The Art of Spending 38 Years Behind the Counter
For most of the last 38 years, Scott has worked as a record-store clerk. And while a lot of people might greet that news with a shudder of dread or a derisive sneer, the 65-year-old lifer couldn’t, it seems, be happier.
Popular culture often portrays record-store clerks—not without cause—as elitist assholes. Scott embodies the genus’s other prevailing stereotype: the benevolent, mystical font of esoteric music knowledge, a mellow docent of the best records you’ve never heard or even heard of. In keeping with the third major caricature of music retailers, he takes the role seriously and brings his work home with him. His apartment in Fremont teems with vinyl, roughly 3,000 records, including covetable LPs like Anna Själv Tredje’s Tussilago Fanfara and Master Wilburn Burchette’s Psychic Meditation Music. It’s the kind of collection instantly recognizable to a fellow adept as a sign of true vocation, a life’s work. But vinyl immersion wasn’t always his chief ambition. When not behind the counter at Jive Time, Scott paints colorful, surrealist abstracts. (He takes them seriously, too—enough that he prefers to keep his artistic identity separate from his record-peddling exploits, and requested we omit his last name.) Dozens of smallish canvases stacked neatly alongside the record shelves are reminders of the fine-arts career that might have been, and even briefly was, until the refuge of the crates proved irresistible.
Scott’s odyssey through music retail began in 1977, at the U-District branch of the legendary Cellophane Square, which in those days featured a pinball room. Sketchy denizens would regularly try to sneak unpaid-for records past the machines. “There were more addicts running the Ave then,” Scott says. Dealing with crazies till midnight didn’t fit his easygoing demeanor—nor did getting held up, as he did one night in ’77. (“It wasn’t a hugely frightening thing,” he remembers. “The guy’s gun looked almost like a starting pistol.”)
After six months, Scott was hired at Everybody’s Records, a more corporate, less junkie-riddled shop in Bellevue, where he toiled for about two years. Then one day, he turned up for his shift and found the doors had been locked for good. “There wasn’t much warning,” Scott says. “In retail, they don’t like to tell you because they fear that stuff will disappear.” Next came Rubato Records, an uncommonly counterculture-friendly outpost also located in Bellevue. Scott still rhapsodizes over the “crazy, rare” records that passed through its doors. In 1987, one of Rubato’s owners bought out the other and moved the shop to West Seattle, and Scott realized it was time for a change. After 10 years behind various retail counters, the dream he’d been harboring, of pursuing an artist’s life in some hypothetical future, was in danger of entering the past tense. “You tell yourself, ‘I don’t want to be working in a record store my whole life.'”
So he quit.
Scott had also been caring for his parents, who were in ill health. After their passing, he decided to use the money they left him to make the art dream real. It went well at first. He enrolled in the Art Institute, and even secured an agent who sold to Japanese and Hawaiian patrons. He began to sell paintings on “a semi-regular basis”—at one point he sold a painting to the Neiman Marcus department store chain in Manhattan. But he never quite made enough money to live on, and the work he found as a commercial artist wasn’t satisfying. He began to feel like he might not be cut out for the life he’d been dreaming of.
“Some of my hanging back has hinged on just not showing people my paintings,” he tells me, a little obscurely. “But still it’s not quite as simple as that.” He realized that whatever other elements he might be able to secure (“good representation, a successful gallery, great painting, and the building of a good name”), the hallmark of the hungry artist in a marketplace—aggressive self-promotion—didn’t come naturally. It soon became clear that for him, becoming an art star was every bit as likely as becoming a rock star.
His path back to the predictable, practical grind of music retail began with a fortuitous trip to the Fremont Vintage Mall, where a collector named David Day—soon to open a new store called Jive Time—had a huge trove of used vinyl for sale. After working through the standard countless Streisand and Poco castoffs, Scott found himself face-to-face with a rare LP by Italian prog-folk genius Claudio Rocchi, priced at 99 cents. The score was too phenomenal for him not to regard it as an omen; he found the record, but the record also found him. Art hadn’t worked as a career, so he needed a job. But he also needed somewhere to belong.
Thirteen years later, he still considers himself Jive Time’s ambassador.
“In truth, the record store is an oasis,” Scott tells me. “Music makes you feel good. It takes you away from the mundanity of your life.” I know what he means. I frequent record stores multiple times a week and never don’t feel good in them. I’ve met some of my best friends in those aisles, formed lifelong bonds over shared musical tastes and the exchange of esoteric knowledge—like many others have formed bands, DJ collectives, and romantic relationships from similar encounters. Stories about the death of the music industry tend to focus on the businesses being threatened, with little time spent on the profound cultural sanctuary they provide people like Scott (and me).
The best record-store clerks act as conduits for musical revelation. Patrons often ask Scott for recommendations, and his selections have the potential to affect their lives in a meaningful way. This requires powers of intuition and deduction, as well as years of research. But it’s also an art form—one he’s managed to make into a career.
“Music and conversation change lives,” Scott says. “They validate us. The store is an organic space that allows for these kinds of reciprocal interactions. My role is to be enthusiastic and connect with the inspirational part of music. The customers inspire me, too.”
Well, maybe not all of them. “In the human community, there are time bombs,” he admits. “Some of those guys are great music lovers and spend a lot of money. If they’re in the store, there are things I know not to talk about with them. You can go from talking about Neil Young to a conspiracy theory extraordinarily quickly—in extra-loud voices, causing people to look at their feet, just wanting to chill the situation.”
It’s all part of the job.
Like nearly every other independently owned store in the country, Jive Time is deep in preparation for Record Store Day, which (fell) on Saturday, April 18, 2015. Because committed collectors often have mixed feelings about this event, I find the remarkably positive view Scott radiates toward it a pleasant surprise. I suppose it shouldn’t be that surprising: RSD has become something of a financial savior for brick-and-mortar shops, despite the glut of unnecessary major-label reissues and the negative impact it has on indie imprints trying to get vinyl releases manufactured in the months prior. Jive Time was slow to embrace the event, merely holding big sales in lieu of ordering the special releases. But they participated last year and benefited handsomely, Scott says.
“Part of our identity is not to have that full madhouse thing. We have a really wonderful sale, and our customers come in and treat us like gold, so it’s a really nice day for us. To me, Record Store Day is miraculous. It just blossomed.”
He also likes Record Store Day’s fetishization of vinyl, which, he says, “has an ability to tell the whole story in a way the other formats don’t. Eight-tracks and cassettes had mechanical liabilities. CDs have mechanical liabilities. Vinyl is a fully archival format. It’ll be here as long as stuff is here. Vinyl itself is reality: You’ve got a needle creating friction and a groove. CDs are a snapshot of that. The highest stories of our generation come through our art and our music, so that’s another reason why vinyl seems like a treasure to us: It’s a remnant of something really special in our culture.”