For those who view music as a vital necessity like food and shelter, being without Iowa City’s longtime institution the Record Collector leaves a gaping hole in the soul.
“A record store isn’t really a record store without customers,” said co-owner Alissa Witzke. “It feels empty and sad, like we’re just a warehouse.”
The store shifted to online sales and began doing free local deliveries during the COVID-19 lockdown, which was better than nothing but not the same as the real deal. Shops like Record Collector have been a key part of the cultural landscape for decades, gathering places where ideas and musical tastes cross-fertilize.
“Honestly, I just miss some of the general human interaction,” said Bobby Larson, the store’s other owner. “Community happens when you get enough of those music-fiend types together and talking, which is why COVID-19 has made things extra hard on businesses that were already troubled by the move to online sales and forums.”
This absence has put me in a nostalgic mood, because record shops are in my blood. I worked in five stores from 1986 to 2000, and despite earning a Ph.D., I learned more from a three-minute record than I ever did in school.
My first job was at Cap’n Ben’s Records in Virginia Beach, located just off of the Oceanfront’s seedy main strip in a small duplex building shared with a deli. It had an old school 1970s vibe, with the weather-beaten vertical wood siding common in beach towns.
It was originally owned and operated by Benjamin Smith, an eccentric character who claimed to be an actual British naval captain. He sold the store in 1984 to 18-year-old Brandt Legg, a successful Northern Virginia businessman who started a stamp-collecting business at the age of 10. He often visited the beach on vacations. Once, the captain got in touch with Legg to let him know that a record he had special-ordered had arrived.
“When he told me the price,” Legg said, “I thought it was too high and jokingly asked how much for the whole store. Turns out he was interested in selling and we agreed on terms.”
His older brother Brae was happy to move down from the Washington D.C. suburbs to run the store, where I had become a regular. Right before my 16th birthday, I was hired to work a few shifts and worked my way up to store manager by the end of high school.
A half block down from Cap’n Ben’s on the main drag was a sad little ice cream store named Coney Island that sat among touristy places like Old Virginia Fudge Shop and Far East Bazaar. A few doors down, a fight might spill out of Chicho’s, a local’s bar that sometimes had punk shows and sold dollar pizza slices.
By the end of 1987 the record store moved into the former ice cream parlor and was rebranded the Sound Company, where a neighborhood kid named Pharrell Williams sometimes shopped before he became famous.
Virginia Beach felt like a cultural abyss on the geographic margins, hemmed in between the Atlantic Ocean, Chesapeake Bay and the Great Dismal Swamp. Little did I know that so much talent from my generation would bubble up from the area, like hip-hop goddess Missy Elliot and producers Timbaland and the Neptunes.
The store — which continued to smell like ice cream for months — employed a motley crew of punks, skaters and hip-hop heads (plus one theater geek, me, who was down with all of the above). Several musicians worked there, like Elvis From Hell guitarist Teddy Dean and Terry Josephson, the singer for a short-lived college rock band called Rain.
I got a punk history lesson working with Larry May, who was the frontman of the local hardcore band Face Reality. He turned me on to so much cool stuff back then and later formed the Candy Snatchers, mayhem-causing maniacs who were personally banned from CBGB by Hilly Kristal, the man who opened that iconic New York City punk club and had seen it all.
May was laid back at the store, but onstage he was a wild man who bled like Iggy Pop, the kind of thing I had only read about in magazines. I remember when Face Reality played the Beach Theater in 1987 opening for GWAR, where fake blood was added to the mix. The Richmond-based art school students were in the low-budget stage of their career, wearing paper-mâché masks and DIY costumes that sprayed the audience crimson red.
The Beach Theater hosted many epic shows, from dancehall reggae artists Yellowman and Eek-A-Mouse to a 1988 Fugazi show where band faced off against Nazi beach punks. Before the show they told singer Ian MacKaye that a “hit” was out for him for “betraying the scene” — a crime, Ian later told me, he did not know was punishable by death.
Between CJ Starkey and JJ White, the Sound Company played a lot of hip hop that was still bubbling up from the underground. Starkey was a white punk skateboarder whose tastes were shifting to rap, and we learned a lot from White, a young black musician with television actor good looks. He loved Public Enemy and played bass in Hoit, another local hardcore band. He was also responsible for turning me on to Parliament-Funkadelic.
Oh yeah, and we had a killer sound system.
“One wild memory I have from the store,” Starkey recalled, “was when Public Enemy came in and were just fucking losing their shit because of all that sound was coming out of there. They were like, ‘What the fuck is this?’ I think I was playing LL Cool J, and I looked over at the CD cover and I’m like, ‘Holy shit, you’re Public Enemy!’”
Bad Brains frontman H.R. lived nearby for a time and would come by during slow winter days and tell me rambling stories of legendary D.C. punk shows. Like I said, record stores are an educational experience.
The Record Collector’s current owners started working at their store for the same reasons I got a job at Cap’n Ben’s: They were regular customers who had already acquired a lot of musical knowledge. Kirk Walther, who opened the store back in 1982, hired Larson in the mid-aughts after he correctly identified McKinley Morganfield as Muddy Waters’ real name during an informal quiz.
Witzke started around the same time after a similarly intimidating job interview. After Walther was diagnosed with cancer and his condition rapidly deteriorated, he made arrangements to sell them the store so that it would live on and allow people to connect with one another.
“I’ve been missing listening to other people chat about records or getting excited about an item that they didn’t expect to find,” Witzke told me. “No amount of posts on social media or online orders will ever make up for that, so I hope that record shops will continue to be a place for gathering and discussing and exploring for years to come.”
Kembrew McLeod wants to remind everyone that Record Collector staff are taking appointments to shop at the store, so give ’em a call! This article was originally published in Little Village issue 283.