust called the final volume of “In Search of Lost Time.” Lost time is where used and unused-but-outmoded things are most at home.
Maybe it’s a retirement home, but a home it most definitely is — not a house, and there is a difference, as Burt Bacharach and Hal David knew. So did Luther Vandross, otherwise he wouldn’t have covered their “A House Is Not a Home” 20 years after Dionne Warwick recorded it. Every cover ever made is an attempt to recapture the past as well as make something new.
People who appreciate this home/house distinction are likely to patronize used-record stores and used bookstores. (Not just records and books: Go to Leavitt & Peirce some time when you’re in Harvard Square and in search of a wormhole. Better yet, go to Harvard Square just to visit Leavitt & Peirce.) Such people recognize that the only thing better than a shrine is one that’s shared. In a world increasingly filled with manicured lawns and paved-over driveways, these places are rabbit holes, just waiting to welcome the happily unwary. Such people are Alices, and Alices know what to do in the vicinity of wonderlands.
Alices are people who gravitate to LPs (though not eight-tracks!) and typewriters and flip phones. That’s how fast this culture changes; flip phones seem almost as anachronistic as rotary-dial phones, if now far cooler. Such people also populate two new, enjoyable, and rather touching documentaries, “Other Music” and “Vinyl Nation.” They can be streamed, respectively, via Amazon Prime and vinylnationfilm.com/virtual-cinema-tickets. For that matter, there’s “The Booksellers,” about used bookstores, which came out last spring. That, too, can be streamed on Amazon Prime, as well as other platforms. Oh, and while there’s no flip phone documentary, so far as I know, there’s quite a marvelous one called “California Typewriter” (2017). It’s also available on Amazon Prime and several other platforms.
“California Typewriter” actually has a lot in common with “Other Music.” Each is about a specific store, named in the title, in a specific place: Berkeley, Calif., and downtown Manhattan. Other Music mostly sold used records, but not entirely. Part of what made it such a cherished institution was that it also sold music from local bands who didn’t have label deals yet. It opened in 1995 and closed in 2016. Considering Manhattan commercial rents and the course of the recording industry over those years — Napster, iTunes, streaming — that’s longevity verging on eternity. It’s also a tribute to just how much the store meant to so many.
Other Music was located across the street from Tower Records in the East Village. Choosing the site was an act of chutzpah — that particular Tower was vast and a real magnet — but also great for foot traffic (once iron filings shake free, how better to capture them than with another magnet?). A few years ago, Tower got its own highly enjoyable documentary, “All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records” (2015). Yes, it, too, is available on Amazon Prime. Colin Hanks directed it. Colin Hanks is the son of Tom Hanks, who is prominently featured in “California Typewriter.” Alices aren’t just a tribe; they’re a family, sometimes literally so.
The documentary focuses on Other Music’s closing weeks. “You guys should have a therapist here,” one regular tells an employee. The sense of community among customers, staffers, and the owners is genuine. One of those customers is the actor Benicio Del Toro. He likens going to Other Music to “a religious experience.”
People can have that response to record stores, especially used ones. Consider the most famous fictional used-record store: Championship Vinyl. That’s the one run by Rob Fleming, the hero of Nick Hornby’s novel “High Fidelity” (1995). The novel begat a movie (2000), which begat a Broadway musical (2006), which begat a series on Hulu earlier this year. How long before the begetting extends to a video game? In the series, Zoe Kravitz plays Rob (now named Brooks), who, in the movie, played by John Cusack, sleeps with a character played by Kravitz’s mother, Lisa Bonet. With or without Alices, popular culture can definitely be a wonderland.
Novelty contributes a lot to the wonder, even if novelty is too often too narrowly construed. Something just released — whether recording or book or movie — is by definition novel. But something that’s been around for decades, or even centuries, can be novel, too, if that recording or book or movie is new to you. Paradoxically enough, old or used novelty, as one might call it, can have a freshness that the just-released kind might lack. More important, it can offer a sense of personal discovery that even the most exacting algorithm can’t match. Spotify may think it knows your tastes. No way does it know your idiosyncrasies. Newness is as much experiential as temporal, and in few places is that more the case than in used-record stores.
It’s even truer there than in bookstores. People talk to each other in record stores, or they’re a lot more likely to. That doesn’t tend to happen in bookstores. It’s in the nature of books to be solitary. They can be read aloud to others, of course, and there’s that blissful experience of finding another person who has read a book you love and who loves it, too. It’s in the nature of music, especially recorded music, to be shared. It can be listened to alone, sure, and often is. But even better is listening with others: at a concert, dancing, in the car, over dinner. Books are between covers and in your head. Music is in the air and in multiple heads.
As the title suggests, “Vinyl Nation” is about LPs, and those who love them, not about record stores. They’re in there, too, though, used and new both. There are also three pressing plants (did you know that two terms used in the process are “puck” and “biscuit”?), a convention, several recording studios, and homes — not houses! — with many walls covered by many LP-filled shelves.
“You have all that stuff on your phone. Why are you getting it?” an interviewee in “Vinyl Nation” recalls his parents asking when he bought his first LP. “I don’t know,” he told them, “it’s just really cool.” Another LP collector addresses the issue of whether vinyl records have a warmer, richer sound than digital. “I could really give a [hoot],” he says. “I like to hold ‘em and flip ‘em and touch ‘em and go through the liner notes. That experience is far and above scrolling through the playlist on your phone.”
Vinyl being as hip as it is, “Vinyl Nation” goes to places you’d expect: Brooklyn, San Francisco, Austin, Texas. It also goes to places you might not: Winston-Salem, N.C., Baltimore, Kansas City. This diversity is appropriate. Doc Watson died in Winston-Salem. Billie Holiday grew up in Baltimore. Kansas City single-handedly (single-citiedly?) revolutionized jazz in the ’30s. “I hear America singing,” Walt Whitman wrote, and that singing takes place all over this continent-spanning country. So, too, does listening.
LPs are such strange objects: flat, black, round, and with a hole in the middle — a small, even negligible hole, unlike that impressive one 45s have. LPs are barely three-dimensional, yet it’s within the bareness of that third dimension, depth, that they make music, thanks to the rise and fall of the stylus within the grooves. As the musician John Vanderslice says in the documentary, “There’s this diamond bumping between these canyons.”
Contrast that with iTunes or streaming. Well, you can’t, since they’re disembodied. So contrast that with CDs: shiny and metallic and self-important (where LPs come in sleeves, CDs come in . . . jewel boxes). Recall the “Simpsons” episode where Homer first encounters a CD. He is enchanted. “Mmm, a doughnut from the future.” Exactly right, the future: where the past may always be imperfect, and certainly obsolete, but so what? It’s also where they need used-doughnut stores, since all the new ones taste like CDs.
Want to shop for used records? Here are some local options.
In Your Ear Records, 957 Commonwealth Ave., 617-787-9755, iye.com
Looney Tunes, 16 Harvard Ave., 617-549-5067, www.facebook.com/pages/category/Local-Business/Looney-Tunes-Records-Boston-163786114173268
Nuggets, 486 Commonwalth Ave., 617-536-0679, www.nuggetsrecords.com
Village Vinyl & Hi-Fi, 307 Harvard St., 617-396-8958, www.facebook.com/devinylhifi
Armageddon Shop, 12 Eliot Suite B, 617-492-1235, www.armageddonshopboston.com/index_boston.php
Blue Bag Records, 2325 Massachusetts Ave., 617-864-2583, bluebagrecords.com
Cheapo Records, 538 Massachusetts Ave., 617-354-4455, www.cheaporecords.com
Planet Records, 144 Mount Auburn St., 617-492-0693, planet-records.com
Stereo Jack’s, 1686 Massachusetts Ave., 617-497-9447, stereojacks.com
Somerville Grooves, 26 Union Square, 617-666-1749, www.facebook.com/SomervilleGrooves
Vinyl Index, 1 Bow Market Way, #25, 617-764-3667, www.vinylindex.com
Mystery Train Records, 21 Main St., 978-281-8911, mysterytrainrecords.com
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.