Scratch another one
Al Bums record store is closing
By Mark Melady TELEGRAM & GAZETTE STAFF
WORCESTER— I went down to the sacred store
Where I’d heard the music years before
But the man there said the music wouldn’t play…
“American Pie,” Don McLean
On a recent day the front window of the sacred store looked like the day the music died and that maybe Al Pacino had killed it.
Beneath a sign delivering the bad news that Al Bums, legendary Highland Street deep discount entertainment emporium, is going out of business, Pacino, armed to the snout in Scarface posters surrounded the already prostrate Dave Matthews poster and the Jane’s Addiction poster, daring either to utter a note.
But something far more insidious than Scarface is doing in the 37-year-old anti-institution, which closes at the end of April.
“I can’t compete with the Internet,” said Justin Aslanian, son and nephew of Al Bums founders Justine Shea and Kevin Shea. “I’ve lost all the college kids, the high school kids. They don’t come in here anymore. They don’t have to. They sit in their rooms and download and burn.”
With the exception of an aberrational upsurge in 2004, CD sales have been tumbling since 2000, when 942.5 million were sold, to 705.4 million in 2005.
While the Recording Industry Association of America does not acknowledge used CD sales, much less track them, Mr. Aslanian said the anecdotal evidence in the trade bodes ill for the future of used compact discs. “The stuff is just too available online.”
The cachet of vinyl, however, is strong and growing, said Mr. Aslanian, and the market for bootleg concert performances, something not readily found on the Internet, is a solid niche he has been happy to fill over the years, legal issues be doodled.
“We were known for our great bootleg selection, and I just want my customers to know that I will still have my bootleg connection,” he said, beaming.
A man of appreciable bulk who has clearly spent some time pushing up heavy objects, Mr. Aslanian said he will continue to sell his considerable holdings on eBay, where he is already active. An Al Bums Web site is in development and Mr. Aslanian plans to continue to buy music collections and to eventually open his garage to regular customers.
“I’m still going to miss this place though,” he said of the store he has worked in since he was 14 and run since he graduated from Doherty Memorial High School in 1992. “My 9-year-old daughter, Alexis, will too. She’s already running the register. People are calling, saying please don’t close. But right after 9-11 the business started going down. I held on three years too long.”
Music lovers who can’t shake their fondness for vinyl can turn to the Record Shop in Southbridge.
Owner Richard Lavigne stocks a handful of new releases that are distributed as albums. Some fans of vinyl say the sound mix is better, with multiple singers sounding like one.
“They’re pressing a limited number,” Mr. Lavigne said. “Vinyl seems to have a softer sound.”
Mr. Lavigne knows nostalgia can only go so far. He also sells compact discs — an economic necessity — not to mention he simultaneously runs a second business. The Vac Clinic vacuum store is located next door to the Record Shop, both on Hamilton Street, Southbridge.
The closing of Al Bums will leave a void in the Worcester music scene. Al Bums has been as much a place to hang out as it is to get a deal on “Ed Sullivan Presents My Fair Lady” or “Tadpoles and the Bonzo Dog Band” featuring the deep cut “Tubas in the Moonlight.”
The cosmos of freaky juxtapositions will also be the lesser. Al Bums basement is likely the only place on the planet where Hericane Alice, Dino, Desi & Billy (“I’m a Fool, I’m a Fool, I’m a Fool”) Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony performed by the Pro Musica Orchestra, The Who’s “Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy,” Little Richard’s “17 Grooviest Original Hits,” Julio Iglesias and all his shining teeth, John Lennon’s “Shaved Fish” with the Plastic Ono Band, “Nearer My God to Thee and Other Gospel Favorites” and “New Year’s Eve with Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians” all reside without any apparent culture clash.
Chris Jones, who lives in the neighborhood and stops in daily, came by to check on the Marvin Gaye box set.
“Gone,” Mr. Aslanian said. “$20. Too bad I would have sold it to you for $15.”
Going back and forth with Mr. Aslanian on price is part of the store’s charm. The owner has been known to undercut the customer’s offer. “If I’m feeling good,” he said.
“I could stay home and download,” Mr. Jones said. “But I want to get out and come down here.”
Mr. Aslanian’s expansive personality is as much a store asset as price, said Mike Hill, who once coached him in hockey and has been a customer since the store first opened on Pleasant Street. “He has a natural high, and he spreads it around.”
“I’m very sad,” said Bill Gatos, who typically arrives an hour before closing and quietly goes about looking for house music or nothing in particular. He has browsed a little too quietly on occasion.
“I locked him in a couple of times,” said Maria Diaz, who has worked as a part-time clerk in the store for 10 years. “Right, Bill?”
“I want to be the last customer,” Mr. Gatos said.
“Stop it. You’re going to make me cry,” she replied.
The sweep of Ms. Diaz’s knowledge of the store’s stock is encyclopedic, a critical asset in an environment of marginally controlled chaos. When a visitor asked Mr. Aslanian what was the most valuable thing in the store, he started to point to the large caricature of a squat guy with stogie and stubble (Al Bum) when Ms. Diaz answered, “Maria.”
She works alone on Sundays. Her regular customers have become like family. “Kids who were WPI students are now coming back with their kids,” she said. “I’m going to miss them so much,” said Ms. Diaz, who by day works as an accountant.
The basement has a turntable that can be heard on speakers upstairs as well as in the basement. “People don’t know that,” Ms. Diaz said, “and they try doing a little deejaying on the turntable. We can hear the scratches up here.”
Elevated behind the counter are the Top 20 (might be 18 or 22), the picks to click include the pink and green Elvis Presley album, “Pope John Paul II Sings,” and “Introducing The Beatles, England’s Number One Vocal Group.” The cover on this issue of the album is the one without the ripped off dolls heads. The Cheech and Chong album with the high quality rolling papers, has alas, been sold.
Even though he was looking for a Kate Bush CD — Ms. Diaz produced a choice of three — the store’s appeal for Mr. Hill is nostalgia.
“That sweet Motown sound,” he said, “Smokey Robinson, The Temptations. I’m so old school I even like Tom Jones. There are days I just want to put on a stack of 45s and kick back. My kids say, ‘45? What’s that?’ ”
“It’s going to be funny without Al Bums,” Ms. Diaz said. She did not mean funny ha-ha, as Tommy DeVito from “GoodFellas” might say.
“They should do something to keep it alive,” Mr. Gatos said as it approached closing time. “Get up a petition or something.”
Some things, like the memories stoked by old music, or the must of 1950s album art, or bartering with Mr. Aslanian, cannot be saved by petition. But come May, Al Bums will still survive in the non-virtual world. Uncle Kevin Shea operates a used music-video store by that name in Newburyport.