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“Fuck school, fuck a daytime job.” It just gets in the way, says Kelly Benway. You can tell right away that punk runs through Benway’s veins. Always has. She grew up with the Talking Heads, Blondie, Television and the Ramones. And when she needed money to support her punk habit, she knew that getting a “normal” job just wouldn’t cut it. So she landed a job at Tower Records in NYC, while living the CBGB wave of the late ’70s. Learning the ropes at a slew of new- and used-record shops, Benway soon got the balls to open her own store called Benway Bop. And why the hell shouldn’t she? She and her then-husband Ronn — they met as co-workers at Penny Lane in Westwood — knew there were other music junkies like them needing a fix.
(Photo by Kevin Scanlon)Originally the store lived in Las Vegas, Ronn’s hometown, where Benway quickly found out that the city of sin was a cultural wasteland. To counter the lack of buzz and distortion on the airwaves, Benway hooked up with KUNV, a local college radio station. She eventually became a DJ there and started a specialty program called The 7-Inch Show — all 7-inch indie singles. Foggy-headed listeners started to tape the show so they could remember it the next day, and passed copies around to friends. This led to some in-stores by the likes of Ween, Wax and Will Oldham, and MTV shot a Go-Go’s interview at Benway, back when there used to be real music on television.
After Las Vegas began to suck so much they could fight no longer, the Benways traded the desert for the ocean, and Benway Records found a comfy spot in Venice Beach that lasted for nine years. Last March an ideal space opened up on Pico Boulevard in Santa Monica, and Benway, single now, is queen of the castle in her own little punk-rock heaven, right next door to Vidiots, catering to all your VHS needs.
Rather than just running another boring store where you buy the music but hate the place you’re shopping at, Benway has created a music-lover’s paradise where pretty much anything goes. Customers lose themselves for hours, shuffling through racks of new and vintage records and CDs as music you want to own blasts through the speakers. A collection of hard-to-find classic vinyl hangs above the register, and there’s great promo swag, perfect to deck out your cubicle.
If you get tired of being a loner record geek, strike up a conversation with Benway or her daughter Veronica. No matter what the subject, from the sound of the White Stripes on vinyl to the quality of the food at the neighboring bowling alley, you’ll get their two cents.
“You can sit around and talk about the music rather than just find what you’re looking for and you’re outta there,” Benway says.
To help support the local scene, she holds regular art and music shows — on May 19, a group art show will open at the store with works by legendary surfboard shaper Jeff Ho and several others, including Benway herself. And on the last Friday of every month, Veronica and her friend Lindsay Howard host “Veronica’s Afterschool Special.” The CD racks are pushed aside and the store becomes a place for bands to go nuts. Word has gotten around about the Friday shows, and bands are itching to play the event, which now has an automatic crowd that knows what goes down at 7 p.m. As Nick Barlow, a writer for Santa Monica High’s newspaper, says about Benway, “It’s one of the last places in Santa Monica where you can hang out, buy records, and talk about music, politics and how cool Lou Reed is.”