Bill Wisener does not know this story, because I've never told it to him; to others, meaning his friends and customers, I've repeated it often. It takes place not long after Wisener opened his eponymous record store on Spring Valley Road 25 years ago, which, as it turns out, is when the Dallas Observer began publication. I was all of 12 or 13 when I'd saved up some 40 bucks to buy import records that, back then, one could only find at Bill's Records and Tapes; I believe they were Adam and the Ants' Dirk Wears White Socks, a Wall of Voodoo EP and a Clash record, as well as a few others. My mother had driven me to Bill's, where I collected my vinyl and placed them on the counter. Wisener thumbed through the small stack and demanded twice what I'd brought, $20 for the Adam and the Ants record alone. I recall trying to argue with Wisener, who did not and still does not put prices on his product, but he was a veteran salesman, and I was a spindly nerd with an allowance. My mother, sensing my tirade was about to melt into tears, grabbed my hand and led me out of the store. I would not return for more than two decades, no matter how often people like Decadent Dub Team co-founder and Observer contributor Jeff Liles, The Adventure Club host Josh Venable and former Observer music editor Zac Crain insisted that Wisener had softened over the years.
Today, the place looks as it did during my first visit: as though someone had set off a bomb in 1980 and no one ever noticed. The left wall is still lined with cassettes, some from 1980 still in the shrink-wrapping; the right wall is now covered with CDs, piled alphabetically, but just barely. The middle of the place overflows with loose posters that poke out from cardboard boxes like discarded treasure maps, and next to them are boxes and racks of old rock-and-roll T-shirts. The shelves and shelves of vinyl are still here, too, and so is Bill--good ol' Bill, much, much kinder than I recall as a kid, this blessed patron saint of the vanishing record store. He has been here damned near every day, every hour, since 1980. And he will never leave, unless his landlord and his lease force him to go in about 15 months.
In April, Wisener thought he was on his way out even sooner: He got word from the landlord that an auto parts store was moving in and needed the 8,000-square-foot space. The Observer, with whom Wisener has had an umbilical-cord relationship for almost three decades, ran a story documenting his woes; the landlord's grandfather, former Dallas Mayor Robert Folsom, told the kid Bill stayed for as long as he wanted. But the mere thought of moving plagued Wisener, perhaps because he's come to realize that one day, and maybe one day soon, he will need to go after all. Business isn't what it used to be, because the neighborhood ain't what it used to be: His is one of the only businesses in the Northwood Hills Shopping Center where English, not Spanish, is spoken. Long gone are the kids who dropped in after high school to plow through the bins for the latest new wave import or local-band offering; long gone are the customers, period, save those who stop by for Friday afternoon concerts and the free beer.
"I just started thinking about what all I needed to do, and it just becomes overwhelming," Wisener says, filling up his cup of Diet Coke. It's a Friday morning, around 11, and only he and an employee are in the place. He has time to talk, and uses every second.
"I don't want to have a nervous breakdown because as you get older..." The 61-year-old Wisener pauses, grins. "I'm happier than I've ever been in my whole life about living my life. And I feel sad about a lot, too. From the time I opened--I started doing this in 1973 at Vikon Village--it got a little better every year, and then I came into some money a couple of times, and I put it all into inventory because I wanted to have something for everybody. I wanted to have no regard to what I bought. The word was out that I would buy whatever. It's just a lot of water under the bridge. It's my life. It's really hard thinking about doing anything else. From the very beginning, and I didn't know what it was, it was like magic. It used to be packed. I used to have nine people working here."
Wisener loves to talk about this store, why he's here every day, why he can't stomach the thought of leaving though he knows he ought to. He grew up here. He lived with his mother and father when he opened the store, but they're dead now. Many customers have become his closest friends; one, Jeff Liles, has even made a poignant documentary about Bill's, called The Last Record Store, which he would like to screen in the Deep Ellum Film Festival in the fall. Radiohead and Jeff Buckley, among so many other beloveds, have shopped here. Ben Harper and Wisener have even become good friends: Among the few times Wisener skipped work was to go to one of Harper's concerts. In Paris. On Harper's dime.
There is a chance Bill's will move in the near future. But pulling up roots will be akin to tearing down a redwood forest: Not only does he have this expansive mess to clean up, but also three warehouses full of clutter, including one he hasn't been inside since the 1970s. No wonder he is overwhelmed: Some people have memories kept in their heads and hearts, and others store them in thousands and thousands of feet of warehouse space.
"I think it would be OK if I had to move, but I don't know," he says, fidgeting one of his Carltons. "It's like, I've always been..." He pauses, begins again. "I like to know the results of something before it happens! I think my biggest problem all my life, and I'm sure it is with a lot of people, is fear. I think, because there's so many things I think I would have liked, that I wished I had not been fearful to do something or make a change...I feel comfortable in this routine, but I'm not comfortable in the fact that I can't pay all the bills on time here. But I'm comfortable in the fact that I've done it so long." --Robert Wilonsky