The record store was once a beloved staple of nearly every American neighborhood, but slowly, it has been going the way of Victrolas, eight-tracks and 45s, headed for the nostalgia section of American history. The latest casualty is Dr. Wax, one my favorite shops in Chicago.
Located in the eclectic, multicultural South Side enclave of Hyde Park, it opened in 1988, about the same time that compact discs had become the preferred sound format for record playing. Dr. Wax sold music from artists big and small, but the bread-and-butter of the Hyde Park location, one of four locations in the city – has always been its cutting-edge selections for the cutting-edge clientele of up-and-coming DJs, hip-hop purists, University of Chicago students and serious jazz heads.
Originally located between a gas station and a retail plaza before moving to Harper Court, the neighborhood’s business center, the store became a favorite teenage destination for me; it is where I purchased the records of A Tribe Called Quest, Wu-Tang Clan and The Roots.
As my tastes matured, I could always count on Duane, the store’s burly, Kangol-rocking manager/buyer, to turn me on to the finest neo-soul, electro and acid jazz from across the country and abroad. He was also an invaluable reference for the more under-the-radar black music of the past several decades, be it Leon Ware, Rotary Connection, Omar or 4Hero.
If you didn’t know Duane upon first venturing into Dr. Wax, you were likely to be introduced to him via a spacey jazz groove or through the angelic voice of the chanteuse he had playing on the store’s speakers. Not only did you vibe with it enough to plunk down change for the record, but whatever other music-related questions you had were met with quick and helpful answers; he was the antithesis of every smug record store clerk you’ve encountered in a college town or trendy urban area. This is part of what made Dr. Wax a special place, and what made record buying an enjoyable pastime – especially in smaller stores – for so much of our history.
No matter if you were a teenage music lover, a hipster/musician looking for a rare Fela Kuti pressing or a middle-aged parent shopping for your child or yourself, anyone who has spent any time rummaging through record bins knows the excitement of finding that newly released, fast-selling album by one’s favorite artist. Or the thrill of suddenly finding yourself deep in a music conversation with other knowledgeable shoppers and staff.
You no doubt remember the rush that came from purchasing an album by the Smiths, Sonic Youth or Nirvana, which you were determined to play at home and in the car, no matter what your new jack swing-obsessed friends or your Motown-loving parents had to say about it, even if they questioned your blackness. And it was in that record store where you first brought The Source or Rolling Stone, to which you later subscribed and got hip to all kinds of music that helped you educate your friends.
That has been many a record consumer’s experience for many years, but now all of it is in danger of extinction.
Whether it was the advent of file-sharing programs, the decade’s economic downturn or the all-around proliferation of bad music, the 00’s haven’t been kind to the music business, and it seems not a month goes by where a shop doesn’t close its doors for good. And while the industry’s death knell has been sounding for some time now, it becomes increasingly noticeable when you see your favorite mom-and-pop shop shuttered along with chains such as Tower Records and the Virgin Megastore.
Music’s future, it appears, is all about new technology and the Internet – often credited with hastening the industry’s decline. Online stores, from iTunes to Rhapsody, are replacing traditional ones. Those sites are an ostensibly cheaper and more convenient way to buy music, and for many looking to save a buck, they’ve become a more attractive destination. What they will never be able to replicate, however, is the physical experience of buying a record in a place like Dr. Wax.
For me, the closing of Dr. Wax in itself doesn’t just symbolize another part of my youth ending. It represents – on the whole – the fading of a social institution that is the record store, the unique commercial experience that is record buying for young and old alike. Whatever might come to replace it for a new generation of music lovers, I hope it will provide the same consumer sense of enjoyment, discovery and education that it provided for people like me.
Kyle Coward is a writer and freelance media professional based in Chicago.