The Sharp End: Getting into the groove

Dave Waller dodges the crackheads to sell vintage soul and jazz to Chicago's vinyl junkies.

by Dave Waller
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

The Sharp End is sending me to sample life in a used record store. Can you get any sharper than the thin end of a music industry that's been chipped away by economic troubles and the rise of MP3s? Yes you can, if that store is in Chicago's notorious West Garfield Park neighbourhood. This is the first assignment where I require a chaperone to the bus stop to avoid static from the local crack dealers.

But we're dealing with a dependency of a different kind. I arrive at Out Of The Past records at midday to be greeted by Ethan, the store's buyer. He's a chipper 34 year-old who started here three years ago, after visiting 'on an addicted basis'. 'I missed maybe four Saturdays in five years,' he says. 'That was six hours a day digging through records.'

Ethan tells me how Out Of The Past is home to around one million records. A treasure-trove of classic old soul and jazz, gospel and blues. Stock has amassed ever since its septuagenarian owners, Charlie Joe and Marie Henderson, opened in the 1960s. They've been known to lock in obsessive European collectors overnight. These willing hostages emerge in the morning, black with dust and incredibly content.

Records lie everywhere: on racks, in stacks, and in bins; all covered in thick dust, smelling of old cardboard, with those near the ground mercilessly clawed by Shadow, the store's wiry black cat. Indeed, the phrase 'mint condition' seems to cut no groove here. It's a wonder anyone comes in.

They don't, as it turns out. Ethan tells me how 99% of sales are online, largely to Europe. Before the crash, he'd see tons of people in the store. But the economic downturn was like flicking a switch and 'real' customers are now as scarce as some of the rare grooves they could be browsing through. The idiosyncratic opening hours of noon to 7pm don't help either.

So the web is the answer. Facebook provides low-budget marketing and eBay is really the only sales channel open for what's essentially a one-man team. Yet its modus operandi only seems to inspire more blues. 'Its restrictions are draconian, it sucks ass,' says Ethan. 'The fees are high too, so it's difficult to sell something for less than $5 and make a profit.' Hence all the low-value records stacked up around us, hundreds of miles of grooves left stewing in a long-playing silence. As a revenue model it's hardly Harvard Business Review material.

Ethan's phone beeps. It's Marie from out front, saying they need him to get some ice to make snowballs, crushed ice with syrup that they sell from the sidewalk outside (a 'hood phenomenon', according to Ethan). We shuffle past the hangers-on watching the big TV from armchairs by the door, and drive past the area's boarded-up storefronts.

'People are scared of coming here,' he says. Five people were shot in Chicago last night, two in the area. Ethan reckons the city's main record store, Reckless Records, will do $5,000 in sales today - thanks to its central location among the city's hipsters. By contrast, Ethan has only nine online orders.

But he reckons there's enough demand to keep the store going, especially as the Hendersons own the building. The fan struggles against the heat, as we wipe down records with an alcohol solution before boxing them. Suddenly the phone rings.

A young guy in shorts and boater has hauled himself through the gospel section and pulled out a stack of stuff to buy. He looks exhausted - even before Ethan points out the gospel overflow shelves behind him. All pricing here takes place at the desk, in Ethan's head. 'There's some ridiculously good stuff there, but I'll cut him a deal,' he says. 'I always like to see people happy.' He sells him a huge stack for a mere $60. Ethan works partly on commission, so he isn't going to get rich, but at least there's love for the vinyl.

The day comes to an abrupt end - Ethan heads off for a home visit to price a 90 year-old's classic blues and jazz collection, the Hendersons to attend a funeral.

I stumble out into the sunlight, greeted by a man with a big white goatee, braids, missing teeth and a massive T-shirt stretched over his belly. This is Big Tone, a family friend. He escorts me to the bus stop and reveals the extent of the local troubles. 'Since 1997, I've been to 107 funerals,' he says. 'I'm tired of it.'

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime