With the announcement last week that the Virgin Megastores in Union Square and Times Square are closing, it’s now easier to find an albino rat on the streets of Manhattan than it is finding a store that sells compact discs.
It’s the same scenario over in Ireland. I was there in September, and the HMV stores in Galway and Limerick devoted more space to iPod accessories and DVDs, with only a small section of the store dedicated to the CD. At Zhivago Records in Galway, there was a fire sale to clear the CD inventory in an attempt to make room for more profitable music-themed souvenirs.
I know there are some of you out there reading the first paragraph and thinking that I am hanging onto these audio fossils known as compact discs. Nothing could be further from the truth. With over 50,000 songs taking up 250GB on my portable hard drive, it is safe to assume that I have successfully made the transition to digital technology.
That said, these store closures make me present to the fact that I can also be blamed for throwing a shovel of dirt on the record store, and for that I am consumed with grief. This store is going out of business because I put it out of business, plain and simple.
The sense of impending loss has gotten so bad that I have visited the Virgin Megastore three times in the last week alone and have left each time with a bag full of CDs and hundreds of dollars charged to my debit card.
T Rex. Thin Lizzy. James Brown. Toots and the Maytals. ABBA (don’t judge: guilty pleasure). Jaco Pastorious. Black Eyed Peas. I am buying these relics at the fire sale price of $10 per CD as an act of penance for the digital sins of the past that sit on my hard drive.
Of course, none of this makes sense. I will load these CDs into my disc drive and transfer the songs to my iPod before putting the plastic relics on the shelf to collect dust.
But as I prowl the aisles of the Virgin Megastore, I get swept up in the energy from the DJ booth and am stricken with a profound sadness for my own children. It is entirely feasible that they will have no memory of shopping in a music store.
Anyone of a certain age can remember purchasing their first album, that grooved licorice pizza wrapped in a colorful sleeve of cardboard adorned with genuine artwork.
I was 13 in 1978, and I remember how adult I felt bringing my paper route money to the Harmony Hut in East Brunswick, New Jersey. I bought three things that afternoon that still form my musical vocabulary today – Kiss’ "Alive II," the Ramones’ "Road to Ruin" and the Rolling Stones’ "Some Girls."
Mike Marrone, program director of XM Radio’s the Loft Channel, was the manager of the store at the time when this 30-year music buying binge began, and I remember well the intense conversations we would have about Jackson Browne and The Police.
The heavy metal was on my stereo and in my mouth as the braces came on and my descent into teenage hormonal hell began. I studied Billboard charts like a bookie and would go in an emotional tailspin when Peaches and Herb bested Elvis Costello in their positions.
I have long given up actually getting assistance from the snot-nosed kids working at today’s record store that were mere twinkles in their parents’ eye when Frampton Comes Alive came out. Their nametag might shout out an Irish name, but I have yet to find a kid in the aisles that knows the difference between the Cranberries and Thin Lizzy the way Mike Marrone might.
But I miss the spontaneous critical debates that would break out in the aisles and the camaraderie sparked by a shared musical passion. I recently took up bass playing, which has led me to a new appreciation of funk, jazz and reggae.
A pretentious, portly jazz snob was hovering around the Miles Davis section at Virgin the last time I visited there, and while his condescending tone was an annoying garnish, he did serve me with a meaty run through of must have jazz compilations that I would never get if I had to click my way through Amazon.
I will also miss the community that would break out in the aisles of the Irish music section, tucked within the folk genre. I’d often strike up a conversation about my favorites with the other customers, and I am sure I single-handedly brought platinum status to back catalogs from the likes of Christy Moore, Clannad and Dervish.
I am a huge fan of Apple CEO Steve Jobs and the portability of my music library. I feel completely nude if I walk out of the house without at least 15,000 songs on my iPod.
Still, I also find myself missing the days when album artwork was as stimulating as the music inside of it.
I bought the Blondie "Parallel Lines" album because Debbie Harry was wearing nothing but a slip and a pair of Candies; I tucked that under the mattress because that and the JC Penney’s bra catalogue were the closest things to printed partially undressed female shapes that I could get my hormonal hands on at the time. It was a more innocent time back then, one that someone born of the digital age just won’t understand.