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Play the Music

It’s a scorchingly hot Sunday afternoon in Muncie, Indiana, and several men—young as 20 and old as 60—file in and out of Dan’s Downtown Records. Each pass through the doors with brown cartons, with green and black and pink plastic crates, stacked full with the tens of thousands of articles contained in this building which for 6 years held forth as Muncie’s premier—and, in many ways, only—record store.

“Push!”

“Pull!” …

“What?”

“I said, I pulled the damn thing out.” …

“Grab that one first.”

“Watch your fingers.”

“I got you.”

Everything must go—must be moved. Everything!—the 15,000+ vinyls and cassettes and CDs and VHS tapes and DVDs and Aloha shirts and pin-back buttons and bumper stickers and magazines and Beatles figurines and KISS action figures and cassette shelves and Ozzy and Slipknot concert t-shirts.

Seated side by side at different angles are 18 big arch-shaped wooden record racks—all claiming 15 rectangles: 5 rows per column—within which most of the vinyls and CDs dwell, housing 300-400 vinyls each. But even with such set up, improvisation became necessary to make use of the persistent records which kept finding their way into this store. Below many of the racks can be found vinyls stuffed into box cartons and milk crates. And right on the front counter is a high pile of newly welcomed records.

This house of records which Dan Walter built has fast become solace for customers near and far—some traveling from out of city and state just to visit—who find small business record stores so rare these days that stumbling into one becomes a sort of ritual, to assure the customer all isn’t lost in the bubble of technology closing in on society. And in the middle stands Dan, a music aficionado with hands in the business since ’86. For two years, he managed the late Musicland; and for a decade after he managed Karma Records, another casualty of the anti-record frenzy heaved in—however unintentionally—by internet downloaders at the tip of the new millennium.

November 2003, Karma shut its doors, and 6 months blew by as Dan sought out map lines to a meaningful future. A gig to load supplies overnight at Wal-Mart couldn’t cut it. “I got more talent than that,” he promised himself, even as unemployment checks started running thin.

Gathering $300 from his last check and another $300 in loan from his dad, Dan paid off a month’s rent on a sizeable outlet, knocked down the walls—with crowbars and sledgehammers—of this once-upon-a-time corporate office, hauled in—with a friend’s help—all 18 record racks, installed scraps of vinyls and cassettes and CDs and VHS tapes from personal and professional collections, stuck a banner to the front window, and hoped his bet on music would somehow check out even in front of frightening obstacles.

On June 1, 2004, Dan’s Downtown Records opened.

And even though starting with 1/8th the content and worth his store today boasts stock of, this former farmer—who, for 9 years before Musicland, once fed livestock, drove tractors, picked, and hosed—planted a seed that has blossomed good and well through the last 7 years.

His CDs span great range—from Janet Jackson to The Jets, from Bo Diddley to The Black Crowes, from Lauryn Hill to Lou Reed.

Cassettes come through missing boundaries, as KRS-One, Public Enemy, Paul McCartney, Louis Armstrong, A Tribe Called Quest, and Van Halen all have a say.

Vinyl records (33 1/3 rpm and 45 rpm) go with the limitlessness of all from Kraftwerk to Alan Parsons, to Mahalia Jackson, to The Temptations, to Hugh Masekela, to R.E.M., to Nas, to Peter Frampton, to Ray Charles, to Peter Wolf, to Bette Midler, to Sade, to children favorites such as Walt Disney’s “Mary Poppins,” “The Night Before Christmas,” and “Pete’s Dragon.” And they stretch in cost just as well—from 49 cents to $49 apiece.

And though financial success has shown around less frequently than hardship and uncertainty, the store has kept spirits up, opening 6 days a week, 11-7, prepared to take some 40- or 50- or 60-year-old back decades to the night when she first heard Smokey Robinson or Bobby Caldwell lament lost love or celebrate commitment. The store has kept open because people need an institution like it in their small and big towns—places where the owners don’t need the resources of computers to register a customer’s desire to be flung back 30 or 40 years in search of one song or one album.

Two months ago, 9 a.m. one morning, the telephone rings in Dan’s home. A man, representing a local community college, greets him in friendly tones, and soon enough business gets personal.

“We purchased your building,” he tells Dan, “and we’ll like to have it cleaned out by July 1st.”

The plan is to raze this building, and build upon its ashes a parking garage, to support the college’s $7 million downtown project constituting new classrooms and labs for nursing, science, physical therapy, and physical technology students—students responsible for the 30% enrollment hike since last year. Dan and his neighbors—Grand Master Jong Woo Kim’s 40-year staple: Mudokwan Martial Arts, USA; the nonprofit Take Five Community Outreach, which provides domestic supplies to many Muncie families—would have to pack up and find other arrangements.

Dan hung up, hopped on his bike, and bolted right into action.

The search for a new home was on, and he combed the city clean. Soon enough, he stumbled upon a spot that would do the trick—house tens of thousands of records but retain enough space to stave off customer congestion, while maintaining the intimate feel a small record store strives to live by. The space, which for years had stayed unoccupied, was perfect; so he stepped up to the lady who owned it and explained the stakes.

“I’ll like to rent this place,” he informed her.

“Fine,” she complied.

“And here’s a $300 deposit to show good faith,” he said, handing her the bills.

The space would be Dan’s if he could provide some character references, proof of financial stability, and few other arbitrary particulars she felt necessary to review before delivering any keys.

6 weeks later, right before eviction date, she calls up to deliver some news, explaining displeasure with his inability to follow given orders, which, she says, have forfeited him any chances of moving in. Even with $900 as financial assurance, she was staying firm.

So, again, the search was on. And again he began scouring the city for unoccupied spaces. This would prove easy. But soon he realized that the absence of traffic within these buildings and offices didn’t seem to bother owners much. Some, it almost seemed, were well happy to keep them unoccupied—as certain tax benefits might come in play. Others demanded twice his current rent rate, willing to pass up on a small business owner who could do wonders with these spaces which for years—some up to a decade—had remained vacant.

The harshness of life was wearing down on Dan. He was losing what little confidence he tried hard to retain—that this store was worth longevity, that 7 years wouldn’t turn to rubble in one week.

“I spent about a week,” he reflects. “I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep. You know, you’re talking about your livelihood, here.”

Nothing seemed to connect: all doors were being slammed shut, leaving Dan wondering, “What the hell am I going to do?”

In the background, The Doors sing of breaking on through to the other side—

You know the day destroys the night
Night divides the day
Tried to run
Tried to hide
Break on through to the other side
Break on through to the other side…

Customers felt just as incredulous of survival, though many were quick to lend their guarantee of bluer skies once this storm blew past. One after the other, they shuffled in, heard the same chorus of uncertainty, and maintained strong belief their record store—something that had become part of their identity and being—wouldn’t go the way of many of its kind in cities nationwide. They tried to assure this owner, their champion, the world wasn’t as it was seeming to be—where, in but a matter of days, years of excruciating, and oft unrewarded, service and labor will be excavated and removed, never to be seen again, all remnants arraigned and disposed of. Their messages rang with thin conviction but deep trust:

“Good luck.”

“Everything’s going to work out—one way or the other.”

“I’m sure you’ll find a spot, Dan.”

And then, desperation:

“Please don’t go out of business.”

All the while this champion imagined this The End—the final lap to a 7-year run that was worth it, that for all its imperfections documented the magic of music in binding people across a common purpose. It seemed all hope would inevitably fizzle out, and the sharpest move would be to resolve to that conclusion by immediately calling up his main distributor to see about returning new vinyls and new CDs, to cut part of all losses still lingering. But even in the depth of insecurity, the stubbornness of conviction hung on.

“I was going everywhere: looking at whatever I could look at, scope out; or get a telephone number…”

He eventually made way to the East Central Indiana Small Business Development Center, and was introduced to its director.

“Do you know Jay—red hair … he comes to your store?” he was asked immediately.

“I’ll probably know him if I saw him,” Dan replied.

“That’s my son!” the director announced.

Dan then told him of his travails in finding a spot with enough room for his records and a reasonable rental rate to keep the store on its feet. The director was sympathetic to the cause of an hardworking owner who represented the ideals espoused by his organization. Dan kept faith, but kept looking for a few days, until ultimately deciding to take 10 or so steps from his front door across the street, and see about a relatively smaller, but manageable, building owned by a like-minded small business entrepreneur.

“I’m looking for a spot, just in case: Are you interested?” Dan asked.

“Yeah, maybe,” the owner replied.

Before long, a deal was struck to consider this a backup plan, in case expectations with the Small Business Development Center fell short.

Last Monday, paperworks were signed, handshakes exchanged, and a second life christened. And though the new store fails to achieve the luxury of space featured in the old, Dan’s customers are happy and willing to put up with any inconvenience to have this store—this part of their lives—stay alive.

“It’s going to be tight in there,” Dan expects. But it would work “because of what we sell. Music is such a powerful thing that draws people to it. Every record store I’ve ever worked at, people come there—even from long distance—because of the music.”

And this record store is critical to Muncie not only for its richness and dexterity, or for the charismatic and relentless character in the middle, but for the striking quickness with which record stores are losing ground across states and towns, for the growing complacency among music buyers to abandon all sense of it in the physical form for digital downloads which, while gratifying and convenient, tend to rob the listener of the experiences and cultivated curiosities which once stood as requisite for serious listeners. Dan’s Downtown Records has managed a remarkable existence because customers felt it necessary to the social and cultural life of their surroundings.

So, today, Wednesday the 14th, in testament to that conviction, Dan opens in his new location, aware of his responsibility to his community of customers—local and beyond. He also opens with a statement of courage—against glaring possibilities hanging about him like shadows on a sunny day. True enough, he admits, “most towns don’t have one.”

And whether or not this reopening offers fresh perspective on his bold step 7 years ago is a supposition yet to manifest. Either way, he’s at peace, proud without boast.

“I’m still here,” he confirms. “I’ve had to live poor. But I don’t care about that. I mean, I see too many people that don’t have nothing.”

TOLU OLORUNDA is a cultural critic. He can be reached at: Tolu.Olorunda@gmail.com.

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