To some, this reporter included, a local record store is as critical to a community as a used book store, a quirky coffee shop, and a crusty bar. It’s appropriate, then, that Happy Trails, Corvallis’s only local record store, is across the street from City Hall.
Still it’s a wonder it exists at all.
According to ABC News, between 2000 and 2010 record store sales declined more than 76%.
After all, this is the era of iTunes and Spotify, when you can download digital music in seconds, often for a pittance. Or, if you’re comfortable with stealing music, downloading it in seconds for free. Or burning a friend’s copy or on your desktop computer. Regardless, it’s an era of digital music that’s played from your phone or portable device or computer.
A record store, with thousands of second-hand CDs and eclectic LPs seems an anachronism, a dinosaur that somehow managed to survive the latest technological extinction event.
I asked Doug DiCarolis, owner of Happy Trails for the past twenty-six years, how it’s managed to survive in this music climate.
“Barely,” he snorted.
As it turns out, a recent revival in the popularity of vinyl—new and used—has kept him in business. This makes Doug happy for more than strictly monetary reasons—he is quick to rattle off a litany of reasons why vinyl is superior to digital music formats: it’s a tangible, re-sellable product; its analog sound far surpasses the compressed flatness of digital formatting; the album-cover art is wonderful and often iconic (think of Sgt. Peppers or Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain album covers).
Doug’s litany segues into an even longer discursion on albums themselves—the subtext, unsurprisingly, on how lame it is to buy digital singles—“One of my favorite things about listening to albums is that sometimes it’s not until the fourth or fifth time that you listen to it that you understand or really like one song. But after awhile, that song becomes your favorite song.”
All of this is exactly what you’d expect out of a record store: a friendly owner with a pony tail, a faded Hawaiian shirt, and strict opinions on how one should purchase, listen to, and take care of music; an employee, Tom, whose encyclopedic knowledge of music matches his opinions of local politics, be it about wetland mitigation or smoking bans on OSU campus. You expect a record store to be kinda musty, weird, and adorned with posters of Frank Zappa, John Coltrane, and Sonic Youth. But the best thing about local record stores like Happy Trails is that you never know what you’ll find in the merchandise.
It’s not that Happy Trails has an amazing vinyl collection, much less that you’d score some Holy Grail record, but you’re still bound to discover all sorts of wonders: Neil Diamond’s soundtrack to Jonathon Livingston Seagull? A box set of Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians? The same child’s yellow-plastic Fisher Price record player you used to listen to your Peter Pan and Peter the Wolf 45s? What you actually come away with, if anything, depends on your taste, but browsing the merchandise—especially the attic filled with $1.00 LPs—is an experience not unlike one you get at a museum: it’s a place dedicated to cultural artifacts, from thick Victrola 78s of Chopin’s concertos to Jane Fonda’s 1981 double-disc Workout Record (featuring REO Speedwagon and Billy Ocean, among others.)
And, like a museum, a record store is frequented by a certain type of dedicated customer. In fact, the only way a record store like Happy Trails survives is through these dedicated customers. Doug knew most of the folks who came in by name. “Some of these guys have been dropping in for thirty years,” he tells me. Some are part of the local mid-Valley music scene, which Happy Trails tries its best to support by dedicating a section of the store to local artist’s CDs and albums, which are sold on consignment. This is, after all, how a community functions: community members intentionally making efforts to support those things that they cherish.
With that in mind, I flip through the Funk/Soul LPs and pull out a re-issue of Bill Withers’1972 classic Still Bill. “That’s a great album,” Dave says immediately. “I’ve been telling a lot of people about that album. You should buy it.”
So I do.
Happy Trails is located at 100 SW 3rd St. in Downtown Corvallis.
Phone: (541) 752-9032
Friday and Saturday
By Nathaniel Brodie