Last Saturday night at Sweat Records in Little Haiti marked a couple of milestones. First, and most important, it was the store's third birthday — a giant feat for a business that's survived two relocations and even more hurricanes. And it was the local celebration of the first International Record Store Day. There would be tons of giveaways from record labels, in-store performances, and parties galore.
That evening the mood was festive and cheerfully low-budget, much like, well, a birthday party at someone's house. Clots of people swilled screw-top wine from plastic cups, while others lingered out front to smoke. A Publix sheet cake, decorated in Sweat's trademark aqua and purple, perspired inside its paper box on a table above buckets filled with ice and tall-boy cans of a dangerous-looking (and strange-tasting) energy drink/alco-pop hybrid called Rize. On the back stage, DJ Hottpants (yes, he still wears the tiny gym shorts) played cheerful indie pop. A sizable-and-building crowd looked happy at 8:30 p.m., about three hours earlier in than most there usually emerge.
And the crowd? Well, there were the usual mainland scenesters (more of the intellectual/music/book geek strain than the flat-ironed club hipster strain). There were aging record collector dudes and a gaggle of stoned-out-of-their-mind guys (one, rare for Miami, in an Insane Clown Posse T-shirt) with gold teeth who barged in, cheap cigarettes ablaze, yelling, "What, you ain't never seen no hood niggas before?" In short, it was the typical microcosm of weirdness that sprouts up at the Churchill's axis.
Then, on a long table down the center of the store, there was swag provided by indie-ish heavyweights and their record labels. All kinds of random stuff was free for the taking — buttons featuring the face of Scottish electro-popper Calvin Harris, a limited-edition comic book about Welsh metal band Bullet for My Valentine, and CD sampler upon CD sampler from labels such as Matador. Actually, much of it was, sort of like the term record store itself, willfully retro. I passed over a dubious-looking seven-inch by a band with a name (The Fashion) and sleeve design (photographic collage of knives) that seemed destined for MySpace favorites lists. As I reached for a Merge Records 45 — yes, complete with the big hole — by indie troubadour Destroyer, a guy on my left, at least a decade my senior, said, "That's funny, isn't it? That's how they made records when I was a kid. Seeing that just makes me feel old."
Big, heavy 12-inch compilations disappeared from the stacks incrementally, too, although I suspect most people taking them don't even own record players.
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Regardless of the free, free, freeness of booze and tunes, something happened that would appear funny to naysayers: People were buying stuff, with vigor. True, the folks with the biggest stacks of used vinyl were probably close to bidding their thirties adieu. But younger types happily flipped through the stacks of CDs, carefully laying aside discoveries. There's nothing like turning up, say, Yma Sumac on the way to grabbing that "B-more gutter music" compilation — a real possibility at a place like Sweat more than iTunes.
"Every time we have a party, the sales are better," says Lolo Reskin, Sweat's 25-year-old coproprietor. "One of the best things about having these events is every single time, there are people who have never been to the store. And then they bring in new people."
The cross-pollination of various eras of Miami's music scene was interesting to watch. The in-store musical act was local legend Nil Lara, who seems to be emerging from his latest period of relative hermitude. Strumming an acoustic set before a DJ whirl by Otto von Schirach, he gathered a small, appreciative crowd of under-thirties on the store's couches. Around 11 p.m., the crowd mostly drifted next door to Churchill's for the second day of Nastie's Miami Music Festival, with performances from the likes of Jesse Jackson, Modernage, and the seemingly now-omnipresent José El Rey.
Giving away free vinyl records at a time when many music lovers don't even own traditional stereos might not be the way for record labels to save themselves. But these kinds of freebies proved a definite lure into Sweat Records, and once there, people seemed happy to spend some cash on CDs, coffee, and cupcakes. It was clear most folks were aching for somewhere to gather besides a high-priced bar or a Starbucks, and the record store just served as one of sociologists' vaunted "third places," with musical interest as a common thread. Sweat's owners understand that. They not only have an expanding selection of homegrown merchandise, but also sponsor lots of social activities such as a book group and, more recently, a science club. If other proprietors retool similarly, they all should make it out alive. Liquoring up potential customers seems to help a bit too.