I wear my Record Theatre T-shirt often, not just because I am a lifelong Record Theatre shopper, but because it proudly proclaims “Est. 1976.” That happens to be the year I was born.
When I was a kid, my Dad used to take me to the Main and Lafayette location every Saturday morning for the two-hour sale announced in Friday’s Gusto. One album would be sold at a drastically reduced price. Week after week, no matter what the album was, my dad would buy it — Barbra Streisand, Poison, Tina Turner, The Beastie Boys, George Benson, David Bowie — an eclectic list. Going to that huge store, with all its neon lighting and album cover artwork, is a treasured ritual of my youth. And looking back, that weekly sale, beholden to no single genre, probably has a good deal to do with my eclectic taste in music today.
My dad passed away two years ago. Record Theatre shall soon follow.
It may seem foolish to get sentimental over a store closing, but record stores — particularly locally owned record stores — are more than just places of commerce.
Buffalo is a record lover’s town. Marc Weinstein, one of the co-founders of Amoeba Records (the world’s largest independent record store), is a Buffalo native and a former Record Theatre employee. We’ve always had several independent record stores to choose from, each serving its own niche. But in keeping with national trends, Buffalo’s record store scene has suffered some major losses over the past decade starting with the closing of Home of the Hits, followed by New World Record, Spiral Scratch, and now Record Theatre. These closings aren’t just signs of bad business for Buffalo, they are losses for our arts community.
It’s hard to believe now, but there was a time when you could buy a record at just about any department store, drugstore, or supermarket. They stocked the records that were guaranteed to sell – Top 40 hits and best-of collections. If you wanted anything outside the mainstream, however, you needed a specialist.
Enter your locally-owned, independent record store.
Independent record stores traditionally cater to people who do not see themselves represented on the radio. They sell what the big box stores don’t deem profitable. This may be why so many indie record store patrons develop emotional connections to their favorite shop. These spaces become sanctuaries for outcasts, misfits, weirdos, nerds… whatever your social affliction.
Eric Van Rysdam, the longstanding Saturday night DJ at the Old Pink on Allen (a sanctuary for outcasts in its own right), worked at Home of the Hits – perhaps Buffalo’s indiest indie store — for fifteen years. He described record stores as “places where people who felt like nobody understood them could go, because the people working at the record stores — whatever record store it was — were the same type of people… I think there’s a Home of the Hits in every major town. They’re all different, but they serve that purpose.”
This perception was echoed by others. The quest for hard-to-find music releases led to a sense of community at these stores. They became the only place where you could go and be reasonably certain that you would find other people like yourself. “Customers would come in multiple times a week and just spend hours looking, and it’s like, I know you’ve seen all this stuff," recalls Barb Elliott, who worked at both New World Record and Record Theatre. "And they’d just come up and chat. And you had customers who’d come in and start hanging out with each other.” I know this is true because I’ve seen it happen.
“Almost all of my Buffalo friends I know through the store,” says Rysdam. Other former record store clerks claim that they met at least half of their current friends at the store where they worked. Record stores build friendships, and friendships build community. They are places where the misunderstood go to feel understood.
Local Record Stores Benefit Local Artists
Providing local artists access to underground music plays an important role in our local arts community. Buffalo hip hop artist Chae Hawk said that Home of the Hits and New World Record were important to him because he was able to find CDs from “independent artists that I favored, some of the artists that weren’t as popular.” Those hard-to-find CDs went on to inform and develop his work as an indie rapper.
But it’s about more than just access to obscure albums for local musicians like Hawk. Indie stores are critical to artistic development because they’re places to network, advertise shows, even perform. Marty Boratin has not only worked at New World Record, Play It Again Sam, Home of the Hits, and Record Theatre, but he’s also been booking shows at The Mohawk Place for more than twenty years. He says that the closing of New World Record and Home of the Hits has made promotion more difficult: “You always had those people to talk up the shows working at the counter. [Customers] would come in from out-of-town and ask what was going on, or what the good local bands are.” And then there’s the flyer factor. “When you don’t have 300 pairs of eyeballs a day looking at a poster for a show coming up, it hurts.”
Would Buffalo’s music scene have been different without record stores? “A lot of musicians would have gone hungry, or changed their career paths because they didn’t have that record store job to fall back on," says Boratin. "They’d be accountants or mailmen these days.” Boratin, who regularly hosts touring bands at his house and holds house concerts, claims that every band from LA or the Bay Area that has stayed with him over the last twenty years has had at least one band member who worked at Amoeba. Indeed, not only are indie record store customers often musicians, but so are the employees. This has made these stores spaces for musical discourse and debate, the kind of talk that exists nowhere else. I walked in on some heated musical discussions at the Transit Road Record Theatre where singer-songwriter Roger Bryan and his bandmate Erik Roesser both worked. The independent record store is a place where musical ideas can germinate. It’s where opinions are shaped and formed, where bands and scenes emerge.
It’s just a theory, but I suspect that the closing of Home of the Hits and New World resulted in fewer new Buffalo bands and more solo recording projects, the kind that end up on SoundCloud or Bandcamp. Bands needs a breeding ground, a place for their “drummer wanted” flyers and gig advertisements. Record stores are fertile soil for that kind of activity. They’re usually the only place to buy music and merchandise from local bands, to find out who’s playing where and when. It’s how local bands sniff out the competition, checking out the consignment section. Without locally-owned record stores, it’s hard to get a sense of a local music scene.
Local Record Stores Benefit the Community
Of course, today everything is available on the Internet. So are indie record stores obsolete? I guess if you’re looking for something specific and can’t be bothered to leave the house, go ahead and click away. But if you’re interested in discovering new music and connecting with other music lovers like yourself, nothing beats the independent record shop.
These stores and their knowledgeable employees serve as curators, oracles of the music industry, thoughtfully selecting inventory and suggesting new music to regular customers. Rysdam, who introduced me to more than a few bands back in the day, said that one of his favorite aspects of working at Home of the Hits was “helping [customers] find music the same way I was finding it. I loved discovering new things. I loved being able to turn people on to new things. I loved the joy it brought them.”
Even the limitations of record stores can be beneficial, like limited inventory. Ben Willis, a vice-principal at Tapestry Charter School, fondly recalls how everyone used to rush to Doris Records on East Ferry to get the hottest new releases before they sold out. “There was only a certain amount of tapes they would get. Even if they had 50 copies, once they were gone, they were gone.” But in that rush, he explained, you’d see your friends and your neighbors. You’d connect and commune. It physically brought people together.
Local musician and former New World Record employee Mark Norris argues that a store’s inventory could actually shape musical tastes. “A used record store limits everything. It’s a process of trial and error and learning. I’m really grateful that I didn’t have the entire world of music in front me, that I had to actually weed through it. It makes you appreciate things more.”
Internet-based services like Spotify and Pandora have created ways to recommend music per your tastes, but what’s missing is the community, the personal interaction, and the serendipity of browsing. I’ve discovered so many albums simply by flipping through bins with no real aim. I didn’t know what I was looking for until I found it.
Gender and Race in the Record Store
This is not to say that record stores are utopian. They can be exclusionary. For starters, the culture is often male-centric.
“There were a lot of men coming in that didn’t want to hear anything I had to say about anything," recalls Barb Elliott. "I can’t even tell you how many times men would come up and ask me — even just simple questions — and I would answer it, and they’d leave. But when the [male employees] came back, they’d ask the same question.” Another former clerk told me that women were often passed up for promotions. I have noticed more women shoppers in recent years, and it’s worth noting that Home of the Hits was owned and operated by a woman, but the same sexist attitudes that exist outside record stores can exist within them.
And let’s face it, many indie record stores cater to indie bands that appeal mostly to white audiences. It can be argued that this is a result of hip hop and R&B having gone mainstream, but there’s also a strong argument that it’s a reflection of our city’s highly segregated neighborhoods. One former clerk I spoke to indicated that there was a managerial reluctance to stock hip hop because “Those are the CDs that always get stolen,” an attitude that reeks of racism. Stores like New Style on Bailey and Doris Records on East Ferry carry a limited selection of R&B, rap and gospel CDs but have had to expand their inventories to DVDs and apparel in order to stay financially viable. Sweet Sound Music on Grant now only sells apparel and accessories.
Chae Hawk seemed to suggest that the absence of a hip hop-centric record store in Buffalo may have stunted the growth of our city’s hip hop scene. Record Theatre’s Main Street stores, perhaps because of their boundary locations, were the only record stores in Buffalo where White and Black shoppers seemed to share the aisles with regularity. Elliott recalls a time when she was playing a record by indie/alt-country singer Neko Case at the University Plaza store. Admiring her voice, a Black couple shopping in the classic soul section asked Elliott who was singing. Twenty minutes later, the couple came up to counter with only one album to check out — Neko Case. A crosscultural transaction like that can only take place in a record store with an inventory that caters to both White and Black tastes, which is why it’s especially heartbreaking to see the last Record Theatre store close.
The End Is Not Near
Dan, the owner of The Record Baron in Kenmore, says the nicest thing that anyone’s ever said about his store came from a Black shopper who, after a musical debate with another customer, said that it reminded him of his neighborhood barbershop.
And it’s true. Record stores offer so much more than mere commerce in the same way that barbershops can offer so much more than just haircuts. They are places for music lovers to commune, learn, and grow. They are an integral part of a community’s music scene, often employing musicians and providing a space to advertise gigs and find like-minded musicians. They’re places to exchange ideas and cultivate local culture. The Internet may be advanced in technological ways that benefit the individual, but they to do not benefit the community in the way that locally-owned record stores do.
However, let’s not despair. Record Theatre’s closing doesn’t mean that Buffalo is no longer a record lover’s town. The community is still here. We just lost a hub. And with so many other places to buy vinyl in town, it’s only a matter of time before other indie stores fill the gaping hole it leaves.
Places Where You Can Still Buy Records in Buffalo
If you started a record collection over the last few years and are now, like me, lamenting the loss of Record Theatre, check out these other locally-owned record stores:
- Revolver Records (1451 Hertel Ave.): While it’s only been open for two years, owner Phil Machemer has been dealing records for more than a decade. Revolver has an excellent, ever-changing inventory of new and used vinyl in a variety of genres.
- Black Dots (Corner of Lafayette and Grant): Open for four years now, Black Dots specializes in punk and hardcore, but also has a sizable inventory of indie, rock, and other genres. Sells new and used vinyl.
- The Record Baron (3048 Delaware Ave. ijn Kenmore): This building has been a record store for at least 35 years (previously The Record Mine and The Record Exchange). Big selection of new and used vinyl as well as some memorabilia. Often carries audiophile pressings and reissues.
- Jam Records (1225 Hertel Ave.): While it had not yet opened its doors at time of print, I’m told it will sell new and used vinyl, with an attempt to tailor the store to the neighborhood. Owned by Dan of The Record Baron but run by his son James.
- Antique World (11111 Main St. in Clarence): On Sundays only, Antique World hosts two excellent used vinyl vendors — Bob the Record Man and Fiction House. Both proprietors are super friendly and knowledgeable, selling impressively diverse collections with new inventory every week. All records are graded for condition. In the summer, you’re also likely to find vendors selling vinyl outside.
- Frizb’s (2510 Elmwood Ave.): Open since 1998, Frizb’s may be best known for selling incredibly affordable used CDs and DVDs with a limited selection of new inventory, but in recent years it has started carrying a sizable selection of used vinyl from Music Matters.
- Music Matters (527 Cayuga Drive, Niagara Falls): Buys and sells used CDs, DVDs, video games and vinyl. Also carries a selection of T-shirts and memorabilia.
- M&B Record Exchange (207 Delaware St., Tonawanda): Carries a large selection of used rock vinyl. All records are in excellent condition and sold in protective poly sleeves. Buys vinyl collections.
- Doris Records (286 E. Ferry St.): Owner Mack Luchey is a pillar of the Jefferson Street community. This historic shop opened in 1962 and has hosted some pretty famous shoppers: Mary J. Blige, Lil' Kim, Ice Cube, Aretha Franklin, Kool Moe Dee, to name a few. Rick James used to live next door. While, like so many record stores, it has made room for apparel and other non-music inventory, it still carries a selection of new gospel, R&B, and hip hop CDs.
- Cool Beat Music and Books (2445 William St.): Recently opened, this Cheektowaga store carries a large selection used rock vinyl and music books. Located just down the street from the final location of Ruda’s records, Buffalo’s only Polish record store.
- Records ETC. (6047 Transit Rd.): Carries used vinyl and CDs as well as rock-related memorabilia. Specializes in classic and hard rock.
And there are vinyl events to attend, too:
- Nth Productions Record Shows (VFW Leonard Post, 2450 Walden Ave.): These record conventions, organized by Dan of The Record Baron, happen twice a year, typically in April and October. For $3 admission, you can browse through millions of albums from regional vendors. Contact The Record Baron for more information.
- Vinyl Mania: This irregularly occurring record convention has been popping up in different locations around town — a Kenmore VFW post, Sugar City, Iron Works. Keep an eye open for the next one.
After you’ve checked out all our local record stores, take a day trip to Rochester and visit Record Archive, Bop Shop Records, The House of Guitars, Lakeshore Record Exchange, Hi Fi Lounge, and Needledrop Records and Audio.
Places Where You Used to be able to Buy Records in Buffalo
A brief, annotated list of some of Buffalo’s most notable record stores of yesteryear. (A moment of silence, please.)
- Cavages (1944-1994): Found mostly in malls, Cavages was a Cheektowaga-based company that had more than a dozen local stores as well as locations in Rochester and Syracuse. While it lacked the intimacy of a freestanding store, and it catered primarily to mainstream tastes, it was still the coolest place to go if you had to be in the mall.
- The Record Runner (late ‘60s to early ‘80s): Located next to the Amherst Theater in the University Plaza, this two-story shop not only carried a wide variety of genres, but also sold bootlegs, disguised as imports. Founded in Ithaca.
- Record Theatre (1976-2017): Started by music business insider Lenny Silver (whose Amherst Records released albums by Spyro Gyra, the Stylistics, and Glenn Medeiros, among others), Record Theater had a total of 37 stores over the years, some as far afield as Baltimore, Cleveland, and Cincinnati. The Main and Lafayette store was often advertised as the world’s largest record store, a disputed claim.
- Play It Again Sam (1976-1982): A precursor to Home of the Hits, this Elmwood store gave many Buffalonians their first taste of punk and other underground genres. Also dealt in trade-ins and used records (hence the store’s name). Originally located in University Heights.
- Home of the Hits (1982-2006): Owner Jennifer Preston bought her brother’s store (Play it Again Sam), moved it a few doors down, and turned it into one of the coolest places to find underground music in Buffalo. Specialized in punk, alternative and avant garde. What it lacked in size, it made up for in reputation. Some of the store’s most famous shoppers included U2, Chrissie Hynde, Henry Rollins, and Ben Folds.
- New World Record (1984-2008): Started in the Evans Plaza, this diversely-stocked store enjoyed nine good years on Elmwood near Utica, then Govindan Kartha partnered with Spot Coffee on Elmwood for another seven successful years, before finally succumbing to declining record sales in a commercial plaza on Hertel and Elmwood. New World was like the mature older sibling to Home of the Hits, stocking world music, alt-country, and jazz, in addition to a decent selection of indie alternative. Hosted many in-store performances by artists such as Sloan, Ron Sexsmith, Barenaked Ladies, Moxy Fruvous (who crashed through the front window), Slobberbone, Lowest of the Low, and more.
- Apollo Records (‘80s-‘90s): Owned by the mercurial Gary Sperrazza, this Elmwood store was located across the street from the current Lexington Co-op. While many complained of Sperrazza’s surly customer service, he was a legend in his own right. A writer for Bomp! and other influential 'zines, he is credited for jump starting the careers of R.E.M., Fatboy Slim, Steve Albini and others. As a Buff State student, he organized a rock writers symposium in Buffalo, flying in seminal writers Lester Bangs, Nick Tosches, Greg Shaw, Richard Meltzer, Patti Smith, Lenny Kaye, Rob Tyner (of the MC5) and more. A club DJ and early proponent of hip-hop, Sperrazza allegedly sold vinyl to Nas, Gang Starr and KRS-One.
- WorldWide Records (‘90s): Located in University Heights, this store sold a large selection of used CDs and video games.
- Sit and Spin (1999-2008): Specializing in punk and hardcore, but with a sizable used section of all genres, this store started out on Transit Road and eventually moved to Delaware in North Buffalo, where it eventually changed ownership and became Spiral Scratch.
- Spiral Scratch (2008-2016): The heir apparent to Home of the Hits, Spiral Scratch occupied three locations: 2531 Delaware, 291 Bryant, and 1109 Elmwood (right next door to where Home of the Hits once was). Owner Dave Palumbo was also known as a beloved member of the band Trailer Park Tornadoes and Plates. Manager and events organizer Bill Nehill was also a Buffalo fixture, having worked at New World, bartended at Mohawk Place, and performed as a heralded singer-songwriter.
What have I missed? Do you have a good story about a local record store to share? Let’s hear it in the comments.
More importantly, support our indie record stores!