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Obituary for a Storefront

After the jump, Jeff Liles explains precisely why and how Ben Harper and Bill Wisener became such good friends.

If you've spent most of your life in Dallas, then you've grown accustomed to seeing most of your favorite signature city landmarks sacrificed for the alleged greater good of Change. Examples are everywhere: The Bronco Bowl location in Oak Cliff is now a Home Depot monstromart. The Dr Pepper bottling plant on Mockingbird Lane was leveled to make way for a Kroger's grocery store and condominium complex. What was once the old Gemini Drive-In is about to be redeveloped yet again. The legendary Arcadia Theatre was never rebuilt after a catastrophic fire, and now the gateway tunnel to Deep Ellum is but a large pile of twisted metal and splattered concrete.

Here yesterday, gone today. Urban character sacrificed for high-density real estate.

Yesterday, Bill Wisener finally handed over the keys to the space in a North Dallas strip mall that was, for the last 26 years, Bill's Records. Wisner understands the development dynamic and holds no hard feelings. After all, before this was a record store, it was once the Northwood Hills 4 movie theater. Now it looks like the same space will likely be subdivided into some sort of swap meet, which is kind of ironic when you consider that the first version of Bill's Records was his mother's booth in Vikon Village, a similar Garland-area flea market.

Wisner's landlord at the North Dallas location is the family of former Dallas mayor Robert Folsom, and the Folsom clan is sorry to see Bill have to move elsewhere. As the tenant with the longest tenure in this particular shopping center, the Folsom family has a particular affection for the distinctive record store. They also understand isn't cost effective for him to lose more than $100,000 a year in this business that has changed so dramatically in the last decade.

For many local music lovers, street people, touring bands and pop culture historians, the closing of Bill's Records North Dallas location is more than just an end to an era. It is a statement about resilience and determination. Bill Wisener, now nearing retirement age, isn't about to throw in the towel; he's just downsizing considerably and relocating to the Southside of Lamar neighborhood. Rather than closing the book on his career as a record store owner, he's writing a new chapter in much smaller font.

Most of us have no idea how hard it is to own and operate a Mom and Pop record store in today's retail landscape. Independent record stores pay a much higher wholesale cost per unit, because their retail sales aren't tracked by the SoundScan sales monitoring system. Often stores such as Best Buy or Circuit City will sell a CD for less than what Bill paid wholesale for the same title. Many wholesalers refuse to take returns of defective product from indie stores, and major labels no longer spend time or energy putting up promotional displays in retail outlets that don't report to SoundScan.

It's almost as if record stores don't exist anymore.

As former employee and DJ and producer Kelly Reverb once observed, the walls in the restroom at Bill's Records are like cave paintings. They tell the story of styles and genres that have come and gone, the names and likenesses of the kids who worked there, and the autographs of the many touring acts who either visited or performed at the store. By the end of this week a new coat of paint will erase the memories of 26 years in this location.

Says Wisener: "When I first opened the Rolling Stones were really big, they were touring and everybody wanted a button with that big ol' tongue on it. Then punk rock and new wave got huge. The Cure, Depeche Mode, the Circle Jerks and Dead Kennedys all came to down." (The DK's played an infamous show at the protest site in front of the Republican National Convention in 1984.)

"I just ran across a 14 page long letter from Jello Biafra the other day," Wisener continues. "He came to the store and hung out here for, like, six hours one afternoon. He was a really smart guy. I went to go see them play at some place in European Crossroads by Bachman Lake. He wrote me the most wonderful letter. Morrissey and The Smiths were really big then too. We had a whole huge section of nothing but Smiths' singles and imports."

Birthdays are the markers in time that help Wisener mark the arc and trajectory of his experience as an integral part of the Dallas music scene.

"I remember when Frank Campagna had a big birthday party for me downtown and John Cale played," he says. "Don Nedler from Lizard Lounge had a four-day long party for my 50th birthday party. Vanilla Ice performed under an assumed name on Friday night. Bugs Henderson played on Saturday might, and Material Issue and Eve's Plum played the next night. Joel Folger from The Edge brought me up onstage and they sang 'Happy Birthday.' That's right when dance music started getting real big. Everybody wanted to be a DJ. We were actually selling turntables at the time and mail-ordering a lot of really obscure dance records.

"In the late '80s rap and hip-hop became the big thing. Eazy-E came to the store. I remember when your band [Decadent Dub Team] played at the store in 1988. Then a few years later everybody started getting into Master P. From there Dirty South hip-hop music from Houston started getting real big -- Paul Wall, Mike Jones, Bun B, that kind of stuff."

In the early '90s Wisener discovered the music of the man who would go on to become one of his closest friends: Ben Harper.

"In 1993, Welcome to the Cruel World by Ben Harper came out, and it had a song on it called 'I'll Rise.' My mother always loved Maya Angelou's poem 'I'll Rise,' and Ben did a version of it on this record. My mother had been very sick off and on for three years, and she later passed away in November of 1996. She was in the hospital for three months, and I closed the store to stay there by her bedside every night."

Since then, Harper has been what Bill calls "the echo of my DNA." Harper flew him to see him perform at three straight sold-out shows in Paris, France. Wisener has also attended shows in Harper's hometown of Claremont, as well as shows in Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Inglewood, Colorado and the Apollo Theater in Harlem. At this point Wisener has seen Harper play live over 30 times, including his very first Dallas performance at Club Dada.

"Ben did a show at Trees on March 27, which was my mother's birthday," he recalls. "He dedicated the encore 'Waiting on An Angel' to my mother. I was sitting in that balcony that overlooked the stage, and he pointed up to me and said, 'This is for your Mom, Bill.' It was such a gracious, personal gesture."

Since then, the sound of Ben Harper's music could be heard literally every single day inside Bill's store. The employees often insist they've heard his records so many times they know every single lyric to every one of his songs. Harper recently sent Bill a gold record that will go on the wall of the new location. When I ran into Harper at the Roxy Theatre in Los Angeles last summer, he placed his hand on his heart when I mentioned Bill's name.

To say that Ben Harper's music has helped Bill Wisener deal with the stress and adversity of life would be an understatement. Harper's songs have been a sort of therapy, and have given Bill hope and humility at a time when it seemed that all hope was lost for good.

Which brings us to the point in time in which the landscape was changed forever: September 11, 2001. For a little while, and then a long time, people stopped spending money on entertainment and music. And it didn't help that around the same time, Napster was taking off and kids were starting to swap MP3s.

Bill's customer base transitioned to alternative country and Americana music. KHYI-FM (95.3) began an ongoing promotional event every Friday afternoon featuring live acts, free beer for the adults and free ice cream for kids. Artists such as 1100 Springs, Jack Ingram, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Guy Clark, Max Stalling and Rhett Butler were all regular performers. The audience became a perfect fit for Bill's Records: They still bought new CDs and old records, they appreciated the Mom and Pop vibe, and they were loyal till the bitter end. Many of them are Bill's age, so they love to spend time in the store reminiscing about the old days.

"I would love for Jay Johnson to come sing 'Deep in the Heart of Texas' when we open the new store. It would perfect for the opening of the store," Bill says. He would also love for Monsignor Donald Fisher of St Joseph's Catholic Church in Richardson to come give a dedication on opening night. "I'm not Catholic, but I listen to him every Sunday morning on WRR. He came for one of the last shows here, and he gave a Christmas prayer. Austin Cunningham was here performing, and Don started it all off with a beautiful Christmas prayer."

These days, tears come to Bill Wisener's eyes rather easily. He hopes that people like Jerry Haynes and Trini Lopez — regular customers, no kidding -- will find him in the new location. He misses folks like former Longhorn Ballroom and Yellow Belly Drag Strip owner O.L. Nelms, former airline exec Clyde Skeen, legendary architect Albert Frey and his dear friend Stanley Marcus.

Before Marcus passed away, he called Bill one afternoon and asked him to come to his home the next morning. Stanley Marcus then gave him his entire lifetime collection of old 78 rpm records. Bill gets emotional when he thinks of the gesture.

"I went to his service at the Meyerson," he recalls. "It was...beautiful. He was such a lovely man, such a wonderful, wonderful man...What a gift is was just to know him."

Two night ago, Wisener's old friend (and former Dallas art gallery owner) David Quadrini stopped by the store. Quadrini, like Hydroponic Sound System founder Jeff "Skinny Fresh" Wade, radio personality Jeff K and the late Elliott Smith, was one of those kids who discovered alternative music at Bill's store. Quadrini and Wisener stayed up until almost 4 in the morning reminiscing about the past. Quadrini was in town visiting relatives and had no idea Bill's was about to move. " I guess he just now heard about it, so he came up here to pay his respects and to talk about all of his memories of the store," Wisner says.

It won't be easy to lay out the floor plan of the new location. The physics are impossible. His old store was 9,000 square feet, and the new one is about 3,000 square feet. For the last 20 years, Bill has also had two warehouses filled to capacity with movie memorabilia, autographs, T-shirts and posters. He's using this occasion to bring all of that stuff out and put it in the new store. While a lot of that material is going on eBay, it's not hard to imagine that the new location will have a very different look and feel. There might even be a cash register.

The new store will also bring about an interesting change for those of you who are used to seeing a cigarette in Bill's hand all the time: The new store will be a no-smoking area. "I'm gonna have to go outside a lot, but I decided that this might help me stop altogether one day," he says. "I promised the new landlord that I wouldn't smoke inside, so maybe it's a blessing."

Last week, Wisener was checking out the new space when Donnie Nelson came by and introduced himself. Nelson said, "I've heard you're a great guy, and I just want you to know we're going to have a great time here with you around." Wisener appreciated the gesture.

"He just made me feel so welcome, he was just so nice," he says. "I mean, I know it's gonna be a work in progress there for the next 10 years, but I can't wait to start this thing all over again. I know that being near all of these great live music venues and all of those wonderful people is going to be really wonderful."

With that, for the first time in weeks, the apparent stress of making this move finally disappears from his face, and he relaxes into a pleasant smile.

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The Bill's Records North Dallas location was open 365 days a year. I'll miss bringing Bill a warm plate of my Mom's cooking every Thanksgiving and Christmas Day. Holidays have always brought out the best in Bill. Prior to September 2001, the store was always brisk with biz, and old friends would come out of the woodwork. The last few years have been quite different. This past Christmas season, one of his customers even brought in a "tip jar" for contributions to help keep the store open.

As I look around the nearly empty shell of what was Bill's Records North Dallas location, it actually looks a lot smaller than it did when all of the merchandise was still inside. It was his vision, this functional work-of-art-as-record-store, that made the last 26 years seem so much larger than life.

If there is anything to be taken away from my experience as one of Bill's longtime friends and customers, it's that you can't ever take these precious relationships and memories for granted. Bill Wisener will always cherish his ongoing opportunity to contribute to the fabric of this community, and we should recognize that his store helped give this city real character. --Jeff Liles

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