It's a rainy Tuesday afternoon in central Phoenix, and I'm hanging with TJ Jordan, co-owner of the Valley's newest vinyl shop, Revolver Records. Aromatic candles give the space a warm, cozy vibe. Others must think so, too, because there's a steady flow of shoppers competing for space in the snug, 1950s-era home located in a resurgent enclave on Seventh Avenue near Indian School Road.
I'm here because I'm a lifelong lover and collector of the wax. I actually prefer the large, clunky format because there's an intimate interaction that one can't achieve with digital. Yes, it's true that vinyl's nuanced shortcomings (such as portability) have made the medium a nearly forgotten breed, but I don't care. If I own a CD version of an album that I really care about, I'll still pick up the record. To me, it's analogous to reading a print version of a newspaper article versus online. I want my hands to get down and dirty with the medium.
Jordan agrees that there's an inherent interactivity when listening to wax. "It comes down to the experience you get from a record. It's hard to explain, but there's an aura within vinyl," he says. "When you take it out of the sleeve and put it on a player . . . I don't know, man. It's just killer."
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Why do I collect records? For the bold, full sound that only vinyl can capture. To own something that's never been issued on CD. For my mood (some crazy Germans claim that compressed digital music actually induces depression). And for my vinyl-only 33 1/3 party that will take place exactly four months after my 33rd birthday (save the date: November 5, 2010).
For a while, Jordan and I riff back and forth about vinyl's abstract mystique. Before we convince ourselves that listening to records will create world peace, a man walks into the store. He's an older cat, maybe in his mid-50s. He has obviously explored the contours of Revolver's 900-square foot space that houses more than 12,000 records, because he makes a beeline to the back room, where the jazz records are neatly stacked into bins. I tune out Jordan, who now sounds like that warble-voiced teacher on Peanuts, because there's a gem of a record in that room and that customer could score it before I do.
Though I collect many genres of music such as Motown, spoken-word oddities, and weird recordings by evangelists, soul and jazz are my top two obsessions. I've been all over the world — New York City; Port Townsend, Washington; Rotterdam, Holland; Beckenham Junction, England — sleuthing for avant-garde music and out-of-print soul dusties. However, one treasure yet to be purchased — Alice Coltrane's Lord of Lords — sits in plain view in Revolver's back room. I'm afraid that man will steal my discovery.
Jordan continues with his analog-purity sermon. He might as well put on a robe and open the First Assembly of Vinyl Freaks. (I would be its first member.) "When you put on a record, you can read the liner notes on this big sleeve." He pulls out an unidentified LP from a shelf, opens the gatefold, and demonstrates. "With digital, you really can't do that."
Man, I should have grabbed that Coltrane album when I first walked in here. It's only $9.99, a total steal. Plus, I've never seen the record version before, not even on eBay. Though that guy is taller than me, I'm younger and probably quicker. And I have a long reach in case things get ugly. But thankfully, it doesn't come to that. Moments later, he strolls out of the back room, empty-handed. Awesome.
If you couldn't tell by now, record collecting is a serious passion of mine. If I paid as much attention to my romances as I do my wax fortunes, I would probably make a pretty good boyfriend (sad but true). And I'm not alone, even in this era of digital downloads and bootleg burns. There's actually a healthy subculture of record seekers all over the world. And, according to a recent article in Time, the vinylphile movement is growing. Apparently, record sales increased 15.4 percent in 2007 because, among other reasons, folks are finding the medium more socially engaging than the introverted, plug-in-the-ears iPod.
Many folks make a pretty profit selling records online, too. Some even love vinyl so much that they open a record shop, like Jordan and his business partner, Steve Zimmerman.
Jordan is a career record guy. He's worked in record stores since age 17, but never owned his own shop until now. You'd think that starting a record-centric business in the digital age sounds like a slow, painful suicide. Not so, explains Jordan.
"I'm amazed with the success so far. This may sound lofty, but we wanted to keep the real record stores alive," says Jordan, who opened Revolver's doors on September 1, 2007. "Plus, there's always a backlash against what's popular, which today is the iPod and the MP3. Unlike any other medium, vinyl has always been there."
He adds, "The reality is that records have a collectability aspect to them. And there are a lot of reasons why people buy records."
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Revolver stacks up pretty well against other stores in town (Tracks in Wax, Memory Lane, Rock Zone). If anything, the selection definitely beats the bins at Zia Records, which touts itself as "The Last Real Record Store." Every time I've been there, my most interesting vinyl finds were a couple of warped, 99-cent copies of Earth, Wind, & Fire's Spirit. Not good.
Tempe's Eastside Records is most definitely my personal favorite. It's been around forever, the inventory is banging, and the staff's a curious bunch. When a clerk comes across an undesirable record, he'll buy the album and toss it on the building's roof. Another time, according to urban legend, an employee became so irate after discovering a Whoopi Goldberg Christmas LP that he grabbed the album, hiked down his drawers, and turned Goldberg's recording into an Eastside special poo-poo platter. (I'm glad I heard about this after the fact.)
Back at Revolver, nobody is taking a shit on the merchandise, thank goodness. At this point, I've been here for about 45 minutes and the place is still busy. I'm definitely impressed. If a record store can be busy on a weekday afternoon — especially in Phoenix, where people refuse to leave their homes during rainstorms — it must be a healthy time to be a vinyl nerd.
I'm over in the rock-soul-pop section, looking for anything by The Main Ingredient, when a guy tells Jordan, "Man, there's no better job than owning a record store. You get to sit here and listen to music all day." True dat.