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What I learned at the record shop

Lynell George is a senior writer at The Times' West magazine.

LONG BEFORE AMOEBA MUSIC opened its landscape-altering Hollywood flagship, and nearly a decade before “High Fidelity” immortalized that singular breed of retail animal -- the completist record store clerk -- there was a holy strip of scuffed-up, indie new-and-used record shops lining Melrose Avenue. Vinyl Fetish, Bleeker Bob’s, 2nd Time Around and my two favorites: Rene’s All Ears and Aron’s Records.

When vinyl still reigned (in various versions -- 78, 45 and 33 1/3 ; import or domestic; picture discs and colored vinyl; sexy little EPs), these shops and a few others scattered across Los Angeles played host to all manner of yearnings, discovery and invention in my life. They felt as essential as the ampersand in R&B.;

On any given weekend a couple of decades ago, I could be found lurking among the bins in my painter’s overalls and my once-white, low-top Jack Purcell’s, flipping one-handed through “Jazz,” bending over this or that artist until my neck went numb, carrying a hefty stack of LPs, a load heavy enough to leave red creases on my arm. I wouldn’t set them down for fear that someone would swipe that long-out-of-print Cannonball Adderley LP that I’d spent not hours but years hunting for. I couldn’t take that risk.

I invested in these places -- not just money, but time. And then, like the changer arm lifting and the stereo switching off, my habits changed. I somehow slipped out of my routine. I eased up on my record store fetish; I invested elsewhere.

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And maybe that’s why I didn’t shed a tear or show up to mourn when Rhino Records and now Aron’s (both long relocated from former addresses) began shutting their doors for good in the last few months. I’d already said my goodbyes -- to old locations, to overpowering memories, to bins that had long since been picked over. I’d seen the shift coming, the back-stock thinning, all manner of new media -- DVDs and DATs -- taking up shelf space. I couldn’t stomach the emptying bins, the death of an era.

It wasn’t me that changed, it was the business model: a general slump in record sales (down 7% last year, according to SoundScan), a great big uptick in digital downloading, a rush to shop online. Statistics underscore what our eyes already tell us: The Amoebas stay in business, but there are only about half as many independent record stores as there were 10 years ago countrywide.

Last year, downloaded tracks from online retailers soared to 332.7 million, compared with 134.2 million in 2004 -- an increase of 148%. And when former customers weren’t downloading music, they were burning friends’ CDs. The landscape for bricks-and-mortar storeowners has been nothing less than a disaster zone.

Yet I can’t imagine what my life, my worldview, would have been like without record stores -- particularly the independents with their idiosyncratic rooms plastered with posters, speakers booming, smelling alternately of patchouli or herb and always crammed with persnickety customers arguing with even more persnickety clerks.

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Through junior high school and high school, I saved my lunch money and once a week made my way to the various neighborhood record stores not only to update my collection but to augment my sense of the world -- its tongues, its rhythms, its stories, its very vastness. Not to sound too much like some old-school crank, but I can’t imagine that watching a bar load on-screen equals the awe of opening a double-album set with both your hands.

When I first learned to drive, getting up the hill without rolling backward on La Cienega, just so I could get to Tower Records on the Sunset Strip, became an important rite of passage. The clerks there steered me toward the essential Sonny Rollins; the “forget about all others, this is the best” Bill Evans. But I soon discovered that Rene’s and Aron’s were where the most unique treasures could be found.

Emblazoned with the White Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland, Rene’s All Ears stood at the corner of Melrose and Spaulding, near what I was told was Rene’s other passion: an auto/motorcycle repair shop. It was smallish, but size, I learned quickly, didn’t matter.

I bought a lot of imports there -- blues and early roots music, R&B;, regional voices -- the Honey Drippers and blues shouters Chicago Carl Davis and Big Joe Turner. But it was also where I dipped into the Washington go-go scene (Chuck Brown and EU) and wandered into my first King Crimson, New Orleans guitarist Danny Barker and Automatic Man’s elastic blend of space rock and funk. For a buck a disc you could take a chance on anything. I bought my first Rahsaan Roland Kirk at Rene’s, from a man with a huge smile and a mohawk the color of cotton candy.

Aron’s, back then, carried me through eras and genres and styles -- Brazilian samba and Cuban son and Portuguese fado. Before artists’ out-of-print catalogs were mercifully reissued on CD, Aron’s provided a way to fill in so many holes -- used but pristine copies of Thelonious Monk’s “Brilliant Corners,” Stan Getz’s “Didn’t We,” Charles Mingus’ “Shoes of the Fisherman’s Wife.” And for less than 10 bucks, I got my hands on a collector’s pressing of Billie Holiday’s “I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone,” recorded at the old Fox Million Dollar Theater in Los Angeles one June evening in 1949.

I shopped among the safety-pin-pierced, the men in fishnets, eccentrics in bathrobes and Buddy Holly glasses. That’s what I liked most about the indies, particularly the tight spaces at Rene’s. You were thrown together with people you might never have been shoulder-to-shoulder with in your other life. Motorhead fans up next to B-Boys, punkers in their oxblood Doc Martens, neo-mods in parkas all listening to a wash of ear-pricking sounds -- Ian Dury and the Blockheads, Frank Zappa, Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, Big Daddy Kane, Nina Hagen, Charlie Christian, Machito -- the hither-and-yon soundtrack dreamed up by whoever was on shift at the moment. It was like a dorm at a particularly tolerant college. But with a better stereo. And because of it, I took home things that would have never otherwise fallen into my hands.

I don’t have an iPod, though many have tried to nudge me in that direction. “It’s time,” they say. They talk up the ease of downloading. Of acquiring songs just when you think about it, in the middle of the night. Of the portability; the idea that your collection is both “virtual” and “infinite.” Most of all, they tell me, I’ll never look back.

But I do. And always hope to. My record collection is a life mosaic so vivid, so touching, I can’t chuck any of it -- can’t even thin it out. I remember the clerks -- imperious or exultant -- who passed the sleeves across the counter to me. I remember the time and the place. An iPod, yes, would be convenient, but the decades spent exploring music in real stores with real people are my bricks and mortar. These records built me. They are me.

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