Criminal Records is not a bookstore. Aside from their extensive collection of rare Marvel comic books, they don’t sell books. However, they are an independent record store, one of only three remaining in Atlanta, and as such, you could say we – that is to say, indie bookstores – are in the same boat.
As a college student, Criminal Records was one of my favorite escape destinations. Little 5 Points in general was where my best friend and I went when we wanted to dip our toes into the currents of Atlanta’s underbelly culture. Psycho Sisters for their 70s style Halloween costumes, Charis Books for a dose of feminist lit, the innumerable incense and paraphernalia stores when we wanted to feel spiritual and edgy, the Variety Playhouse for its fantastic concerts, spicy Thai food from Sweet Lime. And then there was Criminal Records.
That was not so long ago. In 2007 most people had switched to only downloading music illegally or paying for it on iTunes. We did that too. Some of our friends thought we were weird for still buying actual physical CDs. We knew we could get that music for free online, but we did it anyways. In large part, we were paying for the ritual of escaping for an afternoon. Going to Criminal Records (or Decatur CD or any independent bookstore) was like getting lost in your grandparents attic when you were a kid, browsing through the treasure trove of your grandmother’s old cedar chest, and having the curator of that treasure on hand to tell the story about this wedding veil, that soldier’s uniform, this baby slipper without a mate.
Then there’s the joy of discovering an artist (an author) and of talking with a passionate, knowledgeable store clerk who knows their product down to their bones: Two strangers connect over of a shared love of music. Finally, there’s the physical product. The jewel box. Do you remember how hard it sometimes was to peel off that sturdy rectangular sticker on top of the jewel box? It could take several minutes of picking at the corner and you’d be s agitated because you just wanted to get that sucker in the CD player. When you finally did get it off, you’d pop it into your player ((who am I kidding?) boom box) and hear those first notes and, boy, didn’t it sound good. You pull out the cover art – and it is actual, physical art that the band commissioned, selected, made themselves and it means something – you feel sure that it does – and even if it doesn’t it doesn’t matter because it’s awesome. There are the lyrics (so you can actually sing along) sometimes written in the song-writers birdlike scrawl, sometimes typed in a wicked font. And there are the band’s thank-yous, the pictures, the …. there are so many words and pictures, so much to keep you in your happy place for a good hour at least.
About a month ago, Creative Loafing ran an interview with Criminal Records owner, Eric Levin. We were all expecting it, but it came as a shock just the same. The Little 5 Points fixture was announcing that it was on the verge of collapse. The store needs to raise $150,000 by October to pay off debts accrued during their move to their current location. The good news is that Criminal Records has some loyal friends who are stepping up to the plate, putting on concerts and offering free CDs for the fundraiser. We’re not despairing yet. They still might pull through.
Some technology writers will say this is the way music is headed. We should accept the change and move with the times. The times they are a-changing. Isn’t that what Dylan said? Did he know what that would mean for independent record stores?
I’m not good with change. I was that teenager who kept going back to her childhood haunts to see if the magic was still there. And maybe that’s the problem. For too many of us, independent book and record stores are the cedar chests where we store memories of those years when we were first learning what made us tick. We go back to them every few months to check that they’re still there, to relive the memories for a while. But when the moment comes to actually ensure that they’ll continue to be there, that is to say, to invest in them, we resist. We walk out the door and back into the realities of our present, a present that doesn’t include brick and mortar independents.
You could keep doing that. You could keep going back to your cedar chest, just to make sure it’s still there.
Or you could buy this T-shirt.