A Journey to Discover the Culture and Nostalgia of L.A.’s Record Stores
Pasadena's Poo-Bah Record Shop
Photo by Mike Spitz
“I remember pressing up my own records, and as you watch a machine press down on your own vinyl, you think, this is your precious thing that you created, and you think about all of the fights that might have happened because of one song, all of the money, and the time … you see all of those things pressed inside of that one record.”
—South Central native and original Pharcyde member Tre “Slimkid3” Hardson
On the surface of it, a vinyl record is just a plastic, disc-shaped sound-storage medium inscribed with a spiral groove. For most of the 20th century it was the primary medium used for music distribution. It has no inherent meaning on its own. But, because of how it ties one generation to its musical past and helps a new one imagine that past, the revived interest in vinyl that once seemed like a fad now appears to be here for good — and L.A., with its thriving community of old and new record shops, has become a hub for collectors.
Enter journalist Rebecca Villaneda and photographer Mike Spitz, whose recent The Record Store Book highlights 50 of Southern California's record stores. With its artfully crowded photos and offbeat stories from store owners, the coffee-table book both celebrates some of our city's more venerable record stores and reminds us of the breadth of vinyl's current appeal.
Following Hardson's poignant introduction, the book starts with some of the dusty, old-guard shops that have been around since the 1950s, such as Pasadena's Canterbury Record Shop, before winding up at newer places like Hollywood's 2-year-old Record Parlour. Throughout its pages, you get a sense that these are just folks plying a trade in something that gives them a sense of history and preserves music as a tangible commodity in an increasingly digital world.
"These guys that had grown up with vinyl as their first source of music just had so many great stories," Villaneda says. "I just feel so blessed that these guys opened their doors to me."
Browsing in Burger Records in Fullerton
Photo by Mike Spitz
Spitz, a 48-year-old Silver Lake photographer (and clinical social worker), says his love of vinyl goes back to his earliest memories of listening to music. "I have a long history of going to record stores. So when I was reaching back into my own nostalgic past, I thought, why don't I do something about [them]. It's very specific. It has all the elements, it has portraiture, urban architecture, music ... all of the things I like to take pictures of."
Spitz originally thought he would cover the whole country, but whittled down his scope to the Greater Los Angeles area after realizing that our region has more than enough shops to fill a book. "On a weekend, I would shoot two or three stores," he says.
Villaneda probed the owners, to see what makes them tick. She says the conversations "turned into something deeper and more meaningful when we started to interview these older cats, like Music Man Murray, who is no longer with us. He was in the game for so long. Something like 30-plus years." She even uncovered some truly odd stories, like a love triangle that emerged over the years among the owners of Norwalk Records.
The Record Store Book is a subjective survey of Southern California vinyl culture; Spitz focused on his favorite stores and deliberately omitted a few popular landmarks, such as Long Beach's Fingerprints and Echo Park's Origami Vinyl, in favor of stores that are more off the beaten path. He also steered clear of anyplace where T-shirts and tchotchkes took up as much floor space as the vinyl. "They do it because they have to survive, so there's an upside to that, but there's also a downside," he explains. "It took away from the authenticity of the store."
Spitz fears that the current vinyl resurgence may yet prove to be an empty trend. "I just feel like my generation is more authentic. I feel more connected with those kinds of people. They're not riding a trend; they are there because they appreciate records. They want to find something. They're serious about it. They don't care if it's going to be a trend in two years."
Longtime Origami employee Emily Twombly disagrees with that sentiment. She sees shops like hers as a way to continue a different tradition inherent in record-store culture — that of serving as tastemaker and supporting local bands.
"There are a ton of local bands here. And in this certain scene, vinyl is part of that," she explains between fielding calls at the shop. "When we were growing up, to find out about new bands, we had to read zines, we had to go to shows, we had to be active about talking about music with other people and sharing music with other people physically, and not just MP3s. You had to invite your friend over to listen to a record."
She continues, "Now, kids can just access this shit so easily — which is why a new record store like ours is important. If people will utilize our resources, we're essentially doing the same thing we had when we were growing up: [providing] a hub."
For Zane Landreth, co-owner of Highland Park record store Mount Analog (which appears in The Record Store Book), any so-called vinyl trend or resurgence is irrelevant to him and his customers. "Records came back. Sure. And now you can buy records in Whole Foods or whatever. But for me and everyone I know, I just never stopped buying records.
"For most of the music I listen to and for most of the records we sell in the shop, vinyl is the only way you can get it. Just because other people are paying attention now doesn't change the way I do my life or run my business," he adds.
His business, which he runs with co-owner Mahssa Taghinia, also finds that middle ground between old record-heads and those on the hunt for something brand-new. "When you come in, you're comfortable here. You can learn about new things. It has that coffeehouse vibe. It's like a cultural center. That's the most fun thing about running the shop, getting to be someone's tour guide into getting into some old or new weird shit."
Michael Kurtz, co-founder of Record Store Day, the annual bonanza of limited-edition vinyl that's now in its 10th year, doesn't see any sort of rivalry between any of those notions. "Every store has its own personality," he explains. "You figure that out, and you start going to them for those specific reasons — like they're your own friends."
And whether or not there's contention between young and old, new and used, vinyl enthusiasts agree that each of these places represents a place they can go to feel something real.
"It's about getting away from the social media aspect and getting back to the face-to-face aspect of it ... and just getting away from the computer screen," Villaneda says.
Rebecca Villaneda and Mike Spitz
Courtesy of Mike Spitz
Despite his place among the old guard, Spitz brings it back to the same place. "This is a theme of the book. It's about experience. What kind of experience do you want to have? Do you want to go and have a face-to-face interaction in a record store, and go in with an uncertainty?
"You can go in with a plan and the plan is going to be shattered. You're not going to find what you're looking for — you're going to find something you didn't expect.
"That's a whole different experience than going online," he adds. "There's not much adventure there. There's not much uncertainty."
The Record Store Book is available now through all major book and e-book retailers. More info at www.mikespitz.com.
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