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An Afternoon at the World’s Only Expanding Record Store

When I asked myself if I’d rather have this lot or grocery money, I made the right choice.

In 2012, iTunes and Amazon are duking it out for the honor of being the world’s most popular record store. Over the past five years, favorite brick-and-mortar record stores of mine from Greeley, Colorado to Louisville, Kentucky have been dropping faster than Christina Aguilera’s album sales. I’m ever fearful that Twin Cities record-nerb hubs like the Electric Fetus, Treehouse Records will follow suit, but as long as they keep stocking the R.E.M. catalog on vinyl, I should be able to keep them afloat.

Central Phoenix isn’t historically recognized as record collector’s heaven, but rather one for fans of strip malls and co-eds. What business does that area’s Zia Record Exchange (one of six locations in metropolitan Phoenix) have staying profitable there, much less expanding?

A lot of it, apparently, at least judging by the amount of traffic it enjoyed last Saturday, the day after Black Friday. Vacationing in Scottsdale with my girlfriend’s family over Thanksgiving weekend, I was lucky enough to find a time when the car wasn’t being used and made the half-hour trek to Zia, which is growing rather than shrinking, sort of like a music biz Benjamin Button.

Sure, the local chain, somewhere in between Best Buy and your neighborhood hipster haunt on the music-shopping coolness scale, certainly has an easier time staying in business than another popular Phoenix store, Stinkweeds, but ask Tower and Virgin how easy it is to remain viable as a chain.

Enough about the climate of today’s record industry, because that topic kind of depresses me. I wouldn’t be writing about Zia if I hadn’t walked out of there with more than a dozen items and mulled over 25 more during my three-plus hours there. I swear, I have no idea how I walked out only $80 poorer, because midway through my shopping spree, I heard Vegas was taking bets for an $800 over-under.

My experience started unassumingly enough. I walked in with my hopes high on finding a treasure chest of R.E.M. and Springsteen (I’m always looking for the former and am still drunk off the three Boss shows I saw this month) vinyl, but all I initially saw were the standard record store finds for both – Reckoning, Document, Tunnel of Love, etc. Been there, done that. Then I made an early desperation move for the CD rack, which I’ve been largely ignoring of late, and found my treasure – eight ‘90s R.E.M singles (“Radio Song,” “E-Bow the Letter,” etc.), all priced between $2 and $4. They must’ve heard I was coming.

Going to an independent record shop the day after Record Store Day’s Black Friday (when bands and labels release highly-sought-after exclusives to indie stores only) is like showing up to a neighborhood garage sale 15 minutes before it’s supposed to be over. You’re lucky to find a can opener for 75 cents. It was mostly slim pickings on the exclusives after an angry mob fought to the death over them the morning prior, but I was able to pick up the 180-gram vinyl reissue of Incubus’ S.C.I.E.N.C.E.

Every successful record-shopping adventure needs at lease one out-of-left field find. I was elated but not stunned to find the R.E.M. singles, but my jaw dropped when I came across blink-and-you-missed them bluegrass/pop band Blue Merle’s one and only record, 2005’s Burning in the Sun, on wax. I’ve only met one other person who knew about Blue Merle without me telling them about the band, and that was their fiddle player when I talked with him at this year’s Telluride Bluegrass Festival, so Island Records couldn’t have pressed that many copies. Where would Zia even obtain this? Anyone who had this record on vinyl would have to be a big enough Blue Merle fan to never sell it, and there’s no indication it’s a promo sent to radio stations. Again, they must’ve heard I was coming.

<y need for Springsteen was later satisfied with a cool 10” promoting 2010’s The Promise, and I also found a 7” by one of my favorite new bands, Wales noise rockers The Joy Formidable.

Needless to say, Zia served as a great first impression of the city’s music-geek hospitality. You might say the Phoenix has risen in my record-shopping rankings.


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