This past weekend, I took time to indulge in a side hobby that I haven't had much time for lately: early audio recordings. The occasion was a melancholy one. Fine Groove Records, one of the finest and last independent music shops, is closing its doors after 26 years of peddling new and used music in Northfield, MN. I collared a friend who also collects 78rpm records and we spent the afternoon rifling through the shop's hundreds of shellac disks and LPs, searching for overlooked gems. (For me, my gems were a previously unknown to me Raymond Scott recording, an early Eartha Kitt record, a promotional double-disk interview with Laurie Anderson never released to the public, and the elusive second volume of Henry Mancini's music from "Peter Gunn" in mint condition. My friend hit a rich vein of Spike Jones recordings.)
Owner Brian KenKnight says that the decline of locally-purchased music, along with rising property taxes, caused him to make the decision. He told us that the vinyl collectors were still coming in, but his primary customer base of college students have turned more and more to digital downloading, both the legitimate and illegitimate variety.
Today's big, flashy, electronics stores have nothing on independant shops like Fine Groove. Brian can tell you the career history of almost any musician from the 1920s on. He's the kind of shop owner that actually listens to the stuff he sells and knows that if you like artist A that you might also like artist B. He keeps a pair of turntables behind the counter and will let you play something to see if you like it before you buy it. At Best Buy, you're lucky to get a sales droid who's aware that Thelonious Monk is not a rapper.
More than economic, the closing of Fine Groove will have a cultural impact on Northfield's Division Street. Fine Groove was a place to hang out and talk music with someone who knows and loves music, and you always came out feeling richer (in the spiritual sense) for having gone in. Independent business owners who are informed and enthusiastic about their products are few and far between these days.
In tribute to Brian and other indie music shop owners, here is a collection of record labels from days gone by. Though Columbia is still around, and Gramophone eventually became EMI, these are labels mostly forgotten by all but us who dig in thrift store boxes and dusty bins in hopes of finding that obscure folk song or Uncle Johnny Coons comedy routine.