The last remaining Kemp Mill Music store closes Saturday after losing its lease, but one item isn’t for sale: a battered cardboard cutout of go-go icon Chuck Brown.
Armando Cruz is turning out the lights on the once-ubiquitous regional chain that boasted more than 30 locations in the Washington metro area at its peak. He’s held on to the Brown promotional cutout for years and once rejected a $500 offer for it.
Selling music was never really about the money, anyway.
“You’re doing it for the love of it,” said Cruz, who co-owns the Temple Hills, Md., store. He bought Kemp Mill after its parent company went bankrupt in 2003, then closed all but one location five years later. “You’re not going to make crazy money.”
On Thursday, two days before the store was set to close, Kemp Mill’s dwindling inventory was on display. Side by side on one shelf of beaten records: Schoolly D’s 1988 single “No More Rock N’ Roll” for $5.99 and “The Second Barbra Streisand Album” (1963) for $1.99. If offerings like these don’t appeal, the store has a wicked collection of incense at the front counter.
Here, in a weathered strip mall on Branch Avenue in Prince George’s County, where racks of CDs and DVDs greet shoppers, the music industry’s much-ballyhooed vinyl revival isn’t apparent. Danny Lamb, the store’s other owner, said he and Cruz have contemplated getting deep into the used-vinyl game, taking trips up to New York to become crate-diggers.
“We just can’t find the time,” said Lamb, 55. Another problem: “Vinyl is very expensive. You’re paying two to three times as much for music on a record.”
Instead of chasing a hipster trend, Kemp Mill, founded in the early 1970s, offered something else: community, particularly for the region’s R&B, gospel and go-go fans. A business that once had 275 employees and $30 million in annual sales, with outlets from Dupont Circle to Springfield Mall, also consigned records by local artists and hosted in-store performances.
Wanda Mahan, a regular customer over the years, walked out of the store Thursday with a handful of CDs as she recalled seeing R&B singer Will Downing at Kemp Mill. A digital download couldn’t match that, she said.
“I prefer the physical because when the artist signs it to me, it makes the CD so much more valuable,” said Mahan, 59. “The artist knows me.”
For go-go, getting up close and personal was crucial. The store was an oasis for a genre that people outside Washington barely knew.
“They realized the value of go-go music and power of it, too — the power of selling it,” said Salih “Bootsy Vegas” Williams, vocalist for go-go group O.P. Tribe and formerly of the “Donnie Simpson Morning Show” on WPGC 95.5 FM. “You have to understand the culture of go-go, how much it means to people.”
On Thursday, Shon Morant, 45, browsed racks of live go-go performances as his two young daughters spun circles in the aisle. His kids don’t share his musical tastes.
“The only thing they know about music is what they see in cartoons,” he said.
Morant was there to scratch an itch felt by many a go-go fan: trying to find a live recording of a specific show, maybe even one he’d seen. Alas, the one he was here to find, a performance by Vybe Band, was sold out.
But the search, even if unsuccessful, is what go-go is all about, said Charles “Shorty Corleone” Garris, a vocalist with legendary go-go group Rare Essence.
“It’s that experience,” he said. “It’s that understanding of what the crowd does to a live band and what the live band does back to the crowd.” He added, “Kemp Mill understands that music is a part of the culture of the DMV and there needs to be a platform for it to be readily available.”
Kemp Mill’s problem wasn’t the business, which, while “pretty volatile,” was profitable, Lamb said. When the store was unwilling to sign a long-term lease, the building’s owner, former record retailer and D.C. developer Douglas Jemal, went with someone who would.
“I guess we don’t fit into their plans,” Cruz said.
Efforts to reach Jemal were unsuccessful.
For music fans, there is hope: Cruz and Lamb may decide to reboot the business elsewhere. Like many things going gentle into that good night, Kemp Mill’s pending closure has revived interest in the business.
Lamb said gospel lovers get most emotional about Kemp Mill.
“One woman completely broke down in the store,” he said. “She said, ‘I can’t get my music anywhere else.’ ”
Lamb said he once ordered more than $400 worth of CDs for a man who printed a list from the Internet. For whatever reason — inability to use a computer or unwillingness to put his personal information online — the man preferred that Kemp Mill handle the transaction.
And sometimes it’s nice to have someone put a record in your hand.
“I’m down with the computer and all that, but there’s nothing like having the original,” said 60-year-old customer Darrell Price. “I’m old-school. I like to have my own.”