Record store retains relevance in digital age
Downtown fixture now taking a spin in street-level Mass. Street location
So, in walks this kid with the perfect name for an optimistic college student — Will Pass.
Really. That’s his name. And he comes flying through the door of the Love Garden, a borderline iconic record shop that has called downtown Lawrence home for nearly 20 years now. He’s obviously in a hurry and obviously a man on the move.
“I’m about to go on a five- to six-hour road trip,” he says by way of an introduction as he blocks the view of a beautiful Gordon Lightfoot album jacket that is getting primo space on the shelf. “And I need a good CD.”
These are the types of moments the guys working the Love Garden counter live for. Somebody comes in and throws them a ball of clay and tells them to mold. Not even two seconds go by before Kelly Corcoran, the store’s owner and operator, provides the answer.
“You’re going to buy this,” he says pointing to the CD that he’d just stuck into the store’s player a few moments earlier. “Relatively Clean Rivers. You don’t know it, and it rules.”
Say what? Relatively Clean Rivers? Is that a band or a half-hearted EPA slogan? Surely Mr. Pass will take a pass.
But no, he throws his debit card on the counter without hesitation.
“Rock on man,” he says. “That’s exactly what I was looking for.”
And then he’s off, to hit the road, no more than two minutes after he arrived.
“You just witnessed a transcendental Love Garden moment,” Corcoran said to a visitor. “Those are our favorite moments, when somebody just comes in and says ‘help me.’ He didn’t have to spend an hour researching it on the Internet, and he wouldn’t have found it anyway.”
It is a moment that has been playing itself out time and time again. But this time it was different. To get his copy of Relatively Clean Rivers (1975 country-rock, by the way), Mr. Pass didn’t have to climb up perhaps the most famous staircase in Lawrence.
For nearly 20 years, the Love Garden has been one of the few retailers that has figured out a way to make a living from high above Mass. Street. The store has occupied the second-story space at 936 1/2 Mass., directly above The Toy Store.
And to get there you had to go up that staircase wallpapered with jacket covers ranging from Pat Benatar, Neil Sedaka, Pat Boone Sings Irving Berlin, and of course, Arkansas Traveler’s Banjo Favorites.
When you reach the top, it gets no less eclectic. 1970s-style paneling covers the walls, some of it still stained walnut, other parts primed purple. Band posters, T-shirts and even an old sign advertising a $350 bass that is guaranteed to get you the ladies, line the walls.
“We would just keep putting up another layer, and we never took a layer down,” Corcoran said.
Until now. About two weeks ago, the Love Garden moved down to the ground level of Mass. Street. The store moved into the former Old World Pottery Building at 822 Mass. The old location at 936 1/2 Mass. will remain open for about another two months.
Better visibility and a better chance of attracting spur-of-the-moment shoppers drove the move, Corcoran said.
“I felt like that space looked like Lawrence 20 years ago,” Corcoran said. “It always reminded me of how Lawrence felt back in the ’90s when I was running around downtown. It still reminds me of that time, but I think it is a time that has kind of passed us by.
“There will always be a nostalgia for that space, but if nostalgia is the only reason to stay, then it’s time to go.”
Discounting nostalgia is a funny thing to do for a guy that stares at a six-foot neon Johnny Cash sign that hangs from the store wall, and is surrounded by about 25,000 vinyl albums.
Love Garden sells a little bit of everything, but vinyl albums are the bread and butter. Out of the 40,000 pieces in the store (the tally is expected to grow to 80,000 in the new location) about 60 percent of the stock is big records that spawned both big hair and big bands.
But Corcoran may be correct that it is not nostalgia that fuels the sales. At the old location, Nick Riley paints a very non-nostalgic scene. Tattooed and armed with an iPhone, Riley stands over the stacks of vinyl Googling information about albums that interest him. He’s not trying to relive the past. He just thinks vinyl gives music a new dimension.
“With everything going so digital, this is a way to have a physical experience,” said Riley, who is a drummer for the Cleveland-based band Mystery of Two. “With a record, you have to sit down and deal with it.”
The records help keep places like this going in the Digital Age, but Corcoran is convinced the repartee plays just as big a role.
People come in wanting to talk all the time. Most aren’t nearly in as much of a hurry as Mr. Pass. Most love to linger and laugh about, well, almost anything music related: How many times a song has been remade (or covered, if you want to sound cool), lyrics from the Stones, or about the days when the counter help used to spin tunes at KJHK.
“Music hounds are our primary customers,” Corcoran said. “We rely on them to come and dig through the store.”
Sometimes what they are looking for may surprise you. Yes, psychedelic rock is still big in this town, but these days Corcoran likely would pay you more for an African band album than he would for Pink Floyd. The reason: Because he’s heard Pink Floyd before. He hasn’t heard many of the African bands, which are all the rage on the vinyl scene.
“The rule is, if we don’t know what it is, we want to know what it is,” said Corcoran, who said he couldn’t even estimate how many hours a day he listens to music.
That type of musical curiosity may be the biggest magnet that keeps people coming in even during an era when they can listen to nearly anything on the planet from their home computer.
“I call it the sickness,” Brad Shanks, a 33-year old store employee, says to describe the music bug he’s caught. “People come here because they want to go to someplace where they know they can talk to other people who have the sickness, too.”
Corcoran doesn’t think a cure will be found soon, even in an age where the Internet fiercely competes for people’s entertainment time. Yes, music isn’t the “juggernaut” it was in the ’50s. It isn’t what it was even 15 years ago. But most people still have the beat in them somewhere.
“I think I’ve got at least 10 more good years here,” Corcoran said. “Maybe then things get weird. I don’t know, maybe we’re just an antique store by then. We’ll see.”