In this day of "Pod-estrians," it has become convenient to sit in front of a computer and, with the click of a button, obtain any track desired. We have forgotten the experience that is buying music. We no longer know what it's like to scour a record store for an album and read its liner notes.
With the major "Big Box" retailers and downloadable Websites ruling sales of the music market, the term neighborhood record store is a dying memory. But the employees of Blue Note Records in North Miami Beach are keeping vinyl alive.
Owner Bob Perry has been operating Blue Note Records, named for the famous jazz label, for 23 years. The store specializes in vintage jazz, R&B, and rock vinyl records. "When I first opened up here," says Perry, "people were like,'Bob, why do you want to open up a record shop at that location? There are so many record shops.' I was always confident in knowing that we would make it, because there was nothing like it. It was Blue Note Records and it was 1984. We've had some phenomenal years and are still surviving. Now out of all of those shops that used to be around, there are none, except for us."
"It's always been like that us carrying jazz and similar products. The name Blue Note implies jazz. You're cooking up your menu. You're cooking that note," explains a ten-year employee who goes by Lyndel. When consumers visit stores like Best Buy and Virgin Records, they aren't necessarily welcomed with open arms by store employees, but rather with bored looks from detached workers.
The employees at Blue Note have charisma, and a trip to the store seems like a homecoming.
"We've grown in stature, in terms as an independent store, because we've been at it for so long," says Robert Wells, a sixteen-year employee of Blue Note. "We carry things that most stores don't think about. Anybody can carry the newer stuff, but you see with the older stuff all the retailers have forgotten one thing ... they've forgotten about the adult shop patrons. Those are the ones that buy stuff. They're the ones that support the artists. It's a well-known fact that the öolder demos,' the grown folks, are more loyal to who they like."
"We're all pretty nice and friendly people," says Perry. "We speak the language. It's just friendliness, respect, and the fact that we know what they're talking about. My history ... Bob is half my age and knows about stuff I used to promote. Lyndel knows about Miami's old and present punk and hip-hop scenes. We bounce it off of the people that come in, and they know the stuff. You're not walking into a Best Buy and getting that kind of service. That's what brings it back. It's like an old barbershop that has been around for 40 or 50 years. You're comfortable. We're part of the family, part of the neighborhood."
Being a part of the community applies not only to Blue Note's history but also its location. Its building has housed various record stores for more than 50 years. "When I first got into the business in 1969, it was one of my accounts," explains Perry. "Back then it was known as Record Land. Before that it was Record Shack. It's been in the community for 50 years as a neighborhood record store. People will still come in and tell stories about how they used to buy concert tickets for Led Zeppelin or Black Sabbath at the Hollywood Sportatorium."
In a small office in the back of Blue Note, boxes of records stand ceiling-high. Posters of artists plaster the walls. Wearing khaki shorts and a colorful short-sleeve button-down with white sneakers, Perry lounges in a desk chair in a corner. "I did twenty years in promotions," he says. "I stopped because the music industry changed. I grew up in New England during the Fifties. I was into Muddy Waters and the masters at a very young age. I loved jazz like Dizzy Gillespie and other artists, who I would later get to know. I got spoiled."
Over the years, Perry worked for Atlantic, Arista, and Island record companies and with Clive Davis and Jerry Wexler, two industry heavyweights. Perry was then thrust into the Eighties hair-metal craze.
"I got to a point when I couldn't take it anymore," explains Perry. "I came up working with people like Donny Hathaway, Aretha Franklin, and the Grateful Dead I mean a lot of great artists. I've worked and was good friends with Bob Marley. But it was time to stop. 'Video Killed the Radio Star' ... who cares about the Buggles? Why did I get out of the record business? It was becoming very corporate."
As Sade's "Smooth Operator" booms from the house sound system, several patrons intently flip through stacks of records, in search of a musical diamond that will bring back memories of old.
"I've been coming to Blue Note for three years. I only listen to vinyl, and they are the only ones that carry it in the area. Besides, they have a lot more than just commercial music," explains store patron Israel Deoleo. Over the years, KRS-1, Afrika Bambaataa, Jam Master Jay, Erykah Badu, and Stephen Marley have also crossed over the store's threshold.
"The whole time I've worked here, I've run into people I never thought I would meet," explains Wells. "The vast majority of people have been really cool and accessible. They haven't had the whole 'I'm a superstar; I can't talk to you' mentality. I haven't really run into anyone like that yet."
Of all the photos in Perry's office collection, one stands out. Yellowed and faded, it shows Perry and Bob Marley in Blue Note's back office. "Marley was like a deity. If you were turned around when he walked into a room and didn't see him, you knew it. You felt his presence. Out of all the people I've worked with Van Morrison, Fats Domino, Sonny Rollins, and other jazz legends it was Marley. I had a box set of Rasta Man Vibration. It was all burlap with the record on the inside, different from the commercial copy. There were very few made. He signed it 'One love.' He's one of those artists that I wanted his signature. It's one of my most coveted possessions."
Blue Note also sells street art, original 1960s collectible lunch boxes, and rare box sets. Perry peddles merchandise on the store's Website and on eBay as well. One Led Zeppelin fanatic bought a 35-year-old poster for $1800 because of its rarity and good condition.
"I'm a crate digger," explains Perry. "Last night I went to several flea markets in Pembroke Park and looked at 5000 records. I ended up getting around 150. The rare pop-culture stuff really helps us keep things going."
"This is our second time at Blue Note," says twenty-year-old Matt Sessman, who is shopping with younger sister Liz, age sixteen. "We used to drive by here all the time. I like the crackled sounds that come from records. It's like when you go to the movies and hear the film begin, it adds a certain ambiance. Besides, we think it's a crime to listen to Jimi Hendrix on MP3."
Perry says having a recently opened Wal-Mart in the neighborhood hasn't hurt. "I can compete with them because they don't sell anything with a parental advisory. So come in here for the dirty words if you want them," he says jokingly. "They have a mild selection. It has kind of helped us because it has drawn people into the neighborhood. For the past fifteen years we've been here by ourselves. There were no other stores rented and there was no mall. It's like what Chris Rock said: öIt's sneakers and baby clothes.' That's all the mall really was back then. Thank God the city worked out a deal with Wal-Mart. It's bringing traffic into the neighborhood. As a result, people that used to come here are coming back."
How long Blue Note Records will stand at its current location is uncertain, but right now it doesn't seem like it will be going away any time soon. "I think that when everyone that currently works here leaves, it'll be time to sell the place," says Perry. "It's hard to get along without the people you love."