I wake up before my alarm goes off on one very specific day every year. That day — Record Store Day — was on Saturday, which means that I was out of bed, had brushed the majority of my teeth and was walking to Underdog Records just after 5:30 a.m. It also means that I took my place in the then-10 person line almost 12 — twelve! — hours after Bob Stillwagoner did.
This was Stillwagoner’s third Record Store Day, and the second time he’d set up base camp on a downtown Winston-Salem sidewalk. Due to the angry red splotches on the overnight local radar, this year he was the Eddie Bauer of Burke Street, pitching a pale blue tent underneath the casually extended tail of the G in Underdog. He was there, first in line, by 6 p.m. on Friday night — a full 14 hours before the store opened. (He was first last year too, arriving at a downright casual 8 p.m. then.)
“We had one heavy shower about 3 a.m. or so,” he said. “There were a couple of little showers throughout, but the umbrellas took care of that. It sounded nice, the rain hitting the tent.”
Underdog had gotten one copy of David Bowie’s Cracked Actor, a never-before released recording of a concert from 1974. Only 5,000 of the triple LP sets were available, scattered throughout the country like cocaine-addled endangered animals. That was one of the things I wanted the most. Unfortunately, Stillwagoner wanted it too.
“Bob comes in every single week, like clockwork. He’s hardcore,” Underdog owner Jonathan Hodges said. “He actually discovered the store on Record Store Day two years ago. He came and stood in line a little farther back, and he’s been a regular ever since.”
Record Store Day is an event that caters to a wide range of collectors, from the diehard overnight campers like Stillwagoner to those who stop in mid-afternoon to pick up the more readily available releases, to otherwise well adjusted adults who admit that they’ve been in line for hours to get a 12-inch picture disc of Toto’s “Africa” that is shaped like, um, the continent of Africa. (Hurry boy, she’s waiting there for you. Assuming you were here by 6 a.m.)
It’s also a ridiculously important day for independent record stores, and this year marked the 10th anniversary of its seemingly underwhelming debut. The first year, 100 stores participated with a handful of new releases from Death Cab for Cutie, Vampire Weekend and four other bands your sophomore-year boyfriend loved. The next year, that number had grown to 85 releases.
Now, a decade later, an estimated 1,400 stores in the United States — and almost 3,000 worldwide — were hashtag-RSD17-ing, and there were more than 300 exclusive album titles available.
“While I’m hesitant to take all the credit and say, ‘Yes, we brought vinyl back,’ there is no way you can discount what Record Store Day and record stores have meant to vinyl and its resurgence,” RSD co-founder Carrie Colliton told Billboard magazine. (She’s not kidding: Record Store Day 2016 produced the biggest week of vinyl LP sales since SoundScan started tracking sales data in 1991.)
“I never thought it would be like this, with people lining up around the corner from the door,” Hodges said. “But two years in a row, I have put as much money into inventory for Record Store Day as I used to open the store originally. It’s pretty intense.”
Personally, this is my fifth Record Store Day and I circle that date on the calendar as soon as it’s announced. I love obsessing over the annual list of releases, the surprise of actually seeing one at Underdog, the feeling of rubbing my fingertips over the silver “Record Store Day” hype stickers stuck to the front of each record. (Who else is turned on right now?) I also love the atmosphere, the easy conversations that happen in line while you’re comparing wish lists with strangers and the legit delight when the dude who’s been talking about Toto all morning gets his own copy. (At least I think that’s what he was talking about; I was busy wondering whether I could convince Stillwagoner that those Bowie records had been dipped in polio.)
“Record Store Day is nothing like Black Friday at big-box stores,” Hodges said. “There’s so much camaraderie and you always see people grabbing something for somebody they’ve talked to for two hours outside who’s five people back. They hand it off when they come in the store, like ‘Here’s what you wanted.’ The community aspect is a huge part of what makes it feel like a success.”
He’s right. It’s not Black Friday, where a woman in a mobility scooter will slash your hamstrings to beat you to the rack of $4 toasters. When the doors opened at 8 a.m., Stillwagoner and the three or four people behind him calmly walked inside. The rest of us watched through the windows, hoping they’d get what they wanted, while psychically willing them to leave it all for us. I was out of luck: Stillwater walked out with Bowie in the middle of a stack the size of a human toddler.
“He earned that,” someone said, and we all agreed.
Hodges said that the store was packed until an hour before closing and, by the next day, there were just a couple of dozen titles left.
“It was a really good day,” he said. “I did have two people say ‘I want to beat Bob next year,’ so we’ll see.”
Make that three.