Shopping at a record store is a throwback experience for those who haven’t set foot in one since opening an iTunes account. But remember getting lost in the rows of alphabetized CDs and records, risking carpal tunnel syndrome from all that flipping? Seeing one album reminds you of another album, which is right next to something interesting . . . and hey, what’s that playing on the stereo? Record stores were Pandora long before Pandora existed.
Saturday is the perfect day to jump back into the scene because it’s Record Store Day, an annual celebration of independent brick-and-mortar music shops. Get to your favorite indie record store early enough and you have a (very slim) chance at getting your hands on limited edition Record Store Day-only releases by artists including Phoenix, Mumford & Sons and the Rolling Stones.
We visited Neal Becton, owner of Som Records at 14th and T streets NW (just steps from the Black Cat), for a refresher on the art of shopping at record stores. Som (pronounced “some;” it’s Portuguese for “sound”) sells almost exclusively vinyl records from a small shop tucked underneath a vintage clothing store.
What’s your best tip for navigating a record store?
Neal Becton: If you don’t see something you’re looking for, ask. Maybe they have it in a box on the floor by the counter or they can order it for you. Don’t assume they don’t have it.
Record-store clerks are intimidating to some people.
There are two extremes. There are stores where they don’t help you at all and they just sit behind the counter. When you bring your records up to them they say, ‘Ha, I can’t believe you bought that.’
And then there are stores where they say, ‘Can I help you?’ and they’re right on you, following you around the shop. I hate that too. I like to be able to browse by myself but have some general pointers of where I’m going to find stuff, so that’s what I try to do. I try to give people some space but if they look a little puzzled, I help them out.
Sometimes people need help but they’re too shy to ask because they’re afraid you’re going to be one of those record stores where the guys are too cool for school.
So you’re not secretly judging people?
Well, maybe secretly [laughs]. No, no, I’m not judging people. I stock and price every record in the store so I don’t really put stuff in here I don’t like. There might be one or two new releases that I don’t think are the greatest.
Does every new release still come out on vinyl?
More than there were 10 years ago. Basically, CDs overtook vinyl in the mid or late ’80s. Back in the ’90s, the only ones pressing vinyl were really small indie bands or big bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam, but nothing in the middle. Now, pretty much everybody does.
How did records get popular again?
People who grew up with MP3s just discovered vinyl. . . . Maybe they got a record player from their parents or heard one at their friend’s house and decided they want to get records now. It’s a lot more fun accumulating records than it is songs on your iPod.
What are the benefits of shopping in a record store?
One of the best things about going to a record store is just the communal experience. You go in and maybe you run into a guy who’s in the band you’re going to see at the Black Cat and there’s the lead singer hanging out and you get to talk to him. Or I’m playing something on the store stereo and somebody likes it and says, ‘Oh that’s great, what is that?’ You discover new stuff. Friends run into each other here all the time, which is nice. It makes it more social rather than sitting in your house and ordering something on iTunes. And you’re supporting your local business.
Do you sell any non-music merchandise here?
These Sriracha [hot sauce] t-shirts have been very popular. They have nothing to do with music, but they’re cool.
What is Som Records doing for Record Store Day this year?
Record Store Day is by far the busiest day of the year. It’s not even close. I will do a sale the day after Record Store Day, which is what I did last year. Otherwise, it’s just too insane.
What can people expect around town?
Crooked Beat [on 18th Street in Adams Morgan] invests the most in Record Store Day and has the most new releases. So the biggest lines are at Crooked Beat. Usually people start there and fan out to the other stores.