Exile on High Street
Over the past year, the last two record stores along the campus stretch of North High Street closed. John Petric, the owner of one of those shops, reflects on the end of an era.
"I wanted to do this forever."
That's what I told close friends of my record store in its final months. As the first decade turned into the second and then third, even when Herculean efforts couldn't stop the progress steamroller, I still wanted a store in my life. For all the headaches and heartaches and financial risks, there is nothing like it. It was better than being in a band-no lead singers to babysit. I can't tell you how many times I went home at night so excited to get back to the store the next day and start plowing through the plunder. Just thinking about it makes me sad.
In March, three months after I sold my last record, I cleaned out what remained of Johnny Go's House O' Music. The store key never looked shinier than the moment I handed it over to the landlord's office manager. As I walked out into the cold, pouring rain, soaked to the bone from my record store's final vanloads that Tuesday afternoon, I felt a creeping unmooring not unlike the abandoned astronaut drifting from his capsule in "2001: A Space Odyssey."
Knowing the end was coming fairly well in advance, I didn't think it was going to be that hard. Indeed, at times in January and February, I was elated at the thought of starting a new life, the possibilities wide open. I was fooling myself. Moving 27 years worth of accumulated musical treasures-as well as sentimental junk-made that clear.
I'd sensed the end was coming about three years ago when the landlord voluntarily replaced a $500 plate glass window smashed by some rich suburban punks who fled in a huge gold SUV. Landlords don't normally do something like that out of altruism. They obviously were trying to make the property look pretty for a suitor. And when they came in unannounced and replaced most of the leak-stained ceiling tiles later, there was no question that my store's end was near.
My suspicions were confirmed at the end of February 2015, when news broke that Ohio State-through its development arm, Campus Partners-had bought nine acres of High Street prime. Ten months later, on Dec. 3, my fellow tenants and I were told via email we'd need to close by the end of the month. It felt like simultaneous punches to the solar plexus and the gut. It felt like the end of an era, not just for me, but for the character that made that stretch of North High unique. Sigh. Life was never easy on High Street. Fun, crazy, dangerous, yes. Easy? Never.
It started with a single crate of records. Back in the prehistoric mid-1980s, I'd accumulated a nice haul of first-generation promo LPs, rare bootlegs and various choice blues, jazz, punk and metal albums. Ken Stone-the late, great owner of Mole's Record Exchange, the High Street store where I worked part time-let me have some space to sell my wares at his two tables at a record convention in Pittsburgh.
I grossed $305 from my records. And I didn't even sell 'em all. I was ecstatic, high from my first real stab at selling music as my own man. One crate, one career. As Springsteen sang, from small things big things one day come. That 300 bucks was the equivalent of one week's take-home pay from the four part-time jobs I held back then. Hooked, I was making money in the music biz. Wow.
Campus was record-store nirvana back in those days. In addition to Mole's, you had Singin' Dog, Capitol City, Discount Records and Magnolia Thunderpussy, as well as Used Kids and its sister operation, School Kids, which focused on new product. The competition was fierce, and Mole's, the first used-record store in Columbus, struggled to keep up. In 1988, I dug into my savings to buy what was left of Mole's from the IRS for the ungodly sum of $2,500, as well as paying Ken Stone's $3,600 in unpaid rent. I now had my own business right in the heart of campus, taking over the old Mole's space on the second floor of the Wellington Building at 16th and High. I christened my store Johnny Go's House O' Music, naming it after my band, Johnny Go and the Awesome Dudes.
To prepare, I bought $132 in business books from the old City Center mall. I learned to do things guerilla-style: pay for product up front in cash and finagle a discount. Eschew an advertising budget. Pay employees at the end of the week they work, no waiting period. Observe yourself: Do you have an instinct or instincts? Do you follow them? When you do, what happens?
From a Wall Street Journal article, I discovered why supermarkets put milk in the back of the store-to force customers to walk past other shelves as they search for the essential product. Hence, uber-popular indie rock ended up at the back of mine. Which meant incurious young people might become a little more curious on their way back to the counter and-who knows-maybe even stop off and see what this "blues" or "jazz" or "soul" thing is.
I used to lie in bed at night, thrilled to captain my own operation, thinking of every little expense I could cut, every little way I could make people just a little bit happier when they came to me instead of the hipster record schmucks up and down the street. Along with the Wall Street Journal, I read the New York Times business section every morning. And Billboard, too. The stuff you can learn. I talked to anybody who ever owned anything-Harvard Business School is great, but having someone with experience standing in front of you willing to share an anecdote may just help you make a ton of money over the long run.
Johnny Go's flourished. I moved from the second floor to the street level. This was the mid-'90s, shortly after the Oklahoma City bombing (funny, how we associate certain changes in life), and the CD boom of music-lovers switching from vinyl to disc was in full swing. I bought guitars, motorcycles and a house in Grandview with my profits and began vacationing in Puerto Rico regularly. How much fun was it owning a record store on the biggest college campus in America? I was paying my way in the world, selling music in a big ol' funky store in the middle of High Street, which made it the best location in the nation.
The people parade was unsurpassable. I met so many characters I wonder if I'll ever need to write fiction with the phantasmagoric collection of humanity in my memory banks. There were the cool regulars like "Sgt. Rock," the awesome Vietnam vet who needed $10 right before the first of every month for cigarettes. What a great human being. Rita and Helen, the two sweet old deaf ladies who loved blaxploitation DVDs. Alex, the white-haired Tip O'Neil look-alike who despised Obama and all young people-80 years old and still regularly hoofin' it down High Street. Beggars like one-eyed James and his sparrow of a wife, Loretta, who probably relieved High Street of more spare change than all the couches in America could hold. Dave McPeak (aka "Music Man"), the sweetest human being on the face of the earth, who used to walk around with a boom box, screaming heavy metal or singing country lyrics depending on the cassette (he's since gone iPod but still can be heard). And, of course, all the stupid, young, fake squatter punks who love the badge of "homeless" even though mummy and daddy have private detectives looking for them and their beds are ready back in Upper Arlington with fresh, clean sheets.
Then there were the fabulous, cool, everyday people who just wanted to remain a part of the probably-more-important-than-we-know-it record-store culture. Three favorites were Wayne Spikes, a phenomenal bass player and human being; Craig McMullen, the honest-to-gosh actual guitar player on Curtis Mayfield's Superfly album; and Bob "Roberto" Lanum, a retired AEP worker who knew more about music than God. We could talk about anything-and did. At my place, as long as you weren't a jerk, you were more than welcome, baby. Come and partake of the atmosphere. Like Artie Bucco of The Sopranos, I thought of myself as a rather convivial host. The more the merrier.
I also became "time tough," as the reggae star Toots Hibbert used to call it. If you were a record-store owner on High Street, you were bound to experience some pretty damn ugly things over time-and those things made you tougher. I learned that firsthand.
One night in 1995, right before closing, I was robbed. A pantyhose-masked gunman dragged me from behind the counter and took me to the front of the store, where he forced me to kneel as he handcuffed my hands behind my back.
He demanded to know where my money was. As I thought of how to respond, I came to two conclusions. The first was that he'd more likely kill me if I told him-the logic of that train of thinking inexplicable to me now. The second? I just didn't want him to get the money-a notion of defiance, I know. I stayed silent about the $1,000 in my left pants pocket (a folded wad that looked like a pack of cigarettes from the outside). Even though he kept telling me my execution was imminent, I'd be damned if I was going to let this creep rip off my grand's worth of sweat.
I was lucky. He fled without the $1,000 after finding $200 in the register drawer. This wasn't the first time I'd been robbed. Back in the early '80s, a con fresh out of prison who'd gone back to heroin pointed a gun at my stomach when I was working at Singin' Dog. But the 1995 robbery shook me up more. PTSD is no joke. The terror dreams lasted five years, and I was crazier than an outhouse rat during the day.
Still, the day after I was robbed, even though it made me feel sick, I opened the store, business as usual. If I didn't, then the bastard would have gotten away with a lot more than a handful of cash. I thought about the Jews who got burned out of their businesses during the Russian pogroms-what did they do? They either moved or cleaned up, rebuilt and reopened. My guardian angel sent a customer I'd known for a while who kept me company for a few hours, calming my nerves on that difficult day. Thank you, beautiful hippie girl whose name I cannot remember. I couldn't have done it without you.
Campus' gritty character wasn't so charming after that. The year before I was robbed, another crime, the March 1994 killing of Stephanie Hummer, galvanized campus safety concerns. It's no big deal when a record-store owner like me gets robbed. It's a whole 'nother thing when an OSU freshman, a coed from Cincinnati, is abducted and murdered. Hummer's death led to the creation of Campus Partners, a nonprofit formed by Ohio State and the city of Columbus to improve the campus area.
Ah, Campus Partners-what an innocuous piece of camouflaged nomenclature. With a name like Campus Partners, you thought, "Hey, someone's here to help! We might get the return of police foot patrols. There might be better city cleanup of the litter storm. Landlords might actually clean up the alleys." Instead it turned out to be a big money machine designed to devour prime off-campus real estate. Whatever Ohio State wants, Ohio State gets. Life is one big voracious tailgate party for them.
Just as unforgiving was the world of business. I remember during the '90s, I was so proud of myself for having figured out a way to save $300 a month. I can't quite recall how right now, but I do remember thinking I was going to be $3,600 richer at the end of the year. And the next month the landlord raised the rent the exact same amount, something I was too novice to anticipate.
Back then, too, you had the big-box electronics stores-Sun, Circuit City, all gone now-selling new CDs below cost, cheaper than even we could get 'em at wholesale, just to drive foot traffic into their rooms. So we'd send a couple of guys down to buy 10 copies each of the new Springsteen release, for the campus-bound customers who couldn't drive out to the 'burbs to buy. Whatever we could do to find little niches of profit, we did it: cut-outs, imports, bootlegs.
Wow, bootlegs. Columbus had such a bad reputation for bootlegs (as well as for being a promo-dumping ground by unethical record company reps) that even Billboard referenced its notoriety in a front-page story. We were so proud. Most stores kept that sort of thing under the radar-unless Dave Matthews got involved. His violin player once came into my store before a Polaris gig. When he walked out empty-handed, we figured we'd get a cease-and-desist letter from Dave's lawyer, which we did.
Something else about the record business and owning your own piece of the action-what a feeling!-was that everybody was an expert. I was always silently?amazed how virtually anyone and their brother thought they knew everything there was to know about the biz. After a while, a little galling, that. But you never said anything. Let 'em think whatever they want. But you knew the truth.
The real confirmation that my life's work was about to go steadily down the drain came in 2003. My dear, sweet Southern mama passed away suddenly one morning, and a few months later in September, the week before school started, in an act of mourning and tribute, I drove her fine old-lady Town Car across the South in her honor. I'd taken a couple of hours off work just to visit the Zanesville area and see if the leaves were changing when I spontaneously decided to take a week off. You can do that when you own your own place and do enough biz to afford a solid manager.
When I returned, I was stunned to see that not a single used Pink Floyd CD had sold while I was gone, even though the students had come piling back. And the discs were priced at a low, low $5.99. "Uh-oh," I thought, "this is bad."
Let's be clear: I should've gotten out of the business 10 years ago when the kids nearly totally abandoned buying physical product for the irresistible if not illegal allure of downloading. To survive (barely), I began shedding workers, then gave up the yearly Puerto Rico vacations. I stopped eating out, then buying new clothes. Whatever it took. I repeated this mantra silently: "Things'll turn around next year." They never did. Shucks, things got insurmountably, catastrophically worse. The Chinese water torture of slow death by downloading knocked business off by half, easy. Then it went even lower.
So what did I do with those two dangerous icebergs, Campus Partners and the internet, honing in on the USS Johnny Go? I went down playing lots of music-marathon sessions of Miles Davis, Booker T and the MGs, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, the Stooges, JJ Cale, Merle Haggard and Lee "Scratch" Perry, indulging in the very reason I got into the business back in 1978 at the original, tiny Singin' Dog Records (as its first employee, I might add). I spent the last several years of my store's life immersed in the stuff from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., no breaks, non-stop, 28 days a month.
And I played my tunes ever louder to annoy whatever-school of whatever's mummified secretary to the dean who harassed me for seven years with calls to the Columbus police for noise ordinance violations. In the daytime. On High Street. The cops even rolled their eyes when they walked in the store.
By the time the store closed at the end of 2015, it was doing a measly 20 percent of its heyday. There was no point in thinking things would turn around. Hell yes, I played music all day-what else could I do? It kept me from thinking about what was happening to me.
But don't weep for me, Argentina. I've had 27 years to indulge in my eighth-grade study-hall dream, when my pal, Louis Radcliff, and I would draw up plans for turning Popa's Shoe Repair in the center of Strongsville into the coolest record store in Cuyahoga County.
This ain't the first horse I've had shot out from under me. I'll survive. You can't run a store on High Street without taking a beating once in a while.