Florida Stories: My Own High Fidelity

“The arts are the most elaborate and most precise social network ever invented, but if it’s going to work properly, you have to get out of the house sometimes and show who you are and what you love. You have to go to shows and galleries and bookstores, you have to ask for what you want out loud. And this expression of taste must involve an impulse that, at its heart, is anti-democratic: Somewhere you have to believe that what you like is better than what all those other losers like.”
Nick Hornby, “What Would Happen In the ‘High Fidelity’ Sequel”

“Of course, I’ve watched High Fidelity, I work in a record store!”
– Sean, my coworker at Bananas Music

I know nothing about music. I thought I had a solid base of knowledge, listened to thousands of hours of music (maybe more, though, I never bothered to count), actively participated in the local music scene for nearly two decades, and collected a wealth of treasures from a musical upbringing and punk rock past. Don’t get me wrong, I know a little about everything, but I am nowhere near the level of my coworkers at Bananas Music. To them, I have the mainstream and cheesy taste of a 90s relic, and honestly, they aren’t wrong.

My musical coming-of-age came in the early-90s – a time before the Internet. When Kurt Cobain was alive. Before everyone had a miniature computer in their pocket. When I had an AOL email address and dialup for a clunky desktop. A time when one would have to go out and search for new music by flipping through racks and rows of CDs and records. A time when one would buy music at shows because smaller bands had sucky or nonexistent distribution deals. Before Pandora, YouTube, and Spotify you’d rely on the stock of your local record store. Shopping local before it was a movement but a necessity. The help of friends, strangers, music critics, reviews, and essays were a must in the days of legwork and trial and error.

Buying and discovering music was a search mission. Turns out, this method has not changed among conscious music lovers and collectors. The basic ethos of vinyl remains the same: you go to the record store for music to find you – not the other way around. Coming in to Bananas with a list or to buy the new Ed Sheeran on vinyls (its just vinyl, please stop adding the “s” at the end) is tantamount to a tourist with a big map – you are revealing yourself as an outsider and not at all clued in to the organic vibe of record shopping. It was instinctive to me, but not to the newbies. I’ve had to explain this to the cool, if naïve, newcomers. You can see the light switch on behind their eyes with this new information, as they had no idea, they were born in the record store lull. Not all customers get the “seek and thee shall find” aspect of record store culture. This is St. Pete after all. For every cool customer there are a dozen who ask for something super specific, obscure, or vague that I just go to Google and pray for some sort of answer. Sadly, not every piece of music ever made is on vinyl- dems the facts.

***

Music was a hobby I took very seriously. There was a time when I spent an entire Saturday driving all over Pinellas County to curate and cultivate my private musical library. My weeknights driving to St Pete to catch a show and buying whatever piece of memorabilia I could from the merch table, instead of doing homework and going to bed at a normal hour. It wasn’t a mission for coolness, but rather, an education.

The first time I was in college, my motivation changed from bright-eyed idealist to stone-cold elitist. I wrote for UF’s student newspaper and contributed to the music section with reviews and interviews. It was horrible. I was surrounded with snark (the humor of the early aughts) and struggled to keep my head above indie rock waters. This was before Against Me! was on the radio and the members of the group worked at the pizza place across from campus; when Hot Water Music and Alkaline Trio were BFFs, and the ghost of great Gainesville bands were reforming into too many different configurations to count. Again, I was staying out all night and not focusing on my studies thus ending my musical education and post secondary career.

I took a seven-year break from writing. As a matter of fact, I took a seven-year break from life and sunk into a deep depression likening myself as a shit artist and crap college dropout.

Music, for once in my life, failed me.

The stores that I spent my punk rock adolescence began to disappear. Digital music was so prevalent that the need for tactual pieces of artwork and noise simply collected dust and occupied storage space in my mom’s garage. I was too busy growing up (or so I thought, but really, I was overmedicated) to care about new music: I had a job, a car, and insurance. So many parts of myself changed so fast that I forgot about music and the obsessive nature of nurturing that burning desire for kinship among the pops and crackles of guilty pleasure pop music. I look back at my audiophile years without a hint of regret or remorse. That chapter has been closed for a long time. I pursued other hobbies and interests. I went back to school and finished my degree with flying colors. I started this blog. I backpacked through Europe. Life moved on. A whirl of late-night conversations, too many beers, and the seemingly, revolving door of paramours encapsulated a decade in a blink of an eye. I broke free from my self-imposed bell jar and started over again and again.

Music was patiently waiting for me.

***

I’m in my thirties and record stores are back. That old joy comes rushing forth as both nostalgia and good memories hold true a decade later. Now, I work in the record store I used to shop in. I am that cashier who sings as they ring up your goodies and poorly bags your records. I have come full circle and work at the place I have always wanted to since I was a smartass youth in a band tee. This time I don’t care about how cool you look or what you listen to. This time I am having fun and not taking everything so seriously. I am fully myself and cast no judgment. Now, I’ll poke a little fun and make a joke about your choices, but I do it with love, like a big sister playfully ribbing you over all the silly and strange vinyl in your stack.

This is the best job I’ve ever had and I legitimately have a great time all day long. And this is retail, so those days can be quite long and laborious. But I prance about in my Nikes or Chucks and gleefully greet customers and place CDs in a somewhat correct place. I have to say that the best part of my job is my coworkers, the Bananas Crew. A motley bunch of weirdos that I love even when we are grumpy, annoyed or just plain pissed off. We do a lot of dancing and singing; a lot of twerking and fan dancing. Lots of pet names and inside jokes. I am notorious for playing cheesy music and ’80s classics. One time, I played the soundtrack of the Ghostbusters and Jesus Christ Superstar in its entirety. My go-to is Tears for Fears Songs from the Big Chair. It’s so good and loud and lovely. We get to play entire albums from CDs, records, or Spotify. Sometimes I don’t pick anything. Sometimes I DJ all day. Working in a record store is not like Empire Records or High Fidelity, at all. But I often dream that a Duckie-sort will lip sync and dance along to an Otis Redding track in an attempt to woo me. Sadly, vinyl nerds are not that outgoing or costume-y.

Some of my favorite customer moments are their reactions to the music we play in the store. One Saturday, a customer came in and said loudly, “This place sounds like a night club at 2am!” At the time we were playing “Fool’s Gold” by The Stone Roses – a far cry from a late night banger. An older couple was not feeling Prince’s 1999. They asked us to change the record because it was “terrible and unlistenable.” Yet the next song on 1999, a sweet ballad, had then slow dancing in the aisles. The gentlemen gave me a wink and said, “Thanks for changing the music for us!” It was such a lovely sight that I didn’t bother to correct him. I just nodded and smiled in reply.

Not all customers are fun and interesting. Some are downright rude, sexist, or homeless. Even though St. Pete is infinitely cooler now than it was 20 years ago, there are the holdovers from another time and place. That’s the charm of Bananas: one moment you are assisting a serious record collector who teaches me more about vinyl in 30 seconds than I’ve learned my whole life and the next I’m looking for a copy of The Hunted that “plays in the computer” for a man who looks like Gene Simmons before the facelift. There are regulars. There are regulars who are more like friends and are some of the nicest people I’ve ever met. There are regulars that know you by name and leave you messages. There are regulars that torment each of us in unique and clever ways.

This is not reserved just for working hours mind you. I see regular customers out and about all the time. For instance, a man named Albert comes in and walks around the store for hours on a regular basis, I’m pretty sure he is scared of me and avoids me at all cost, and one day, I saw him at the mall and he burped very loud without noticing me. Of course, I sent a text to my Bananas cohorts. It’s an incomparable feeling between the Bananas Crew – we all know these people as customers, their quirks, and ticks – to see them in the real world is an alien experience. One such customer asked me to help him in a CVS. I wonder if this happens to the merchants of other local record shops or is a byproduct of an open and helpful disposition?

Maybe I have been regulated to the retail helper of St. Pete.

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