No one who worked in Music thought the job was cool, but most everyone who worked in Music was cool. Our manager played bass in a local punk band. One of the clerks played bass in another local punk band. Another clerk played keyboards in a Thrill Jockey-esque band. I didn’t play anything, but I could at least talk the talk with them in between stocking the racks and ringing up customers.
I worked in the music section of the downtown Seattle Barnes & Noble in the late 1990s, the perfect time for the job. The bookstore chain (and its main rival Borders) offered city dwellers and suburbanites a replacement for the libraries that, at least in Seattle, seemed to have been ceded to the homeless. Come in, they said. We’ve got coffee, and comfy chairs, and you don’t have to buy anything. Male booksellers wore collared shirts and ties, and the two floors of the store allowed for enough space to stock plenty of books. The chain aspired to be a money-making machine dressed as a haven of intellectualism, an ersatz Viennese café culture based on sales of bestsellers.
The music section worked the same way. The national corporation had enough buying power that we could stock the shelves with our obscure favorites, but no one bought them. Instead, our jobs were buoyed by a raft made of middle-aged favorites: pop opera stars like Andrea Bocelli and Sarah Brightman, throwback acts like the Squirrel Nut Zippers (who we actually liked, too) and the Buena Vista Social Club soundtrack, and international CDs, usually the Putamayo series, which each featured a brightly colored cartoon cover. Napster was still a few years off, and the iPod, much less the iTunes store, had yet to exist. People came in and bought music, and we stocked a ton of CDs.
Armed with a label maker, I took it upon myself to organize the racks to an obsessive degree. No longer would there be simply a “Bach-Piano” card; now there would be a “Bach-Goldberg Variations” and “Bach-Partitas” and “Bach-Concerti,” and within those, any artists with three or more discs in stock would get their own cards, too, so “Bach-Partitas-Gould” and “Bach-Concerti-Brendel.” It passed the time, and working full time, I had a lot of time.
I worked through Classical Composer, then Classical Artist, then Classical Vocalist. I moved on to Jazz and broke out dozens of artists. Then I reached International.
At the very beginning of the section, a few hundred CDs were jammed into a section with a single card at the end: “Africa.” Armed with the label maker and a few books I’d snagged from the bookstore side, I set to work. And I suppose this might be the point of this narrative where I do the standard “white kid is amazed by the scope of African music, thereby recognizing his own limited worldview” and where the discovery of a compilation called The Indestructible Beat of Soweto proves to be the catalyst for a lifetime of discovery. But that didn’t happen. Either the store didn’t stock it or I passed right over it in my mania for organization. I wouldn’t hear that particular album for years.
But here’s the thing: I could have found it then. I could have picked it up, wondered at its cover, looked at the back, used my 20% employee discount, and listened to it that night at home. My world would have expanded a little bit more a little bit sooner. Or I could have found albums by King Sunny Ade or Miriam Makeba or Abdullah Ibrahim and listened to those. Or I might have found discs in “Argentina” or “Greece” or “Middle East” that could have changed me.
A few years ago, Barnes & Noble opened a store in the town where I teach, in a space vacated when Borders went under. They followed their new store design, which has plenty of space for books and DVDs, games and toys, and a café, but there’s no music section any longer. The stores that still have music sections have shoved everything into the space that Classical Composer used to occupy.
Sure, the indie record shops are still there, but there’s something about the vanishing of the corporate music sections—at Barnes & Noble, at Best Buy, at a dozen other giants—that I miss, because what I love about places that sell music, even the uncool ones, is that somewhere in those stacks and racks might be the record that will change my life. Electronically, I go directly to what I want, but physically, I browse. Somewhere in that pile is the sound I want to hear, indestructible, waiting for the needle to land in the groove, waiting for the heads to read the magnetic tape, waiting for the laser to strike the first ones and zeroes, waiting for me to hear it and say whoa, what’s this? or this seems interesting or simply yes.