This March I found myself at Amoeba Music in LA, one of the most celebrated record stores in the world. The size, the selection and the pricing were all very impressive, but none of it compared to the sense of community living inside. It was contagious, enlivening. For a fan of the record shop experience - that social energy of shared passion and spirited conversation - it was especially uplifting. The shop was packed, a melting pot of freaks, geeks, jocks, tweens and businessman from all walks of life united under one roof by a communal love for music. The aisles were full of smiles and laughter; you could see strangers become friends. Honestly, this was something I thought had been lost--another cultural gem flushed down the drain with the collapse of the music industry. Amongst my excitement, a pang of unease snuck through, I wondered: would Dallas ever have this again? If so, when?
This Saturday I discovered that day had come.
Saturday was the soft opening of Dead Wax Records. Located in Carrollton, Dead Wax is a record shopping affair totally at odds with the typical Dallas experience; that is, music nerds, heads down, tunnel vision, crate digging in a bubble--less like potential friends, more like fellow hunters trying to take the bread from your mouth. My visit this weekend couldn't have been further from that sad state of affairs. But, let's start at the beginning.
Firstly, it took far less time to get there than I anticipated. Carrollton? I was expecting a journey. Don't let the distance put you off, it's more like a short commute than a haul (the exact location, Union Station, offers direct access from the DART Rail). On arrival, the first thing that strikes you is the building space. The area that houses the shop is new, like really, really still-smells-like-concrete new. This is one of those hip spheres where lofts meet restaurants and there's always someone walking their dog. Case in point, there's a Twisted Root next door.
While some hipster whiners, or those otherwise inclined toward unnecessary soap-boxing, might find Dead Wax's digs a bit too gentrified, I'm of the opposite persuasion. It's a treat to find easy parking and to not have to worry about someone breaking into my car (I got old, worthless CDs in there!) Plus, hell, Twisted Root is embarrassingly good.
When I open the door and step inside, three people say "hi" at once (and I think I only know two of them). This welcoming mood of genuine invitation would continue for the entirety of my stay. The laminate of newness on the storefront's exterior follows you inside. The interior is immaculate, well arranged, and the atmosphere is distinctly light and crisp.
For those who aren't regular frequenters of record shops, the latter feature might go unnoticed, but for those who make a habit of spending too much of their paychecks at similar establishments, the feel of the air inside will be atypically refreshing--there's no stale, stuffy library book smell or the usual humid feel of vinyl hoarders (maybe that will come later). While Dead Wax isn't overtly sterile or emotionally cold, it does deliver a certain measure of comfort. Imagine the environment of a Barnes and Noble, but with only the choicest inventory, where every shopper has impressively discerning tastes. It may be a superficial observation, but it feels great inside this place.
In terms of presentation, Dead Wax is a special-interest gallery, with the clean aesthetic throwing the artwork of the albums in sharp relief. Don't expect a swap-meet experience, or some hastily thrown together joint. The records are neatly organized, by genre, amongst an architecture of metal, geometric shelving. LPs of particular note sit on display above the cubes of inventory, just asking to be plucked. Unlike much larger stores - often watered-down by an attempt to satisfy all markets - Dead Wax is of moderate to small size, with an eye on left-of-center and underground releases. Which isn't to say you can't snag your favorite indie or classic rock records here as well, it's just that the popular cuts are largely outweighed by the deliciously obscure.
"It's a niche store - lots of off-the-beaten-path music - post-punk, metal [and] soundtracks especially," says owner Brad Sigler--a veteran with thirty years of experience selling records under his belt, including an on-and-off 17 year stint at the recently profiled Groove Net Records. "I'm more interested in quality stock than I am quantity...I only want the best pressings in the bins, Half Price Books can be the ones who flood their stores with poor quality, overpriced records, not me." He's not kidding. Whether it be imports, reissues, new or used, Dead Wax is a veritable goldmine of psych, industrial and otherwise experimental offerings.
Inside Dead Wax it's all vibrant, friendly moods. This is that rare sort of shop where people go, not just to buy records, but to learn, share, and talk about them--a place where you can form relationships as readily as purchase music. For example, on Saturday I saw friends I hadn't seen in years, local DJs I highly respect, and even made some enriching temporary friendships along the way. While your experience might not be quite so fortunate, I can't imagine anyone leaving Dead Wax disappointed with the service; Sigler is beyond helpful, even offering to spin unsealed records before you buy them. As longtime customers will tell you, everyone at Dead Wax is just there to have a good time, and, amidst good people, find some good music.
"What I absolutely love about this store is that it has the feel of those old record stores I used to go into as a kid," loyal Dead Wax shopper and local music enthusiast Doug Shingler explains. As a man with fifteen years' experience working in record stores, Shingler understands what separates Dead Wax from the rest, "I think what makes this store better than most is the lack of judging someone's musical taste when they head to the register. Without naming some stores, there is usually an elitist high fidelity type of vibe and I hate that." And he's right, that attitude of pretense that so often devours the fun from a record shop is nonexistent at Dead Wax.
But friendliness is only one side of customer service, knowledge is every bit as crucial. Doug Shingler discussed this as well, "Brad also has a deep music knowledge and will always have suggestions for me." Nervous Curtain Frontman Sean Kirkpatrick spoke similarly on Sigler's expertise, "Once Brad learns your tastes, he does a great job of making suggestions, [and] the prices are generally quite low. I've often come home with a stack of 6 or 7 records for the price of about 3 LPs from other retailers."
Local collectors and DJs aren't Dead Wax's only supporters, the Mayor of Carrolton is a backer, in a big way, himself. In fact, the story of how Dead Wax came to live at its new location - it has existed for years in Carrolton as a weekend-only venture - is a testament to the importance people place in the now-endangered record store trade. It all began with this tweet to Mayor Matthew Marchant:
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A music fan and vinyl supporter himself, Marchant saw an important cultural linchpin in danger and took action, "I personally reached out to him (Brad)," the mayor says. After some undisclosed savvy on Marchant's part, Dead Wax received the support it needed: "the city is actually providing a small incentive to help him locate his business where it is next to Twisted Root," the Mayor explains. "There are not a lot of record stores left...[Dead Wax] is a store we'd like to keep in the city." Marchant continues, "Dead Wax is a good example of the diversity that Carrolton has and I think it's a good reason to visit downtown...fostering that kind of creative environment is healthy, having places like that are a good indicator of a healthy community." With respect to Mayors, every city should be so lucky.
After roughly an hour-and-a-half of leisurely browsing, wide-eyes, and elated conversation, a prior engagement stole me away. I collected my treasures, paid and said my goodbyes. When the door swung open, the sun shot me a jarring welcome: a sharp reminder that I was back in the real world--where music is but a small distraction, where so few pay it serious attention. To some, these buildings, these people, are just part of a store that sells discs that play music. To others, these places represent a paradise of sorts, where friends gather and music lives. Dead Wax is not some paradise that can rescue you from the world, but rather one that can provide an escape in those times when the noise of the everyday becomes deafening. Or, as the novelist Nick Hornby once put it:
"Record Stores can't save your life. But they can give you a better one."