As a kid with no life, I would often spend long, fatiguing hours at used record stores scouring bins for that one album title that couldn’t be found in any mall or chain store, one that wasn’t uttered on a schoolyard, or scribbled on some notebook. The hunts became a musical tutoring, a visceral and intellectual self-definition.
In these dusty grottos, half my education would spring from some ripened counterculture clerk offering longwinded stories about Thelonious Monk rewriting song tradition while saddled with a gnarly junk addiction, about the Rezillos reinventing the Dave Clark Five, about Mick Ronson’s unfortunate forays into production, and so on.
These guys — these flaccid-shouldered, overeducated underachievers — knew their shit. They were the professors, head-shop pied pipers who offered a musical connect-the-dots alternative to an otherwise anesthetized suburban limbo. Try finding that guy at your local Best Buy or Tower.
Part vintage record shop, part music entrepreneurial dream, part boyhood tree house, Fun House CDs and Collectibles on South Washington in downtown Royal Oak is a last-gasp of that ephemeral piece of cultural history, one that’s steadily going the way of drive-in movie theaters, 8-track tapes and neon-lit roadside motels. Along the clean, ordered streets, the cubbyhole is an anomaly; the kind of place that offers respite from a world foaming from a wellspring of celebrity ya-ya and disposable fads.
There’s a cheery sadness to indie shops like Fun House. The scented traces of dusty cardboard and incense, of cigarette ash and musty basements, walls of autographed punk posters, bins of used vinyl and CDs are all hallmarks of the used record store. The shop’s stock runs the gamut of Cyril Lords to Grand Funk Railroad, local techno to Turbonegro. A signed Elvis Blue Hawaii glossy fetches $600. The other day an original Miles Davis Birth of the Cool went out the door for $60.
Perhaps the framed John Holmes autograph for the porno Girls on Fire is symbolic; a crusty, albeit collectible motif from hazy days past, a hand-me-up that represents both the syrupy and impervious side of ’70s pop culture where words like dangerous actually meant something, when rock ‘n’ roll was still a life-altering sonic vocabulary.
Unfortunately, the universal truth among used record stores is struggle. The problem is simple: Fewer and fewer people are buying records, new or old, particularly from specialty shops that offer an alternative to the mainstream.
And the outlook is bleak. According to a recent report in Rolling Stone magazine, music retail chains are embracing the reality of layoffs, bankruptcies and closings. Wherehouse is boarding up 190 stores. Best Buy-owned Musicland shut down 107 locations. Tower Records, reportedly in danger of going belly-up after posting a loss of $13 million this spring, is on the block. To stay afloat, the report says, major chains are forced to vend — in addition to video games, DVDs and toys — garish doodads like SpongeBob SquarePants and Manic Panic hair dye.
When the record industry squawked last month that it would begin individual lawsuits against hundreds of illegal file-sharers, it was a signal that the music business is swimming in desperation.
“It’s not just the fact that we’re in a recession. Music doesn’t play a role in people’s lives anymore,” reasons Fun House owner Mark Kohler. “This middle generation who grew up in the ’80s and ’90s don’t seem to have the passion. I thought the Internet would open things up, but it’s had an opposite effect. Kids stay in, download free music.”
Kohler, like many Detroit indie record shop owners, is bucking a headwind. In corporate terms, he’s an anachronism. Here’s a guy who turned an obsession into a career. He has a nuanced understanding of recorded pop history. And his youthful round face belies the fact that he’s old enough to have seen Jimi Hendrix.
In the mid-’80s the University of Wisconsin grad managed the largest record store in the Dairy State. He played in a college band called Spaceship Earth (“a bowling team, weed-dealer kind of band”). Kohler has been a blacksmith, band manager, car painter, punk-rock radio DJ (WMSE in Milwaukee) and road manager for UK band the Exploited. The exasperated Kohler quit that gig on the steps of St. Andrew’s Hall in ’91. He found himself living with his parents in Tennessee, where he fell into a gig at Tower Records (“what a piece of shit company”) in Nashville.
He hit it off with label promo people and began working for WEA as a product development rep for Michigan and surrounding states. The work was good, he says, for a while; that is, until the powers that be stopped caring about the music. The pink slip came in ’99 after Kohler told a member of Wilco that Warner Bothers had stopped working the band’s Summer Teeth record. “It was like, ‘Mark, you never tell a band the truth.’ A week later I was fired. It ended up being a horrible, horrible job, all this backstabbing, corporate shit.”
With help from his parents, Kohler cobbled together the cash to buy out Fun House from original owner Tony Fusco in 2001. The Livonia store sat in a milieu of karaoke bars and unemployed blue-collar workers, no place for a used record shop. Worse, Sept. 11 happened the week Kohler reopened. The Iraq war broke out days after he relocated to Royal Oak.
Saturday shoppers include a McCartney fiend and a Dusty Springfield head, and some Royal Oak hack punks boasting multihued Mohawks and designer punk garb who don’t spend a dime. A couple swathed in golf course action-wear step in and do a quick perusal of the postered walls and cluttered bins. Apparently, the latest Norah Jones CD isn’t readily available on a wall display. They turn and walk out, concealing their hasty retreat with an empty “thank you.”
Kohler says he purchased Fun House as a way to say “fuck you to the industry. This is my retirement.” Well, retirement is an optimistic term; the store is limping along with a paper trail of debt. Kohler is barely scraping by. On weekday afternoons, he learns the grammar of silence. “I’m shocked this store isn’t doing well in Royal Oak.”
At a recent record show in Roseville, Kohler is milling about. With beer in hand and cynicism setting in, he’s ready to take the hours by the throat. None of the vendors at this VFW hall are selling much. The faces of the owners of Record Graveyard, Memories and Melodies and other worthy mom-and-pops betray the truth of a dubious economy.
“I know I can’t compete with Best Buy,” Kohler says. “None of us can. I think things will change and I think these [indie] stores will become important again. It has a lot to do with free thought, and people are just happy with whatever labels sell them. Music isn’t really necessary anymore. There needs to be a change in the atmosphere in the country for these stores to do better. I think people have to give a shit about living.”
Visit Fun House CDs & Collectables at 525 S. Washington Avenue, Royal Oak; call 248-336-9900 for more information.Brian Smith is the music editor of Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org