The Pain of Losing a Local Record Store

My friend Charles told me that June Records would be closing a few hours before the news was made public on the store’s website. June’s building was sold, and the new landlord was terminating the shop’s lease at the end of July. Ever since I spotted the sale sign in late April, I’d had a sinking feeling that this was where things were headed, but the shock of hearing that it was finally coming to pass was immediately replaced by a distinct feeling of sadness.

“Damn it,” I told Charles. “That just sucks.”

June Records wasn’t the oldest record store in Toronto, the largest or its best known. It was a small place, and opened only in 2012. But it meant the world to me for several reasons: it was a block from my house; the selection was eclectic and sweeping; the prices were fair; and its staff members were the kind of knowledgeable, highly opinionated music geeks that possessed a soulful recognition engine more powerful than any algorithm.

Still, it was just a store that sold pieces of melted plastic, which you could theoretically purchase at other record stores or online, often for less money. Why did hearing that June Records was closing make me genuinely sad? Why do we shed tears over businesses that shut their doors, when we know that the nature of businesses is ephemeral?

I’ll be the first to admit that I hold a stubborn nostalgic streak, and have spent a good part of my career fixating on these emotions. My first book was about the disappearing institution of the Jewish delicatessen, which I saw fading to extinction before my eyes. But as I traveled around the world, visiting more than 200 Jewish delis, I frequently encountered a visceral sense of loss from people who remembered the beloved delis in their past. The wounds for these onion roll seekers and pastrami lovers never fully healed. It was as though Ratner’s on the Lower East Side or Grabstein’s in Brooklyn had closed last week, rather than decades ago. The hurt was ongoing.

Like many meaningful deaths, there can be a distinctly public aspect to mourning businesses. Sometimes a shop closing warrants a quick mention in a local newspaper, or on a neighborhood blog or a Facebook group, letting the public know that the dry cleaners has shut after 25 years, or that the pet store has now been replaced by a vape shop. Some businesses with a big enough legacy get their own obituaries, complete with stories collected over the years, parting interviews with the owners and customers and tributes gathered from far and wide. Some even inspire spontaneous acts of mourning, including pop-up shrines complete with flowers, candles and condolence notes. Many just close their doors without a word.

Within an hour of posting the news of his store’s closing online, June’s owner, Ian Cheung, was deluged with messages, social media posts, journalist inquiries and calls of disbelief and grief, which quickly turned into eruptions of personal remembrance. The time Mr. Cheung personally turned them onto Solange’s epic solo album, the time they bonded with his dog, Loki, (who ruled the shop), the annual holiday party Mr. Cheung threw at the store for loyal customers, the concerts he put on in the back. Longtime customers like me were now pulling records they bought at June from their shelves, and playing them again, like lovers after a break.

Churn is the normal course of commerce, the invisible hand working its efficient magic, shifting resources from less productive activities to others. I have to explain this fact every day to my daughter, as we walk to school past the construction site that previously held her favorite store, which sold furry costumes and overpriced stuffed animals geared to adults, and which, despite the $20 in allowance she spent there over two years, closed last summer. “No honey, it’s not opening again,” I tell her, as she talks about its triumphant return. “Something else will open.” In time, June Records will also be replaced with another business, and eventually the one that provided the right goods or service at the right price will win out, theoretically benefiting all of us as consumers.

But experience has taught me that this cold logic is far from airtight. Our emotional connection to stores, restaurants and other commercial spots whose loss we mourn has nothing to do with economics. These businesses give us the most pleasure because of their irrational exuberance, their daily chutzpah, which is what’s so humanizing about them.

I never went to June Records to buy a record. I went to June to go to June. To experience a humanizing moment, through commerce. To enter that space, interact with its goods and its personalities and walk out with something far greater than a copy of Bill Withers’s “+Justments.”

My relationships with the staff at June Records were forged over their recommendations: Julia’s suggestion of Jennifer Castle’s dreamy “Pink City,” Raf’s assurance that even my children would dig William Onyeabor’s minimal Nigerian disco and Andrew’s recent pick of an obscure Brazilian acid psych record that’s become the instant soundtrack of my summer. Sure, you can get help and suggestions shopping for music at an Urban Outfitters, but it’s not the same, because what I built at June over the years of transactions was something deeper: a sense of place.

No place stays the same forever, and few of us want to live somewhere that is frozen in amber, where entrepreneurs cannot take a chance with their ideas and open a business. We seek the new, and the novel, and welcome improvements in our neighborhoods with open arms. But we also need places to anchor us. Novelty is wonderful, but only when balanced with the familiar. And when those familiar businesses close, for whatever reason, our reaction also occurs on a human scale. A sigh of resignation. A flood of memories. And sometimes, if you truly loved the place, a sadness so genuine it can trigger tears.

David Sax is the author of “The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter.

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