When I was 15, I had an ambitious 17-year-old friend who decided to jump on the forward car of the digital bandwagon and open the city’s second CD-only music store. It was a shotgun of a place in a shiny new strip mall on the north side of town. And it had the word “jungle” in its title because the owner’s sister worked for the zoo. We had baby wild animals in the store more than once. I have a specific memory of holding a baby lion in my left arm while searching for a Bartok disc for a customer.
Outside of the owner, there were two other store employees. He hired a manager who was a man-babe, by Columbus’ circa-1985 beauty standards (think Euro-mullet) and 15-year-old music-obsessed me. There were some awful things about this job. When the store crowded with new digital types, we were instructed to put on odd new age releases, Kenny G and other relative crapola designed to make people ooh and aah over the hyper-clarity of the recording and want to buy it immediately to show off their new technology. And I was never so keenly aware of the fact that the music industry was a man’s game. Over the three years that I worked there, I was the only female employee. The record label charlatans were all men. The customers were mostly men.
But there were also wonderful things. Like the boxes of import CDs that we would get and could sneak a listen to before shrink-wrapping them and putting them on the shelves. This was the time when everything was on vinyl, but record companies hadn’t put their catalogs out on CD yet. I could indulge my every curiosity: “Why do so many people want My Baby Just Cares for Me by Nina Simone?” “Are these men buying Blind Faith for the creepy cover or the music?” “Why do people talk about Patti Smith like she’s a deity?” “Did the two Hollands and Dozier really write all of these?”
As much as I knew the radio hits and a record here or there by the Beatles or David Bowie, it didn’t compare with the experience of seeing their catalogs come out and hearing the reasons that customers were anticipating one record over another.
As the store branched out to three locations, I gained more cool music guy co-workers who were at least glad I was there to answer questions about early ’80s pop radio. Because, when a customer asked which Hall and Oates record had “Kiss on My List” on it, I, of course, knew. In return, they pulled me out of a mid-’80s musical adolescence where new video idols danced like living pool noodles and synthesized keyboards were the shoulder pads of radio hits.
Instead, they would convince me, probably as much for their own sanity as anything else, to spend those hours restocking shelves and sitting behind the cash register listening to The Replacements, Koko Taylor, Gustav Mahler, the Grateful Dead , Ornette Coleman. Granted, I came to the store open-minded, with a childhood of country, classical, folk, Motown, doo wop, rockabilly and disco, but they still basically cracked my world wide open. How else would I have ended up here?