By Jim Schutze
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By Lauren Drewes Daniels
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By Alice Laussade
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Even the name of the place speaks of another generation--Bill's Records. I mean: What's a record, Mommy? And though owner and namesake Bill Wisener's famously cluttered store on Spring Valley Road once typified the record-clerk culture of the '80s and '90s, captured in films like High Fidelity(which Bill has never seen), its recent endangered species status suggests Bill's may come to typify the fate of quirky, independently owned music stores in the age of eBay and iTunes. After 24 years in the same location, Bill Wisener is going to have to move--and downsize.
"What I'm doing is a thing of the past," says Wisener in the raspy cigarette baritone his customers have come to know. "It's last-century. It's not a viable thing to do anymore if you wanna make a living."
Although his lease doesn't end for more than a year and a half, Wisener is considering (and being encouraged by the landlord) to move before that. Considering the sheer volume of CDs, vinyl, cassettes, posters, T-shirts and other assorted ephemera monopolizing most of the available space in the shop, that will be no easy task. "Believe me, it's too much to think about," says Wisener, drawing a Carlton from a pack he keeps behind the desk. And this isn't even the extent of his collection. Wisener has two more warehouses of stuff.
After all, he has been doing this for 33 years, from the time he rented a booth at a Garland flea market selling furniture and glassware and other knickknacks. "But the part I liked most was the music, the crates of used records," he says. "And I opened a store because I got tired of hauling stuff around." Since then, he has been a fiercely dedicated owner who knows most customers by sight and works 12-hour days, shutting down the place only to see his friend Ben Harper in concert or to catch a film like Philadelphia, which he claims is the last movie he saw in the theater (it was 1993).
But, as they say, times have changed. Wisener now does most of his business on online auction sites. "And I'm the oldest tenant in the shopping center," says Wisener, referring to the Northwood Hills Shopping Center that includes Fiesta, Cuquita's and Family Dollar. "Most businesses here are catering to Hispanics. I don't know a word of Spanish. This just isn't the right location for this store anymore. Maybe it's not even the right century." Eventually, the landlord plans to divide the 8,000-square-foot location into seven or eight smaller stores. "And I just can't afford to pay what they'd make off that," says Wisener. MC Hammer toothpaste just doesn't sell like it used to.
That's not entirely a joke. Back in the day (that's how Bill always starts the story), this store was ground zero for a scene of burgeoning musicologists--future musicians, rock critics and record-store clerks--who came not only to spend their hard-earned allowance but to learn about new bands, new names, new sounds. "It was packed all the time," Wisener says. Of the kids who congregated after school, he says, "I didn't expect them to buy anything. But I was nourishing them with all the things they were interested in."
One of those kids was Matt DeVinney, 30. "People just used to hang out here," he says. "That's what opened my eyes to different music." Bill's is where he found out about The Smiths, The Cure, Radiohead. "I'd always walk out of here happy, always with a new thing." Now DeVinney works at Bill's. He has seen the foot traffic dwindle, seen the clientele's tastes shift. In the '90s, the place sold lots of indie rock and dance. Now it's Americana and underground rap. "There used to be nine of us working weekends," he says. "Now there's two or three."
Business has been rough for some time. Things were drying up by the end of the late '90s, but September 11 was the sucker punch from which Wisener almost didn't recover. "I sold almost half of what I'd sold in prior years," he says. And it was rough from then on. "I still sell about half of what I sold 10 years ago." Considering the difficulties, maybe it's not such a bad thing that Wisener will have to move. "All things are for the best," he says. "I needed to make some kind of change, and I probably wouldn't have changed if they hadn't lit a fire underneath me."
Back in 1999, when the store initially hit financial trouble, Wisener's friend Jeff Liles (an occasional Dallas Observercontributor) started a documentary about Bill's Records, called The Last Record Store. "I wanted him to have a keepsake," says Liles, who is finishing editing in L.A. this month and hopes to find theatrical distribution for the film. "It was strictly for Bill. But it started taking on a life of its own." Just the day before our interview, Liles had given Wisener a rough cut of the documentary.
"I cried last night when I watched it," Wisener says. "Happy tears. Because it's just sad. And because I'll miss..." He doesn't finish the sentence, but then he doesn't have to.