Let's say it's the late 1970s and you're a teenager in a bland suburb. And let's say you've procured a ride, with your grocery-store job wages jammed in the pocket of your jeans, to the local mall, where you make your way to its sole chain record store, Harmony Hut, whose name evoked incense and macramé, not rock 'n' roll, even then. You flip through the four paltry bins marked "Imports," the ghetto for the most mysterious, interesting-looking stuff. Then maybe you wander over to the music department of the discount department store to gawk at the display racks filled with the latest major-label releases. You've heard a track or two off some of these albums on the radio. Maybe you read a review or two in Creem or were told by your classmates that certain ones were great. But still you struggle with selecting your purchase—your investment. Upon finally making a decision, which is often down to being a leap of faith based on the cover and the price, you giddily whisk the album home, where, with much nervousness and anticipation, you inhale the heady aroma of virgin vinyl after peeling off the shrink wrap. You gingerly center it on the turntable and lower the tonearm. The stylus crackles with statically electrified portent as it eases into the groove. You live with this album, and only this album, over the next few weeks, getting to know it intimately and loving it more with each play—or, with your mental toil and $6.99 outlay (two hours' wages back then) fresh in your mind, laboriously dissecting and trying to like it before finally admitting that yeah, it stinks and planning your next record-buying expedition.
As we all know, this way of discovering and appreciating music was long pegged for dead thanks to the rise of digital media and online marketing. And yet, although no one can kid themselves into believing that vinyl will ever overtake the fast-food contagion of mp3s, the older format has nevertheless lately experienced dramatic regrowth. In 2015, US vinyl sales rose by a formidable 30 percent, up to nearly 12 million from just over 9 million in 2014. But, no, this isn't another one of those "vinyl's coming back!" articles clipped from the Sunday Parade magazine and mailed to you by your mom. Rather, it is, in essence, about the kind of experience that will never be part of the lazy, isolating practice of clicks and downloads.
"I think we learn just as much about music from our customers as they learn from us," says Justin Johnson, the manager and co-owner (with Roberto Hull and Erin Gladding) of Poughkeepsie's Darkside Records and Gallery. "I'm always getting turned onto stuff I didn't know about before, especially 1960s and '70s music." Darkside recently reopened an expanded operation in a former OTB location on Dutchess Turnpike. "I like to say that when we ripped out all the old, stained carpeting we got rid of decades of cigarette smoke and failed marriages," the piercing-sporting proprietor jokes, "and replaced them with something a lot healthier." Born in Schenectady in 1985, Johnson came along just when LPs were going out and CDs were coming in; his first album was a Boyz II Men CD. But through his parents' music collection he was introduced to vinyl. "They had records, and a lot of tapes, too," he recalls. "I remember getting into the Elvis '68 Comeback album, the Beatles' White Album, and Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, which is where the name of the store comes from. The first LP I bought on my own was Black Sabbath's Masters of Reality."
At 16, Johnson was inspired by a visit to San Francisco's Amoeba Music, known for its sheer size and musician-narrated "What's in My Bag?" video series. "The whole vibe there really made me see how a record store could be so much more than just a retail space," he explains. "Ten years later, we opened the first Darkside on Main Street [in Poughkeepsie]." But after just five years at that address it was clear that things had exploded far beyond anyone's dreams. "Our lease was up and we were trying to figure out our future," says Johnson. "The old store was 2,000 square feet, which was pretty big, but we were filled beyond capacity [with stock]."
And so last January, the shop moved less than a mile away to its massive—9,000 square feet—new home. Maintaining the fluorescent, Frankenstein-green motif of the earlier site, its cavernous, well-lit main room houses dozens of sturdy, neatly curated metal racks packed with 12- and 7-inch vinyl (estimated at 20,000 pieces), CDs, and DVDs. A separate room contains a counter where used records are bought, a stereo repair shop, and a turntable section where customers can test out new machines or pick up a used model. The wing is also where Johnson, Hull, and other members of Darkside's staff of nine record a monthly podcast covering new releases, music and pop culture in general, and whatever else is au courant around the store. The gallery component that has been in place since the original facility's inception has also grown. "An interest in art is something all of us shared when we decided to open a store," the manager says. "And, since we have the wall space, we thought it would be cool to let local artists show and sell their work." Lighting up the walls at the time of this writing are the neon, comic-bookish monster images of area punk artist Anthony "Cookie" Cocurullo.
Another positive byproduct of having a larger space is the advent of an actual stage, this one measuring 256 square feet and featuring a house PA and professional lighting. There's also a dance floor with standing room for 150, which makes the prospect of overly enthusiastic moshers banging into the record bins less of a worry than it was during the in-store performances at the Main Street site. In addition to appearances by bands on tour or up from New York to promote new releases, the Darkside stage hosts DJ nights on alternate Tuesdays, an open mike on the third Sunday of every month, and multiband bills featuring local acts. In the planning stages are a series of "vinyl speed-dating nights," to which participants will bring and play a favorite record for their prospective partners. (Hope for unattached vinyl nerds, at last.)
"A lot of the record stores I went to growing up seemed to be run by grumpy, old guys selling mostly just classic rock," says Tyler Irish of the Port Dover band Take One Car, which played a record release event at the old Darkside and looks forward to hitting the stage of the new shop. "But this one's definitely not like that. It's always exciting for me, going there as a customer and just being able to come in talk with the people who work there about music."
April 16 sees the return of Record Store Day, the annual international event founded in 2007 to celebrate the culture of independent record stores. And with this year marking the first observance of the occasion in the new store, there are plans to go all out. "We're going to have live music, food trucks, a DJ, and giveaways," Johnson says, adding, intriguingly, "And maybe a couple of other things that we haven't 100-percent confirmed yet." Record Store Day-only releases are a key facet of the phenomenon, and when asked which titles he's personally excited about, Johnson cites a 12-inch EP of previously unreleased Clutch tracks, Gwar's Scumdogs of the Universe reissue, Muddy Waters's Hoochie Coochie Man: Live at the Rising Sun Celebrity Jazz Club double LP, and an album of 1984 demos by the pre-Mudhoney/Pearl Jam quintet Green River.
"It seems like stores in general are getting further away from being personal places; you see more and more of them putting in automatic check-out lines and stuff like that," says Irish, 31. "The community you find when you're hanging out in a record shop isn't something you can get online."
Other Hudson Valley Area Record Stores (New & Used)Rhino Records. Kingston and New Paltz. (845) 255-0230.