Record Stores- my story

Posted by Alan Kovan on September 15, 2019 (2 Comments)


For those open minded and into music Record Stores can be the center of their universe and social life. They open up all sorts of possibilities. To many music is what defines them. They were very much like a corner bar sans alcohol. A gathering place for people to hang out and learn about music and life. 

If you bonded with a record store staff they often guided your musical journey. Or you found your own path. Since I have lived in the Detroit area most of my life that was my experience. Helpful were the UK music magazines that started being imported to the US around the Punk era and continued after that. Those were a fantastic way to find out about new bands on a weekly basis. Problem was try finding a store who stocked all those records and magazines.

My journey started at Korvettes on Southfield Rd. The lowest price on records in town. I used to drool over some of the Rolling Stones imports. Then across the street Record Market opened behind Farrell's. They were more adventurous. End caps fully stocked with Stooges & MC5 records. It was like Creem Magazine opened that shop. I bought my first Rolling Stones ticket there. For a show in Cleveland. 

Closer to home there was Record Outlet on Orchard Lake Rd. where a bearded red haired guy (I cant remember his name) carefully curated their New Wave wall. He was the first person to tell me about the Talking Heads, Television, The Ramones etc. It really opened my eyes.

Then I went away to college at Michigan State where I had Flat Black & Circular to continue my education. I think I spent more time in there than in the class room. There was also Wherehouse Records for new major label releases. Good staff there too.

Then in my post college life I started to travel. The first thing I would do in the early 80's (pre internet & GPS) after checking into my hotel room was bust out the Yellow Pages and turn to Record Stores and map out my free time. Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, all of Michigan. On weekends I would drive to Off The Record in Dearborn and load up on records and magazines. While they wound up being my main competitor and I wound up moving my shop a block away from theirs and we (the owners) developed a dislike for each other, they were an integral part of my musical journey. 

After some lay offs, including me, in just over a year things changed. My Dad took me to a football game at MSU. He asked me what I really wanted him to do with my life. So I took him to Flat Black & Circular. We talked about the concept on the way home and the seeds of my shop were planted.

At the time I was a massive Rolling Stones fan and collector. But I was also very much into punk, post punk, new wave. Simple Minds, U2, Echo & The Bunnymen, The Clash, Elvis Costello and much more. I knew I wanted to stock cool imports and cool records as well as used vinyl. I made a connection with Bleecker Bob's in NYC to get these really cool French gig posters. Not sure how I managed this. Bob Plotnick aka Bleecker Bob (RIP) was not easy to deal with. 

The early days were tough. Everyone wanted a job but there was no money. I had one employee  A high school student who knew his music. My Mom filled in occasionally if I needed to go to New York to get posters. I still laugh when I think about this. She insisted on listening to reggae when she was behind the counter. I must have gotten my passion from her.

My employee went off to college and I needed to hire a new employee. We used to advertise on local cable on the IRS Records 120 Minutes on MTV. All over the Detroit area. Thankfully John Huston was watching in Northville and I am not sure if I asked him or if he asked me but I hired him. John knew way more about music than I did. This was a definite turning point. The Segal brothers, Michael and Dave, were regulars and took to John. All three scoured the UK music papers asking me to order all sorts of obscure UK independent releases which they all bought. Michael was hired and the whole idea of the shop changed. This bond resulted in what I feel is the best music writing I have ever read in the four issue run of the You Can't Hide Your Love Forever fanzine.

I want to mention all my employees Milly, Craig, Kristin, Todd, Holly, Jennifer, M Blake Johnson aka Scoob, Brett, Matt, Campbell, Andy, Randall, Jill and Ann Arbor- Mike, Glen, Rob & Amy.

It was difficult to stock these records and it was a miracle we were able to get them. Part of it was buying used records who's value I knew was much more in the UK than here and stashing them until I had enough to fly to London and trade to get all the Creation, Factory, Rough Trade, 4AD and all other independent UK records. I had a great trading partner in Mark Hayward at Vinyl Experience. Later on it was Runcible Records whom I loaded up on all things Spacemen 3 and Spiritualized among other uber limited UK indie records.

All these parts of the puzzle made up Play It Again. It allowed me to travel and build business relationships, get all the hard to find UK indie records and have the first rare record wall in town. 

Another stroke of luck (for us) was when the head of alternative marketing at Warner Brothers, came to town. She was at Harmony House on Orchard Lake Rd working a Smiths record when the staff their asked why she hadn't come to my shop. She did. She also locked her keys in the car which made her visit the better part of the afternoon. This was the start of a great relationship between my shop and Warner Brothers. We were really taken care of by several labels but the Warner Brothers bond was the closest. I am sure they helped get me on New Music Seminar and CMJ panels. I am sure they also helped us be chosen as the record shop by the second stage for the four day run at the 1994 Lollapalooza at Pine Knob/DTE.

This brings me to the "golden era" of Play It Again. The buying/trading trips to the UK, the in store signings Throwing Muses, The Lucy Show, The Chameleons, Spiritualized, Mercury Rev to name a few. Stereolab, Poster Children, LaBradford and Comet playing in the shop. Also the forging of relationships with several bands and record labels as well as Jason Spacemen of Spiritualized which continues to this day.

What really made the shop was the customers without whom we would never have stayed open. It isn't lost on me how long the drive was for folks from the East Side in the pre I-696 days. Lets face it you had to walk in to an intimidating environment as far as music was concerned. I understood that and tried hard to create a welcoming atmosphere. That didn't always work out because when it comes to music, especially in shops like Play It Again, that defined whomever it was walking through the doors. We did run the gamut of everything from US & UK indie to experimental noise and goth. I can only guess what a lot of the Current 93/Nurse with Wound/United Dairies records I used to pick up on trips to the UK are worth now. Some of those were so limited I had to be one of the only shops in the US that had them.

Many people just wanted to hear what we were in to. What great new records needed to be a part of their collection. 20+ years after moving on from Play It Again I hear from people who tell me how much they appreciate my store. How important it was in their musical journey. Those stories never get old. Just last week I was in Rustbelt Market speaking to one of my very early customers Dan and someone stopped and noticed me and had such nice things to say. In fact I could go through my facebook friend list and probably 30 to 40% are former customers and employees. In fact some of my closest friends were made through buying/selling/trading records. Canadians, English, Australians. 

This note from one of my very good friends upon his first visit to PIA:

Upon my very first visit to your shop we walked in and Bardo Pond's Amanita was playing. I remember saying "what is this?" and the rest is history. On the same morning you said you had shit to do and you handed me a pile of 7" singles and said play these. The first one was Brian Jonestown Massacre's- Anemone. It blew my mind. The 2nd single was Flowchart's Acoustic Ambience. This also had a massive effect on me. That all took place in the first 45 minutes I spent in your shop. That was a very important 3/4 of hour of musical impact.

This from a Detroit Free Press article celebrating Record Store Day 2016. The quote was from Ben Blackwell of The Dirtbombs and Third Man Records.

"There was a moment in 1995 when I discovered Play It Again Records in Ferndale, where literally every record I was looking for at that point was on the wall," Blackwell says "I had just started collecting Sub Pop and Seattle Grunge stuff, and the wall there was littered with all of it. I don't think I will ever have be able that experience again in my life. The guy running the counter saw me put a single back (I didn't have enough money), and when he was ringing up my purchases, he told me to go back and grab whatever single it was (I believe it was a Mudhoney 7 inch). Something so insignificant, so fleeting, I will never forget and always keep in mind whenever meeting someone else who's excited and motivated out in the record world".

My story is just a Detroit area story. I know there are others. In other cities like Buffalo with Home Of The Hits, Chicago- The Quaker Goes Deaf, Milwaukee- Atomic, Minneapolis- Let It Be, Toronto- Record Peddler. There are also great shops currently open that are vitally important. Here we have Street Corner in Oak Park, Stormy in Dearborn, Flat Black & Circular in East Lansing, Dr. Disc in Windsor, Sonic Boom and Rotate This in Toronto, Stinkweeds in Phoenix, Amoeba in Los Angeles & Berkeley, Jumbo in Leeds, King Bee in Chorlton (Manchester), Dig Vinyl in  Liverpool. These are just shops I know of and have been to in the past 20 years.

Things these days like Spotify and iTunes take the joy of the record shop away. People don't feel they need the physical product. Not sure if that makes me old school but I don't care. I love supporting bands by buying their releases directly from them or their label. Chicos De Nazca, Kikagaku Moyo, Moon Duo/Rose City Band. Just some of the bands I have recently bought directly from.

The moral of the story here. Find a record shop. Make friends with them. You may learn something. You may make a new friend. It will open up a whole new world.

Comments (2 Comments)

Play It Again was the first job i had, that I owed money after my shift. Best job i ever had and I still have the kickbacks sitting by my turntable.

Posted by Campbell Doughty on December 04, 2020

I admire your love for music and record stores. As a kid in the Chicago suburbs I loved going to the city and looking for obscure and imports and bootlegs from Chicago shows. Reggie’s, grammaphone, reckless records, and the alley were all important places for music and merch in the city. I came across your online store looking for a rage against the machine battle of Chicago lollapalooza shirt vintage shirt, you had one but it was sold out unfortunately. All your vintage Chicago stuff is rad. Please lmk if you happen to get another please. Thank you for being a important participant in record store/ audiophile/ vintage culture.
Thanks man

Posted by Sully on December 04, 2020

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