July 20, 2006



Joe Gross: "Kemp Mill Records was a local record store chain based in Washington, D.C. At the peak of its success, the company had stores as far north as Delaware and as far south as, I dunno, the Carolinas, maybe? Atlanta? Over thirty stores, anyway.

The company’s business plan was both smart and its undoing: music was the loss-leader. The stores made money on accessories and the like. (It was an unusual thing for a CD to cost more than $12.99. Most were $9.99 to $11.99 in the very early 1990s.) Selection-wise, the stores were somewhere between the suburban consumer fantasy of a Tower Records (you had to drive out to Tysons Corner for one of those) and the truly depressing selection-vs.-price ratio of a mall music store (what’s up, Sam Goody?).

It was exactly the sort of local chain that was destroyed by the rise of big box stores like Best Buy, which could do the same thing Kemp Mill did on a mass scale. Kemp Mill are down to maybe one or two stores now, if that.

There was a Kemp Mill in a strip mall down the street from my middle and high schools. (Yep—same building.) I wandered in there pretty much every day after school. As a music dork, compulsive talker and extrovert, I was a big fan of knowing the people who were selling me things. I’m still that way—a very “great good place” kinda guy. I was in there so much that they offered me a job as Christmas help. Since I was just about to ask them for same, I jumped at it.

I ended up working there a few days a week after school and one Saturday or Sunday a week from fall of 1989 to the spring of 1992. As a teen incapable of a decent romance (I spent so much time in the Friend Zone, I built a summer home there) beset by anxiety (Paxil, stand the fuck up) and uninterested in Jesus, though many of my peers were Young Life types, I can honestly say that that job saved me from pulling some wussy, minor-league Columbine shit.

I loved that gig and it loved me back. I was the youngest employee there by at least six years. I took my first shot of Jaeger; borrowed my first issue of Forced Exposure, Bukowski, Celine and other staples of sensitive young man lit from a co-worker; fell in love with Austin, thanks to that same co-worker’s stories; became addicted to Stax/Atlantic soul; and heard countless bands for the first time. (For a record store in the Chocolate City’s most egregiously vanilla suburb, it had an amazing go-go selection. I wish I still had all my $7.99 P.A. tapes.)

There was a distinct lack of hipper-than-thou-ism, possibly because it wasn’t a particularly hip store. I enjoyed everyone I worked with and, not to wax my own car, but I was amazingly good at this job. My customer service skills fucking ruled. I was friendly, I was good at reading people (leave-me-alone vs. help-I’m-lost) and I just loved turning people on to stuff. I was Mr. “If you like this, you might like that.” My finest hour? The week after I sold a gal some CDs, she returns: “My boyfriend liked the ones you picked out more than the ones I picked out. What else you got?”

I mean, why the fuck try to alienate someone who is maybe buying a record for their brother or niece or significant other? I didn’t like Phil Collins, but goddamn it, Phil Collins kept me in pocket money. Not once did I ever see an employee be a dick to a customer. Again, no hipness seemed to be at stake—this wasn’t Smash in Georgetown, Vinyl Ink or Yesterday or Today, D.C., area stores where hipsters worked. These were folks who fell into retail, or wanted to pursue it as a career, or were underemployed death metal drummers. (That one gave me my first Sepultura album. I gave him his first Ministry album. We got along great.) That said, it was also a part time job for me. I wasn’t a manager and I wasn’t stuck there wanting to do something else. I had a blast.

Austin is lousy with decent record stores at the moment and I like almost all of them for different reasons. Sound on Sound for punk and hardcore; End of an Ear for avant-dork stuff; Musicmania for H-town hip-hop, etc. I also buy plenty online—eBay, Half.com, downloads—but it’s not nearly as much fun. The demise of the brick and mortar store is a damn shame. It kept me from going nuts and I suspect many others can say the same."

Posted by Sasha at July 20, 2006 11:45 AM | TrackBack