A day in the life of Maui's only record store
August 20, 2009The smell alone—a mix of biting plastic, second-hand must and a few other indiscernible scents—elicits nostalgia. A piecemeal patchwork of staple-gunned concert posters blankets the inside of the double doors that, when open, create a laser-printed embrace of upcoming entertainment. Nearly every curious passerby or patron pauses to peruse the new listings on one of the island's few remaining traditional bulletin boards; a board with staples embedded and layered upon one another, forming a topographical map of some haphazard land. Enter and you realize the threshold is a portal to that place, a sensationally bizarre realm of beats and much more.
Perched on the corner of Market and Main Street in Wailuku, Requests Music is the last legitimate record store on Maui. "This is the kind of place I remember going to when I was growing up," says owner Vince Mendez.
Inside, the space is surprisingly small, especially to those accustomed to the sprawling monsters of modern CD sales. What it lacks in size it makes up for in inventory—wares are tightly packed from floor to ceiling, with yet another mountain in the basement (all vinyl, for record-digging audiophiles). Even if you know what you want, it's wise to enlist a worker-guide—there's no shame in asking for a little help navigating, though they'll most likely ask you first.
Requests is a haven, a sanctuary for music lovers and an eclectic Maui institution. Beyond media, it's adorned with curios (like the original Toda Store clock, Spock giving the Vulcan salute, neon Gwar posters), lovingly called Requests relics, an ever-growing assortment of vintage oddities collecting on high shelves that encircle the store—many of them religious figurines. Classic faces and pursed hands, dust buried into every crevice, they number upwards of 30. But are they enough to save a store that's part of a dying breed?
Memories are all that most of us have left of the record stores of our youth. Nationwide, independent record stores have been gobbled up by giant retailers—more than 1,000 have closed their doors in the last six years alone. But that's not the real threat. The corporate behemoths are collapsing, too. In New York, Virgin Megastore, the last remaining big record chain in the city, shut its doors in June, leaving only a handful of small indie outlets alive in a metropolis heralded as the epicenter of arts and culture.
Record sales have plummeted an average of 45 percent since 2000, according to statistics from the Almighty Institute of Music Retail. The culprit, of course: the digital takeover. From iTunes to friendly file sharing to pure pirating, consumers now have an array of options that don't involve purchasing a tangible album.
There is, however, some hope for those small, flailing entities poised to be washed away entirely by the digital wave. The mega store model has become antiquated and impractical. At the same time, the vinyl album is making a triumphant return, with sales jumping a walloping 89 percent last year. The increase in popularity has allowed a few new niche stores to open their doors while so many others are closing them—stores like L.A.'s Origami Vinyl and Little Radio.
Indie establishments are also banding together, participating (as Requests does) in an international event known as Record Store Day, held the third Saturday in April. This past year boasted participation from 1,000 stores, up from a still-impressive 700 in 2008, the inaugural year. Designed as a day of celebration, the event invites artists and the community to come out and show support.
Yet the picture is still bleak. Tumbling sales have forced indie stores that once relied on 100 percent of their sales from music to expand their merchandise to include memorabilia, movies and other media.
"Someone once asked me, 'do you have videos?' I said, 'no,' but thought, 'maybe I should.' So I started getting videos. Now, we can't give them away, but from that we now have got DVDs," says Mendez, motioning towards the southern facing wall, which houses a collection of movies and concert videos, just behind a flip-through rack of old or rare concert posters, adjacent to a glass case that, at one point, held glass smoking accessories.
Mendez has been in the business of selling music for close to 30 years, first hawking vinyl at Kahului's Swap Meet back in 1980. He opened his first storefront at the corner of Lower Main and Mill Street, then in 1995 brought it to its current locale.
"The space opened up and we'd been talking about it and talking about it. Finally, [we] just did it. We didn't tell anyone. We closed on a Saturday and opened [here] on a Monday."
While the shop on top has remained relatively unchanged, the basement has gone through several incarnations: initially dubbed the Freaky Tiki Lounge, it later morphed into Malice in Wonderland, a favorite hangout of my youth.
Down in that basement the seeds were sown for my own counterculture induction. Everything was damp and dimly lit; it was a fresh, flamboyant, mysterious kingdom of artistic novelty. The walls were lined with racks of vintage clothes, individually tagged with handwritten descriptions and named things like, "This is my f*ck me dress."
And let's not forget the Mexican wrestling masks—soft vinyl in bright colors stitched together with stripes and bursts of silver or gold with tiny slits for eyes and freakishly too-small oval mouth holes. My recollections, as the years march on, have become a blur of dingy pink and orange, shag, Polaroid collages on support beams, black lace, blue hair dye—everything a record store's basement boutique ought to be.
Today, the basement is a different world. Half the space is packed with what appears to be mere junk, the rest is stuffed shelves and piles of records that arrive too regularly for the staff of four to keep up with. Those who still like to flip their tunes halfway through, enjoying a dash of crackle and pop, or DJs looking for an undiscovered riff would be happy to dig around down there (and are welcome, if you ask). The claustrophobic or asthmatic ought to stay away. A flood a few years back turned what was always a damp downstairs into a space that makes your nose and skin itch a little when you turn the corner at the base of the stairs.
The record store is the community center of the counterculture," says Marcus Springs, a Requests employee since 2006.
With waist-length dreadlocks and usually clad in a clever T-shirt under an unbuttoned camp, the six-foot Springs is a veritable sponge of information. You can pick his brain on an assortment of subjects (unless you've got an hour to kill, I'd avoid bringing up his current hot topics: NLP, Dr. Who and Howard Stern). But it's his bottomless barrel of music knowledge that is truly astounding. Usually it's the older clientele that are befuddled by his brain bank of data. A musical cartographer of sorts, Springs is particularly adept at weaving those fine threads between artists' work spanning generations.
"Folks who work [at record stores] are professors," says artist Tom Waits in a quote from recordstoreday.com, part of a collection of commentary by artists who support local purveyors of sound. "Don't replace the knowers with the guessers. Keep 'em open, they're the ears of the town."
Whether it be introducing a classic to a budding music aficionado or giving props to a worthy, perhaps underappreciated new release, the guys at Requests are willing and eager to share good ear candy.
Case in point: One dreary spring day, I woke up on the wrong side of the bed and spent the day on the verge of tears. At my first chance, I booked it to Requests and was greeted with big smiles and a bigger hug from Springs.
"I need something to lift my spirits!" I sputtered, embarrassed, but relieved to be in the only place that could offer an immediate remedy to my blues.
"Lift your spirits? Hmm," replied Springs, before sending me off with The Rapture's Pieces of the People We Love.
The album was something I'd never have tried on my own, but it was bright and bouncing with surprisingly humorous lyrics; in an instant I was whisked away from my doldrums.
On another occasion, hankering for Roots en route to a meander around Iao Valley, I was hooked up with Easy Star All Star's Dub Side of the Moon, which is, as the name suggests, a delightful dub interpretation of Pink Floyd's seminal album.
If you're serious about special ordering something rare or out of stock, they're great about tracking it down, and once they get to know your tastes, they'll start to make excellent suggestions (I've got dibs on an incoming limited release of Ween's At The Cat's Cradle, a fine pitch thanks to manager Brendan Smith).
With input from guys like Springs, or hip and hilarious Smith, or J.P.—voted "most normal" by his colleagues—a DJ and fisherman I adore for his cool and forward-thinking localness, or the only-works-once-weekly, well-known DJ Boomshot, I'm always pleased with my purchases.
Point being: you need it, they've got it—even if you didn't realize you needed it. Perhaps that's the essence of the record stores—quirky community gems that feed our passions, ignite new ones and bring us a little closer to each other through a shared experience, offering something that clicks on the Internet can never replace.
Let's hope the homegrown record hub won't fade away and be that thing we didn't know we needed so much. Maui Time Weekly, Anu Yagi
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