Indie Feature: Criminal Records Atlanta

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.

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55 comments
  1. I hope they pull through. Places like this need to stay around!

  2. kianys said:

    I second perdueamber’s thought – thanks for blogging about this :)

  3. Erin said:

    Thanks kianys and perdueamber! It’s good to know there are other indie advocates out there. :)

  4. Stubborn said:

    Sigh…there was just nothing better than browsing through the indie record and book shops as a teenager…The Gen-Yers and on sure have missed out…At least there are a few places like this left. If you’re ever in Dallas, swing by Bill’s..it’s awesome.

  5. anotherdaysucks said:

    I honestly love vinyl discs. They are beautiful and great for music lovers. Unfortunely, nobody uses vinyl discs to listen songs anymore. MP3 helps a lot. But, they are excellent for collectors or to decor the home. I hang some on my wall. There are diverse kind of size and colors.

    • Erin said:

      Agreed – you just can’t beat the sound quality or aesthetic of vinyls. My dad collected vinyls since he was a teen in the 60s and I was fortunate enough to inherit some of them. Unfortunately, I have no place to put them and they’re all in storage. I may have to steal your idea and hang some of them up like art! Thanks for commenting!

      • ezhiker35 said:

        What do you mean nobody? Vinyl is the only segment of music sales that is actually growing. It’s just that music sales as a whole are shrinking. Get yourself a turntable, pick up some records and discover the joy that is vinyl. Don’t hang them, play them! There are plenty of good used turntables on eBay. Best Buy even has new ones.

  6. I remember the record store days. Flipping through their vast collection was something I treated myself to even if I didn’t buy one!
    Great post!
    Congrats on getting FP’d!

  7. This place looks great! I grew up in Atlanta, but I’ve never heard of this place. I’ll have to check it out the next time I’m visiting. Thanks for this!

  8. I miss record stores with employees who recognized you and would recommend new albums. Albany had a place where I spent many paychecks on all sorts of industrial music and ska back in the 90s. They closed up a few years ago and I miss them a ton. I don’t mind going online for my music but I like some conversation sometimes with workers and fellow customers about all the cool new stuff (and there’s always new indie stuff). I want the days of High Fidelity and Empire Records back. But it’s gone.

  9. Bobbi said:

    Very nice post. There are very few of these kinds of stores in Tampa also. Something about the smell, touch and the people! Love it! Thanks for sharing!

  10. Carlie Chew said:

    I love your article, great writing. This is sad, I love record stores. I still buy cd’s and records. I really hope they pull through, but technology is putting an end to many business like Criminal Records these days : (. Good luck Criminal Records and thanks for sharing!

  11. I miss being able to browse and shop for vinyl in a physical store…

  12. aviatrixkim said:

    I went to college in Atlanta and enjoyed many an afternoon browsing in Little 5.

  13. I just moved to the Atlanta area, and I’ve been looking for cool, unique places to visit and spend a lazy afternoon browsing. You’re right, there’s just something so soulless about downloading music. The cover art, the tangible experience of holding it, opening it, reading while you listen–all that is gone. Kids really don’t know what they’re missing. I’m going to give these guys a look the next Saturday I’m free. Thanks for this post!

  14. Lacey D. said:

    What an interesting post. I miss the indie music shops that used to be around my neighborhood when I lived in DC. One (Melody Records) continues to hold on, but I always wonder how they manage to do it.

    Nothing can beat the knowledgeable staff that comes with an indie shop (music, books, or otherwise)… one of many, many reasons to support them.

  15. I love this post. I am honestly too young to remember a time when you could go to a record store that wasn’t owned by a giant company, but that doesn’t keep me from seeing the charm of these places, nor having the desire to visit one. Unfortunately, that type of music store doesn’t exist around me.

    I am an aspiring writer, and I can only hope that I can write fast enough to see my work published in an actual book. Let’s hope that books don’t go the way of vinyl and become rarities, cherished though they may be.

  16. newsy1 said:

    I always felt the staff in these types of stores were just obsessed with their product. It was so much fun to ask a question about some obscure group or whatever and they immediately knew. Great post.

  17. Fingers crossed. Although I haven’t bought a record in 25 years and a cd in 7 or 8 years, shops are needed. I hope it’s not a sign of the times that all books and record shops go the way of the dinosaurs

  18. I love this place I bought my first record from here!:)

  19. wow that place seems kinda “grungy”, i like it!

  20. Bought a new turntable recently, spending a lot of time listening to old records. I love the old compilations I would have sneered at a few years ago, its like a little taste of time.

  21. Not all is lost on the next generation. My daughter who is 11, loves her indie bookshop more than any giant retailer.

  22. Amjad said:

    Great and wonderful information …. specially the cleanness and the their length ….

  23. Erin said:

    onehundred80days – That’s really heartening to hear. Thank you for introducing her to your local indie; it’s an appreciation I’m sure will stick with her through life.

    Laurensart26 – it really is grungy! It’s great.

  24. I still by CD’s, even if I already bought the music online. I love having something in my hand and I love going to the shops.

  25. tonielizabethstyles said:

    Another sad tale of the fall of the record store- but hopefully this one will survive for a bit longer. As a 10 year old kid I remember wanting to work in “Empire Records” so bad after watching the movie. It’s just not the same… Great post!
    Please check out my 90’s music channel on youtube I’d appreciate any support: http://www.youtube.com/user/Tonisso90sfresh#p/a/f/0/TahH7B_aUZc

  26. tj said:

    I’ve been in ATL for 8 yrs didn’t know this place was here. I hope they can be saved. I thought there weren’t any record stores anymore, anywhere.

  27. I have not read a book other than the Bible in over 20 years. After reading the Bible through several times, which is filled with God and Jesus Christ, history, poetry, and views into Heaven and Hell, and instructions on how to avoid the later, I find all other books boring. Call me a fanatic. Connie
    http://7thandvine.wordpress.com/

  28. thatgirlwhit said:

    i live in GA and LOVE little five points and all the variety it offers. great post!

  29. W. H. Davies had aptly written :

    WHAT is this life if, full of care,
    We have no time to stand and stare?

    I doubt if he realised how prophetic his words would be as Homo Sapien stepped into the third millennium. As we leave our memories and nostalgia behind for technology to obliterate them, we lose an intrinsic part of our very core, of who we are.

    Where do we go from here?

    Shakti Ghosal

  30. I love independent record stores! I remember buying my first vinyl player just to hear some of the massive collection that lived in a used music exchange near my work. The most dedicated, music loving people tend to work in places like that.
    http://spannsounds.wordpress.com/

  31. I was just in there last week. It’s one of my favorite spots.

  32. Papo said:

    i gotta check this place out..
    down here in Phoenix AZ,
    the best record spot is Stinkweeds…
    straight up hole in the wall…

  33. These guys need to move to New York!!! They look awesome and NYC is in desperate for independent music stores

  34. Cai said:

    Are they still up and running? If so I want to donate my cash by buying some cds.

    • Erin said:

      Cai – Yes they are! I’m sure y’all would be able to work out an agreeable trade.

  35. tangerinemusic said:

    I’m so bummed I wasn’t born early enough to get to experience shopping around in a true record store. Around me, there aren’t any. This place looks awesome, crossing my fingers that they make it!

  36. hey this place looks awesome, I know a music shop in Edinburgh, Scotland, run by a crazy dude who knows everything about music. there’s so many cds and vinyls there you have to literally squeeze through boxes of them.

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