Eulogy for a record store
I know many of you will find this hard to believe, but I was once… cool. Perhaps not as cool, at the time, as I thought I was. But cooler than most. In fact, I gave being hip and trendy a noble effort for quite a few years, well into my 30’s.
It’s hard to imagine any single place that exemplified east-side hipness in the 80’s and 90’s better than Atomic Records. (Well, perhaps The Coffee Trader. Or Esoteria. Or The Oriental Theater, when it only had one screen. But, I digress.)
I love discovering new music, always have. And for many years in Milwaukee, there was no better place to discover new music than Atomic. It was part of my routine. On Sunday afternoons, I would don my black trench coat (nothing symbolizes youthful angst better than a black trench coat) and point my VW Rabbit (at the time a purely economic, not environmental, choice- but if you want to give me credit for being way ahead of the curve on ecological responsibility, I won’t argue) toward Atomic to join my fellow hipsters, thumbing through the bins of vinyl just waiting to be discovered in that little record store. To this day, every time I hear The Replacements, New Order, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Kate Bush, or Gene Loves Jezebel, I’m transformed back in time to that store. Without that store (and, in the interest of full disclosure, WMSE) where would Milwaukee’s music hipsters have ever been exposed to emerging world artists?
With due respect to my friends who worked at WKTI back in the day, not everyone was content listening to Tiffany. Atomic gave those of us looking for a true “alternative” a place to find it. Today, March 15, 2009, marks the end of that “alternative.”
I read a couple interviews recently with Rich Menning, owner and founder of Atomic, on his decision to close after nearly 25 years in business, and he theorized that folks who have “mortgages to pay and kids to feed” just don’t have time to head to the record store anymore. And, that the online availability of music from a wide variety of artists, legally purchased or “otherwise,” had rendered his business model unsustainable. I think he’s right, but only partially.
A trip to the record store used to be as much about social networking as it was about discovering the vinyl its shelves had to offer. There was a certain thrill in actually looking a fellow music freak in the eyes and asking, “Have you listened to anything really good lately?” Atomic was where we connected. Now, we have Facebook. But it’s just not quite the same.
As the years went by, life moved me farther and farther west (ultimately, to that far, far western suburb of Milwaukee known as Madison) and I traded the black trench coat for one of the tan cashmere variety. I, like many of my aging hipster friends forgot about our little east side record store. And that’s too bad, because there were a lot of memories made in that little store. I had relationships begin and end within those close confines. I suspect I’m not alone.
I’m loathe to the cliche of the “bygone era,” but I think the reason I’m getting glassy-eyed thinking about the passing of this particular Milwaukee institution is that, for those of us who lived on the east side in the 80’s and 90’s, that little record store reminds us of a time in our lives when we still felt things, when life was so much more fresh and new. Unlike our 60’s and 70’s-era predecessors, most hipsters of my generation weren’t arrogant enough to believe that we could actually change the world. But we sure believed that David Byrne was going to. Atomic was the place that music freaks of my generation went to discover their voice. In retrospect, the music was just an added bonus.
Goodbye, Atomic. Thanks for the memories.