If nothing else, record stores are beautiful. They have a certain unplanned allure, stacks tilting under their own weight, row after row of colors and words loosely organized by genre and alphanumeric value. Recently, Record and Tape Traders in Towson, the flagship of a once-robust local chain, announced it will be gone after a 40-year run—from 1978-2018.
The singularity of the Towson Record and Tape Traders was in part its location, which was kind of a weird spot–behind an up-market grocery store in a somewhat pointless strip mall off of Dulaney Valley Road. Those things—strip and mall and Dulaney Valley Road—don’t exactly scream “formative.”
Compared to essential music shops like Amoeba Music in Los Angeles or even Sound Garden in Fells Point, a record store in suburban Baltimore County seems insignificant. But that seclusion and obscurity gave it a unique value: It was a refuge for the weird in an otherwise brightly pastel place.
In an area where people’s hair is prized for the angle it sweeps over the forehead, and where locals don’t ask what college you went to, but what private Catholic high school, it’s easy to notice anyone going against the grain. If you’re wearing black in a place where everyone else is dripping with Vineyard Vines, people start to notice you—usually not in a positive way. But Record and Tape Traders was a judgment-free environment; no one was going to look at me sideways for fawning over a NOFX compilation. It became a go-to place for me in my teen years, which were defined by punk, metal and, later, rap.
Its uniqueness was further defined by just how eclectic Record and Tape Traders was, selling movies as well as music. I used to amuse myself by reading the plot descriptions of the bargain-bin horror films and browsing the different action figures of popular mass murderers like Leatherface, Freddy, Chucky and Pinhead. It felt like the staff had managed to build a museum to off-brand and trashy slasher films, which was pretty cool.
For me, record stores are a means of wandering through history. My music library is a mix of anything I had heard of, stumbled upon or discovered in a Wikipedia click-hole, or of artists with some sort of historical value. That research-mindset meant that every trip to the record store was a learning experience. I’d get what I needed and then browse the stacks with for another revelation.
As a consequence, I developed a varied and pretty nonsensical musical library. Nas, Trash Talk, Robert Johnson, every Tyler, the Creator album pre-“Flower Boy,” Gang of Four, Muddy Waters and an extensive collection of early ’90s punk—Lagwagon, Propagandhi, NOFX, Pennywise, Bouncing Souls, et cetera, et cetera. All of this, I bought at Record and Tape Traders.
Exploration and discovery are an essential part of any record store experience, and Record and Tape Traders gave me a place to explore. Ever since I bought my first album—Linkin Park’s “Meteroa”— music has been a willfully nerdy pursuit. Places that trade in music not only colorize what can be a gray existence, they offer a place for music obsessives to be among their own.
The value of Record and Tape Traders was that it was a place to be weird. At a time when basically all music was easily accessible—thanks to streaming sites and file sharing programs like LimeWire in the earlier part of the aughts, and now the many subscription services—going to a record store was an event. It was something that your average music consumer probably wouldn’t do. You had to be a nerd, willing to browse stacks for what you wanted and what you’d find by accident.
In the process of writing this essay, I made what will probably be my last visit to the store. I didn’t find what I was looking for, but that’s probably for the best—the best discoveries are accidental. What I found instead was something I didn’t know I needed: “The Mystery of Chessboxing,” a kung-fu movie that inspired the Wu-Tang Clan song of the same name and whose villain served as the namesake for Ghostface Killah.
This is a movie that is an elemental part of one of my favorite albums—”Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)”—made by one of my favorite groups from one of my favorite periods in music history. It’s something I’ve heard sampled and referenced so many times that I can quote directly from the film without even having seen it. At this point, I’m not even sure I need to see it; the idea of it is value enough.
But that discovery was a reminder of Record and Tape Traders’ value for the music lover’s community and, for me, a place to explore territory always revealing new features and fixtures in the musical canon. Most of all, it’s an irreplaceable part of my growth as an obsessive, unapologetic and pathological music nerd.
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