Thursday, August 19, 2010

Remembering a Gem

For twenty years, Record Express was a Middletown Main Street fixture. The store was part of a small independent chain of music stores owned by a local businessman. At its peak the chain had 14 stores in Connecticut and Massachusetts. In 2004 and 2005, the Record Express chain stores closed one after the other in rapid secession. The West Hartford store in the Center closed. The Hartford store on Pratt Street closed. The Cromwell store closed. And on and on until only one remained, right here in Middletown. It remained open for an extra year plus after all the other unlucky thirteen had closed. What Middletown's Record Express had that the others didn't, what allowed it to persevere and remain open, was the charismatic personalities of its managers. The last of those managers was Ian, who managed Record Express from 1998 until its closing in 2006. He followed in the footsteps of those before him and to some he was a Middletown icon. Ian always treated his customers and his employees with kindness and respect. He knew his customers, he knew his store, and he knew Middletown. He was at home behind the counter. He had an amazing talent for identifying music that a customer would like based on knowing what they liked and bought in the past. He never tried to convince a person to buy something that he or she wasn't interested in, or to like something that was not his or her taste. He understood that music was about what makes you happy, not what is cool or trendy. Ian brought the human element into the quest for new and different music that will never be found at the mega-chains or online. He never made much money; he sometimes joked that he could probably make more money working at McDonald's. He worked six days a week. He didn't use most of his company provided paid vacation time. It was a labor of love.

Despite Ian pouring his heart and soul into Record Express, business was still business. Rent increased, profits decreased, music sharing technologies gained momentum, and eventually the last of the once thriving chain shut its doors. When Record Express of Middletown finally closed in June 2006, it hardly came as a surprise to most. Barely a week went by when there wasn't another news story about the dying music industry and all the competition that traditional music distribution was getting from modern technology like Napster, mp3s, disc copying, dowloading, and iTunes. While the store closing may not have been a surprise, it was still a very sad and painful development for many. The store wasn't simply a place to buy music, and music simply wasn't a thing to be bought. Music could change your life and make you see things in a different perspective. The store was a place to be.

One person who clearly recognized the profundity of this was Brendan Toller. Brendan grew up in Portland and began visiting Record Express with his father at a young age. He continued discovering music there throughout his childhood. When he went off to college, he studied film, and when it came time for his senior film project, his subject became record stores and the reasons why so many of them were closing down. In a stroke of bittersweet but not quite ironic coincidence, Brendan's home town favorite Record Express closed during the time that he was making his movie, allowing that day to be captured in his film. Some of that footage is unarguably the most touching and memorable of the whole film.

Brendan's senior project became the acclaimed documentary I Need That Record! The Death (Or Possible Survival) of the Independent Record Store. The film has been making waves on the festival circuit where it's been well received at dozens of festivals around the world, and has been reviewed in countless magazines and newspapers including Rolling Stone, The Boston Globe and many more. At the North by Northwest film festival in Toronto, there were more people trying to see the film than there were seats in the theater, and viewers were turned away due to the capacity being maxed out. The film won an audience favorite award at the Melbourne International Film Festival in Australia, beating out It Might Get Loud, the Sony Pictures release which featured guitarists Jimmy Page, The Edge and Jack White. The latest print review was just recently published in the British magazine Uncut.

In the film, lovable and heartbroken Ian is contrasted with fiercely proud and determined Malcolm Tent, of Danbury's Trash American Style, another Connecticut record store that met its unfortunate demise around the same time. The tales of Ian and Malcolm and their stores are interwoven with commentary by an impressive bunch of musicians and insiders such as Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth, Ian Mackaye of Dischord Records, Fugazi and Minor Threat, Mike Watt of the Minutemen, guitarist Lenny Kaye of the Patti Smith Group, Chris Frantz of Talking Heads and Tom Tom Club, Patterson Hood of Drive-by Truckers, and more. The interviews are insightful and smart. The filmmaker paid as much attention to the visual aspect of this documentary as he did to the spoken content, including wonderful collage animations and lots of great footage including clips shot at a working record manufacturing facility in Tennessee.

The film was just released on DVD in July and is available to buy at many of the usual modern online outlets, as well as independent record stores (they aren't extinct) such as Red Scroll Records in Wallingford. Red Scroll is also featured in the film, as the “possible survival” part. And surviving they are.


Elizabeth Bobrick said...

Such a great story, Karen! I loved Record Express and the staff there, and I miss it. Thanks for letting us know about the documentary.

Anonymous said...

Karen: This is a great story about a wonderful place and about Ian, an exceptional person. As you say, he'd suggest something in the quietest way - "You liked [name of record here] didn't you? I think you might like [name of other record here] too." He led me to some music that I wouldn't have heard and that has since become part of my permanent mental playlist. Thanks for the bittersweet memories.
Andy Szegedy-Maszak

Anonymous said...

Karen, thank you for sharing this story and documenting the iconic Record Express. I'm going to add that we not forget to remember Robert Duffy, manager of RE from some time in the late 70s, throughouth the 1980s, and into the1990s when the store was located in the middle of Main Street, sorta across the street from Amato's. Remember the posters all over the walls AND the ceilings? The neat displays in the front windows, like the Material Girl dressing tabletop? And how Bob loved avante garde music and gently expanded our musical horizons? I use to give him $100 and say, "Pick out what you think I'd like." That's how I got my musical education. God bless you, Bob. We still love and miss you every day.

Madam Nirvana said...

Awesome Karen! i remember shopping here