Each Friday afternoon during my senior year at Purdue University, I made a pilgrimage of sorts down Cardiac Hill to the Wabash Landing, a small cluster of restaurants, bars, chain stores, and a movie theater located just off the universitys main campus in West Lafayette, Indiana. Its a familiar American landscape: authentic Chinese food served buffet style, watered-down drinks set to watered-down dance music, piles of Dan Brown and Danielle Steel hardcovers on best-seller shelves, and twelve-dollar tickets with concession prices that make a simple movie date a venture requiring significant financial backing.
But tucked inside this microcosm of modern America and replica of every shopping center youve ever seen is JL Records, an unassuming structure that houses a musical Mecca of the Midwest. The windows are blackened, and the building looks more fit to be a mini-storage facility or an aircraft hangar for small planes than a record shop. The only hint at what awaits within is the simple JL Records sign above the door and the murals of Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and other legends that adorn the buildings exterior, peeling and fading from age and weather. And inside this unlikely buildinglocated within the even more improbable setting of a strip mallis where I got hooked on music.
Fast forward to the present. Its my first visit to JL in nearly three years, and Im eager to see what has become of the place. Im disappointed to find the murals gone, laid to rest beneath strips of bland, white siding. The doors are pulled wide open, though, as always. The same door with the same broken doorstop is propped open by the same black counter stool. Ive never once seen those doors closed, not even in winter. I walk inside and find the store unchanged. Racks of music stretch off into the distance like a highway reaching for the horizon. The walls are put to good usea clutter of box sets, memorabilia, and moviesnot an inch wasted. I look behind the counter, but there is no employee. There rarely ever was when I visited. I remember thinking that perhaps there was no owner at allthat maybe the store had been opening and running itself for all of those years.
Two things still strike me about JL: the enormity and the quiet. The sheer size of the place makes it difficult to describe without borrowing some system of measure foreign to music. Music should be measured in bpm not square feet, but what can you do? The R section alone is 20 yards long and growing with each passing year. And this same magnitude is JLs paradox. They have everything under the sun there, and its this very fact that opened up so many musical worlds to me, but at the same time, its a humbling place. I remember thumbing through the racks and realizing that I could do nothing but listen to music for the rest of my life, and I wouldnt even begin to scratch the surface of what was in the store. So much to listen togood stuff, bad stuff, Swedish stuff, whateverand never enough time.
Quiet and Record Store are usually mutually exclusive terms, but if anything, JL is quiet. There are never more than two or three customers in the store at a time. If music plays over the stereo system, it plays softly and not to disturb. Nobody is trying to make a sale or turn anyone on to anything. Its one of the worlds great record stores, a testament to rock and roll, but the vibe is that of a cathedral or museum. How many times I went in there simply to think, to escape life. How terribly difficult it is these days to be alone, to find quiet and solitude. I say this having lived in a large college town, a major metropolis, and as an adult in my parents home; I know the value of sanctuary. Even now when Ive had a bad day, I cant think of a more comforting place to be than at JL, flipping through a few thousand records until I forget whatever it was that had bothered me.
Independent record stores have identitiessomething unique about them that sets them apart from their chain store counterparts. Sometimes its the locale and the people. Other times its a killer vinyl section. With JL, its the imports. Just when you think you have every Pearl Jam or Who or Dylan release out there, the JL racks throw a record your way that you never knew existed. And thats what they specialize in. Youll find that new release or classic album sure enough, but its the rarities and bootlegs that make digging through the racks fun. So many times Ive taken a self-proclaimed number-one fan of some band down to JL, and each time theyve left with a handful of recordings that were missing from their collections.
There is only a handful of great independent record stores left out there. Most have gone under, and the rest will soon follow suit. Theyre the polar bears of the entertainment industry in that respect. Itll be a shame the day JL Records closes its doors, but that day is inevitably coming. Days lost to browsing (without a mouse in hand) through records will be a thing of the past. While I love technology as much as the next person, there is still something about a record store that iTunes, Amazon, or any other online entity has been unable to replicate. Im not sure what it is. Maybe its a smell or a touch or just that feeling that settles in when youre shoulder-deep in a stack of records. For me, it was accidentally stumbling upon a band, forking over ten dollars, and taking home my first Clash record. See, JL Records is still one of those shops where a little serendipity while rummaging can change liveswhere everyone finds what they are looking for, even if they dont recognize it at the time.