Death of the city, death of the record store

The vinyl, of course, was the first to go.

It didn’t take much to attract the most elite of music fetishists to the sell-off: a 20 per cent discount was enough to leave the vinyl racks of CD Plus ravaged. By the time I got there, all that was left was a meager collection of the overpriced (Interpol’s Antics, a couple of M83 records) and the unwanted (forgotten Robert Pollard solo releases, three identical Everest albums). Nothing much has changed in the vinyl section since the discount dropped to 30 per cent.

We’ll see what happens at 40.

* * *

The news of CD Plus’ pending closure leaked at the end of January. Details remain scarce on exactly why the chain’s Barrington Street location is closing; rumours point to the decision being as much a landlord issue as it is a financial one, but nothing has been confirmed. The store, which featured a sizeable collection of both new and used music, is expected to shut its doors by the end of March.

We’ve done this dance before. In 2007, Halifax’s Sam the Record Man – one of the chain’s last locations – vanished, leaving an unfilled hole just a block down the street from CD Plus. Most malls throughout the municipality have lost their dedicated music stores, leaving only big box stories like Zellers or Wal-Mart to stock CDs. HMV remains the last music chain standing, with three locations all cutting back on music shelf space.

The record store is dying. My worry is that it’s merely a symptom of a much larger problem: that perhaps the city itself is dying.

* * *

For about as long as I’ve been in living in downtown Halifax, my weekend routine involves floating through the city’s record stores for an hour or two. Sometimes I start with the vinyl-heavy Taz Records; sometimes I go corporate and start with HMV. Sometimes I buy something; sometimes I don’t.

Buying is usually beside the point. As an experience, “shopping” is less about commerce and more about community, even if it’s a manufactured capitalistic one. Though I’m usually by myself on my weekly scrounging session, I’m rarely alone. Aside from the store clerk prepared to compliment or question my purchases, there are always others on a similar journey through the stacks. Some clearly know exactly what they are looking for; others, like me, clearly don’t. It’s reassuring to know that I’m not alone in my quest and that there may be competition for the records waiting for me.

But largely, I think it’s about a sense of place, and all the wonderful complications that come from that. So much of our musical experience is self-defined these days, but a trip to a record store is a negotiation. It’s someone else’s music on the stereo. The selection is determined by the stock on any given weekend. Price matters, and can make the difference between walking out with a record or going home empty handed. Sometimes these things annoy me, but more often than not they’re what define the experience for me, what keeps it interesting.

This is the trade-off of sharing space with other people: what we lose in control, we gain in the uniqueness of the experience. But increasingly we’ve come to see these limitations on our agency as stifling. And we’re doing everything we can to dismiss them.

* * *

When the liquidation sale hit 30 per cent, I started buying. The first week I picked up Phoenix’s It’s Never Been Like That. The list price was $18; I ended up getting it for $14, taxes in. The Dismemberment Plan’s Change, same deal.

As I walked up to the counter, I looked at the shelves growing increasingly sparse and feel a tinge of guilt. It was as if I was picking at the bones before the body was even dead, an experience made more awkward by the fact that I probably wouldn’t even think of buying these albums were they full price. I was paying a pittance for these records, and none would follow to fill the holes on the shelves where they rested.

I tried to avoid eye contact with the cashier as I punched in my PIN code.

* * *

In Jason Reitman’s film, Up in the Air, George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a professional downsizer who moonlights as a motivational speaker on the side. His stock presentation is called “What’s In Your Backpack?” In it, he has his audience think about all the *stuff* in their lives that weigh them down, starting with the physical – shelves, clothes, cars, houses – and eventually getting around to the emotional: friends, family, lovers:

All those negotiations and arguments and secrets, the compromises. The slower we move the faster we die. Make no mistake, moving is living. Some animals were meant to carry each other to live symbiotically over a lifetime. Star crossed lovers, monogamous swans. We are not swans. We are sharks.

Critics of the film consider Bingham’s philosophy unrealistic, an easy foil for Reitman to deconstruct throughout the film’s story arc. But is it really that outlandish? Sure, maybe on the emotional front it’s a bit extreme, but even then: is not the whole drive of the modern world to make us mobile, to divorce us from our obligations and make us fit, flexible and fleeting?

In Harper’s Magazine this past November, Richard Rodriguez proposed a compelling thesis about the death of print journalism: that the newspaper is dying because the city is dying, because we are no longer are interested in what’s happening to our neighbour. Instead of understand community as a geographic creation, we’re rewriting it around the central pillars of “I” and “me” now that we finally have the technology to do so.

This suggests a couple of distressing things. The first is that vanity and self-centeredness may be more foundational to the human experience than we thought, and that perhaps we welcomed physical community more out of need than desire. The second is that the 21st century economy – where few stay put, where relationships between people and their work is fleeting – leads us to dismiss the places in which we live and to shed the obligations that tie us to them.

For some, like Ryan Bingham, this means people; most of us, though, are content to use technology to keep people in our lives as we become transient beings. No, for most of us it means “stuff.”

I was having coffee on Saturday with friends discussing how awful the moving process is, knowing how many times we’ll probably have to do it in our lives. I thought of my shelves full of CDs, quickly running out of space. I thought about how difficult it was to seek some of them out, when today it would take mere seconds through iTunes. I thought about how immobile this whole collection is, especially considering that the whole thing – and more – fits easily on my 80 GB hard drive.

And for the first time, I understood.

The slower we move, the faster we die. Our soundtrack needs to move as we move. We are sharks.

* * *

I am a vulture.

As I walked up to the counter to hand over this week’s purchases – M83’s Saturday = Youth and the Hold Steady’s live record A Positive Rage, both used on CD – I took a look around the store walls: dozens of posters, promotional one-sheets from TV on the Radio to Arcade Fire to A.C. Newman. I immediately had to urge to ask if, and when, they’ll be up for grabs.

I stopped myself. It’s one thing to pick at the store’s stock, but the idea of going after the decorations made me a bit sick on the inside; it was like I wasn’t just picking bones anymore, but actually picking out organs from a patient before they’ve even breathed their last breath.

Maybe next time.

* * *

In a month, CD Plus will become yet another empty space on Barrington Street.

Nothing has moved in to claim the real estate left by the departure of Sam the Record Man or Dooley’s, leaving an entire block on the street with papered-up windows. Carsand Mosher photography down the street is about to depart sometime in March. Hell, of all things, Tim Hortons closed down just a block away. In what kind of Canadian universe does a Tim Hortons not make a go of it?

Barrington Street is dying. It is dying because city living is becoming as anachronistic as the compact disc.

Our urban centres have become full of people content to visit during the daytime hours, do their work, and then escape to a world of manufactured control. To live in any community is to accept limitations on our agency, to compromise our individual right to do as we wish in the interest of living side-by-side with others. For many, the city offers too many compromises, too many limitations. Technology – the affordable automobile, the evolution of mass transit – finally provided freedom from the supposed shackles of proximity. Now instead of living in an apartment they didn’t design, alongside people they didn’t choose to live with, people could build their world anew just outside of the city limits.

Those left behind remain diverse: in their backgrounds, their stories, their economic status. But many are like me, 20-somethings who have grown up in a world that values the individual as the paramount entity in society; a world where our reliance on others is becoming unnecessary in much of our daily lives; a world where the only way to survive is to be ready to move at a second’s notice.

The city is dying because the people inheriting it don’t really feel as if we own it. To own something is to accept its limitations, physical or otherwise, and to make a commitment in spite of them. I’m not sure we can afford to do that anymore.

* * *

Before CD Plus becomes another hole in the heart of Halifax, I will do my part to empty it. There are dozens of CDs left standing that I’m eying, just waiting for the price to drop even further. I’ll probably make a special trip by on its last day, just in case there’s anything unwanted left remaining. I may even see if I can grab a poster or two off the walls as I walk off.

It’s a bit strange to be party to its demise, an eager actor joining in the deconstruction. But I suppose the first step to acceptance is acknowledging one’s blame in the whole process. I’m not divorced from the trends that concern me. If the city is dying, perhaps I am just as cancerous to it as everyone else. I can try to be an urban citizen, lurking through the city streets and haunting my record stores. But a question lingers: is this my city, or merely the city I live in?

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3 responses to “Death of the city, death of the record store

  1. Hey Ryan!

    I would argue it’s not so much the city that is dying, as it is a confluence of a couple of synchronous and (more or less) unrelated events. The first of them, you’ve touched on here – the death of physical media has made CD/vinyl stores anachronistic (DVD stores, you’re next, I fear, as streaming HD video becomes more and more commonplace).

    BUT, and here’s where event #2 kicks in, I think the browsing culture is still alive and well, for the moment (CD Plus always seems to have a few people in it…you’re getting older, Ryan, but you’re no dinosaur ), and the shop would probably have hung on a couple of more years if it weren’t for Starfish Properties snatching up giant swaths of Barrington Street in gulp after gulp. I wish I understood better what their intentions are with these buildings, but I do know for certain that it is at their initiation that Barrington Street is in the state it’s in.

    Anyways, I would not say the city is dying…it’s ill, but there are still vibrant areas; Spring Garden didn’t used to be as busy as it is now, and Barrington was the hub many years back (even before its recent decline, it was still a shadow of what it was like in the 70s and 80s, or so I am led to believe, when it was really a happening place). It’s the nature of urban growth that those areas move around, though.

  2. Nice post – but I will have to agree with Chris March. I split my work time between the Roy Building and The Hub, both on Barrington, and while it has been depressing to see the empty storefronts, it does seem to be a confluence of events rather than a true pattern of urban decay.

    Starfish is planning to turn the empty buildings on Barrington into high end condos and offices. In five to ten years, I’m guessing that Barrington will probably feel more like Spring Garden / Dresden Row. This will probably mean fewer quirky low-rent shops and more high end retailers – a loss to what makes Halifax interesting, but probably not the death of the downtown.

    By the way, Tim Horton’s closed because of a nasty oil leak in the basement of the building – I remember going in on the day before they closed and my eyes were watering from the fumes. Rumour has it that a Starbuck’s will be moving into the space at some point.

  3. It’s definitely sad to see music stores dying left, right, and center. I can’t keep track of what’s left. My mother asked me what store in the mall she could buy a Bluray I wanted for christmas from, and I couldn’t tell her… I guess saying HMV is the best bet… for now.

    HMV has REALLY cut down on their music stock in their Halifax Shopping Centre location. It’s crazy. Video games, books, t-shirts, and DVDs take up 90% of the store.

    It really sucks for the music stores. They are the victim of an industry that is seemingly unwilling to change the way it does things. Sure, they’ve finally accepted that online music is viable… and that it’s the future. But there is still a business model that sees a lot of people make a lot of money from the CEO on down to the artist. This means margins on CD sales is pathetic, and it is a huge factor in so many music stores going under.

    I’m part of the problem as well though. I still buy music oh physical media – probably more than anyone I know. While I buy a fraction of what I used to, I still buy some. But one reason of my decline, besides monetary factors, is that I used to buy every CD by every band I liked.. or when I heard a single I would buy the CD. Thus I have several CDs that really suck, save for a few singles. iTunes has allowed me to preview the tunes, and torrents have allowed me to listen to a whole record, before I buy the CD. Unfortunately, the majority of the population bypasses this step of buying the music. At least digital sales are up?

    Lastly, about the city dying and how people aren’t living in the city… I sense a bit of disdain towards suburban life. I used to want to live downtown. For a few years, I kept looking for apartments, condos, and townhouses on the peninsula. But every time I looked, I would get discouraged by the price. The bottom line is that Halifax has completely unrealistic housing prices. I might have been able to find a decent apartment, but my wife and I decided we wanted to own. And to own anything besides a one-room condo in Halifax requires a six-figure income.

    So, while I would love to live right downtown in a utopian, bustling city with lots of cute indie stores on a bopping Barrington Street, it just isn’t possible. Developers, real estate owners, landlords, etc. have priced our city out of range for people with even decent incomes. So I can’t apologize for my suburban life, even if I do love urban living.

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