For this thirty year-old, the specialty beer & wine store has displaced the record shop. In college, I dated a young woman that propelled my pop music consumption towards carnivorous. We would drive forty-five minutes to a great record shop and spend way too much money for a college student’s budget on Smog and Palace Brothers vinyls. While a car ride with a woman willing to spend time with me was itself enough to get me outta bed, I was on board for a few other reasons. These reasons hid not so discreetly under the guise of “buying stuff I like.” Lately, I’ve rediscovered these same reasons in my trips to specialty beer & wine shops. The way I used to shop for records is the way I now shop for beer.
Last weekend, I stopped at a specialty beer & wine store in my area to spend way too long picking out a sampler six-pack before checking out. While being rung up, I mentioned how great one of Michigan’s breweries has been of late – just releasing great beer after great beer in rapid succession, like Pavement records in the 90s. The dude took the bait.
Now, I don’t know if on the other side of the counter this type of discourse is exhausting and perfunctory, but I’d like to think not. When I was a more frequent record store patron, I felt it was my duty to talk to the clerk about records. More specifically, it was my duty to be more interesting than all the other nerds. I had to stand out. I’m not sure why – because cultural capital and male territorialism, probably. Anyway, he obliged. It’s his job. And we gently geeked out in a restrained way that we’ve learned to do as thirtysomethings.
Although Michigan is fortunate to have a great chain of grocery stores (Meijer) that’s fairly dedicated to having a decent handful of deep-cut beer releases that most every other state would dream of, a place to converse with the clerk about a single-hop series the grocery store is not. I also could’ve gotten M83 records at Urban Outfitters, but 1) I’m not talking to the UO clerk about how cool it is that someone still cares about the Cocteau Twins, and 2) gross.
These discussions about musical influences were always much less about learning anything and much more about proving I could fit in – proving I was worth my salt. Tis the nature of cultural capital: arbitrarily earning some respect from a tastemaker. But part of starting these conversations is just being able to connect with someone of shared interest. Especially before the internet became an easy place to find people like yourself, having niche interests can be oddly isolating when you have no choice but to suppress your most passionate fandom from people that simply don’t care about things like 80s dream pop. These exchanges have rarely been about pragmatism, conferring information from one person to another, but much more about feelings.
That being said, talking to clerks about records often ended in the passing of useful knowledge, like being turned on to certain publications or getting show info or scoring the odd free ticket. Likewise, my recent discussions with these beer curators have keyed me in on upcoming releases, tastings and secret stock.
Aside from the personnel involved, the joy of shopping at both record stores and beer stores has always been engaged by the anticipation of the unexpected, or the uncertainty of what all is in stock. This is why internet shopping will never win me over. I need to dig through stacks and shelves. I need to take inventory of everything, and then make my decision. Of course the listening, or the drinking, now, is always a treat, but I prefer the shopping to the buying.
And, by extending the comparison to online shopping, my real draw to places like record stores and specialty beer & wine shops is illuminated. To call it shopping is almost a misnomer. It’s more akin to visiting an art museum. Spending an hour in a record store was always about seeing how well curated the space was, rather than just looking for something to buy. We want to spend time in social spheres that reflect our tastes, and tell us “this place is for you.” It has never been about making logical or calculated consumption choices. I will always enjoy getting lost in a shop for an extended period of time more than walking out with a few new records, or now, beers.