My father took me there first. I was 11 years old when we visited Yesterday & Today Records, an inauspicious storefront tucked on the side of the Sunshine Square shopping center in Rockville, Md. A music-loving kid, I’d haunted plenty of record stores at the mall, but when my dad and I walked into Yesterday & Today, I could tell that it was a different creature.
The store was bursting with thousands of LPs and singles, its walls adorned with faded posters and other ephemera. Crate-diggers sifted through bins of rare records — a bounty of rock-and-roll, but also loads of jazz, R&B and more — with prices handwritten on big orange stickers. The store’s owner, Skip, effortlessly dispensed knowledge about his inventory to customers as if he were feeding koi. They looked to him expectantly, waiting for advice on what obscure, limited-edition vinyl gem they should try next.
It was my first proper record-store experience. And Skip Groff was at the center of it.
Skip, who died Monday at age 70, was at the center of so many important moments — not just in the lives of adolescent music lovers like me but in the musical life of the city. Skip and his record store were driving forces in Washington’s fledgling punk rock scene of the late 1970s and early 1980s.
His own music education began as a teenager in Prince George’s County, listening to mid-1960s rock and soul music beaming out of the radio. In 1977, after a winding early career that took him from the Army to a job promoting records for RCA to a gig producing music for the Virginia metal band Pentagram, he opened Yesterday & Today in Rockville.
In the late 1970s, punk in Washington was a blur of inchoate but exciting new sounds led by bands such as the Slickee Boys and the Razz. Skip wasn’t just involved on the retail side; he formed a record label, Limp Records (a pun on Stiff Records, a popular British label), and released singles for both of those bands. At Yesterday & Today, he stocked the shelves with other punk records. Fans from the growing D.C. punk scene made pilgrimages to Rockville, clamoring for hard-to-find singles by bands such as the Damned and the Buzzcocks, which Skip would bring back from record-buying trips to England.
Shortly after the store opened, two teenage patrons, Ian MacKaye and Jeff Nelson, told Skip they wanted to put out a record by their hardcore punk band, the Teen Idles. Skip ended up producing the record and showing the pair how to set up a label of their own. The label, Dischord Records, helped put Washington on the punk-rock map, issuing records from epochal bands such as Minor Threat and Fugazi. MacKaye, who played in both bands, became one of the most well-known figures in D.C. music and punk worldwide. Amid the cacophonous din at the end of Minor Threat’s “Steppin’ Stone,” he can be heard saying, “Skip, we love you!”
Another young customer, Henry Garfield, spent hours flipping through records and absorbing Skip’s wisdom about rare pressings of punk singles and the virtues of colored vinyl. Garfield soon changed his last name and moved to Los Angeles in 1981 to join the preeminent hardcore band Black Flag, and ultimately Henry Rollins became a notable author, musician, and actor. He left his heart, however, at Y&T. “Skip taught me how to be a record fanatic,” Rollins told me last month, when I interviewed him for an oral history on Skip. “He’s like the dad I never had, in a way, where he gave you cool advice.”
One of Skip’s gifts was showing that there can be ecstasy in minutiae — that learning the particulars of a record in all its forms, and obtaining a scarce copy of it, can turn the ineffable power of music into something you can hold in your hands. When someone lets you in on that secret, you don’t forget it. “I love Skip,” Rollins declared. “He’s huge in my life. He’s a big, big deal for me.”
That first trip to Yesterday & Today with my dad in 1988 was the first of many visits. Sometimes I would arrive before the store opened so I could get my hands on a record the minute it was available. I became immersed in punk, eventually releasing recordings with my own bands. Seeing our singles stocked at Yesterday & Today, anointed with those orange price tags, felt like a dream.
The store closed in 2002. I’m a parent myself now. I happened to be driving through Rockville last weekend while my kids dozed in the back seat, and I thought about Skip. On a whim, I decided to see what the old Y&T storefront looks like now. There’s a restaurant there, but the facade still looks a lot like it did when Skip held court, teaching legions of record shoppers how to fall in love with music.
“What’s that?” asked my sleepy 6-year-old as we idled out front. “It might not look like much,” I told her, “but that place changed my life.”
Thanks, Skip. We love you.