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An interview with Laurie Spector, buyer for VA record shop CD Cellar / by Katie Alice Greer

Laurie Spector is the new LP buyer at CD Cellar, a record store in the greater-Washington DC area -- Falls Church, Virginia, to be exact. I spoke with her live and in person after work one evening about the responsibilities of such a job! We talked about money, the Foo Fighters, and how maybe Kendrick Lamar got robbed. But mostly we talked about records and money.

Katie: What does this job entail exactly? I mean, records come out every Tuesday right?
Laurie: Yeah Tuesday is the day.

  So a shit ton of records probably come out most Tuesdays. How do you figure out what you're actually going to order and stock for the shop?
Well since I'm working for the store like you said, since I'm using someone else's money essentially, it's always gotta be stuff that's going to sell. Essentially I have to ask, "Are we going to make our money back?" So figuring out the answer to that involves knowing about the people who shop at our store.

Tell me a little bit about who comes in to CD Cellar.
Well, it's not like a hip place in the sense that it's not a boutique. I was thinking about this recently. There's this place I really like in Charlottesville…

I know exactly what you're talking about! Melody Supreme, but it's never open when I'm there. 
Right, cause I think it's just the one guy who runs it and owns it.

I think it's really minimal wave, electro stuff right.
Well, maybe more industrial and goth stuff. The guy's French I think, so I think it's a lot of French stuff.

I kinda hate France. But there's definitely some French electronic shit that I love! I think Deux is from France.
Yeah Minimal Wave put out that compilation.

Yes I love that thing. Wait so anyway, CD Cellar: it's not a boutique. The name is misleading, though! Because y'all definitely carry more vinyl than CDs, it seems.
The store opened in '92 when vinyl was out of favor.

So, what you're saying is that at one point, CD Cellar was concerned with being "hip".
(laughs) We're always concerned. It's just a matter of how successful we are. 

So you're spending someone else's money essentially, you can't just be buying and stocking whatever you personally think the great customers of CD Cellar deserve to be hearing and buying, you have to consider what sells. Who are you buying for? And what are you buying?
Um. I'd like to think it's a sort of averaged-out taste. Because I think music's for everyone and yeah some people have a taste where, I might feel like, "well that sucks," but I'd like to think we're aiming to be a place that can cater to everyone, or at least anyone who might buy vinyl. But yeah that's what I love about my shop, we're not just trying to be hip in that sense.

You're not trying to be cool with what you're stocking.
Well, I guess we just can't afford to. I mean, it's this shitty thing with music. Trying to be "hip" means carrying certain stuff as much as it means not carrying certain stuff.

So what you're saying is, you don't throw out your Judy Collins records.
Uh.. What are you saying, that she's not cool?

I just see Judy Collins records in every thrift store in the U.S.A.
When I say unhip I mean like, Foo Fighters or something. (Laughs.) The used stuff, there's always going be something for someone. But with new LPs, some of my coworkers worry that stocking certain stuff will turn people away. It's a really tricky thing. Finding the perfect balance between making the store money, it's why we're there. I have to make the money back, I'm spending thousands of dollars and it's a big responsibility. So if I'm selling these Foo Fighters albums and they're selling quickly and we make a ten-dollar profit off them, it's irresponsible for me to ignore that. To me it's like, we need stores --- not like FYE or Tower, but just stores that carry something for everyone. I love the diversity. I love the people who come it. It's families, weirdos.,. I mean, we make fun of people sometimes but in a fun way, it's just the culture of working in the store. 

I've seen High Fidelity. I know what you guys are about.
We're not as bad as High Fidelity. 

I'm just joking. Here's a question: I know some record stores are concerned about stocking stuff that like, Target sells. Target sells vinyl now. Some record stores are understandably very committed to selling almost exclusively independent or underground stuff. I know the record store I work at sometimes, my boss feels this way, he feels very strongly about the shop promoting non-major-label stuff and thinks if people can buy certain records at Target they should just go buy it there. What do you think about this? Do you feel some kind of responsibility to this underground thing, or do you feel like you've gotta keep the store afloat with what sells...? Maybe a little bit of both?
It's tricky because this is a job. I'm entrusted with a lot of money. It's a big responsibility. We do need to make money. But you can't please everyone. But yeah also, a lot of our audience is people who...probably wouldn't go buy vinyl at Target? They probably fancy themselves like, too cool for that?

I would think a lot of people who buy records would feel that way. It's weird to think of anyone going to Target to buy records.
Yeah, actually the mega popular stuff doesn't really sell. We didn't sell any of that Lana Del Rey picture disc, really. Taylor Swift... I don't think it would be hugely successful. 

[EDITOR’S NOTE: T Swift, not successful? What? Weird. Ok.]

What did really well this year for you guys?
Last year? Stuff that came out last year? The Strokes first album was reissued, Mumford & Sons, Black Keys, Radiohead... I mean the stuff that sells the best I guess is stuff that's had a while on the shelves, usually. Oh but the Kendrick Lamar record is selling really well. It dragged for a second but then the Grammies happened,

Did he win a lot of Grammies?
No but he was nominated for Best Rap Album and that guy Macklemore won, I guess? And it was kind of a big controversy so that brought some attention to the Kendrick Lamar album. 

I listened to that record and I don't remember it much but there's that funny part with the phone call with his parents and it's something about the dad wanting Kendrick to bring home a pizza and he's freaking out and the mom gets on the line and she's like "it's not even that serious.”
I guess it's a concept album. 

I was reading the Kanye West interview that Steve McQueen conducted in Interview Magazine and Steve brings up how it's so wild to him that Kanye's been doing his thing for ten years and he's never won Best Album.

Yeah, like he's always nominated for "Best Rap" or "Best R & B”, just stuff like that. So they were talking about how there shouldn't be this imposed ghettoization of music with genres, like whether it's rap or country. They were both just saying "music is music" -- so I'm wondering how that relates to your job. Do you see value in categorizing music by genre, as someone who is dealing with a lot of music on a daily basis?
I mean, like anything our brains do, it just makes things easier sometimes. But no, I don't like the idea of it. There's no value in that for me. 

So you've established with me that it is part of your responsibility to not flush money down the toilet with the inventory you're purchasing at your job. Do you feel a responsibility to CD Cellar patrons or the good people of Falls Church, Virginia to stock music that you personally think or know is just good, no matter if it's popular or not?
Yes. Definitely. And that is part of the trick. It's hard to find a balance, and yes, there are times where I'm ordering this thing and I know it's not going to sell for a year or something, I know I'm going to have to mark it down later and stuff, but that's the thing: you work at a record store because you're passionate about this stuff. But you also work to make money. It is a retail store. And it's hard to find that balance. We are here to make money. But I wanted to work at a store in the first place because I have this really idealistic notion that like, this is a physical place where people can come together. We have regulars who meet up with each other here, lots of old dudes who have been coming here a long time, it is definitely a meeting place in some ways … I like to think of it as a community center. But it's a for-profit community center. So it's about finding a balance. I mean the whole 'snobby record store clerk' archetype is totally true. But a lot of times people just have strong opinions about stuff because they care a lot about it. 

Where do you go 'digging' for the stuff you wanna carry? I guess you could look at some kind of modern equivalent of a Billboard chart or something to know what's selling.  
  We have accounts with some big distributors. A lot of record labels sell their stuff through distributors. The biggest one we worked with was Super D, but I think they bought this other distributor, Alliance, so now they just use the name Alliance. I just look at their website to see what's being released this week, and then I just spend a few hours checking out what is coming out. In terms of staying on top of what's cool or whatever, sometimes that is more tricky. 

What about stuff you're unfamiliar with? Like what would make you want to stock it or check it out? Is it the band name or some interesting cover art or something?
Well for the popular stuff I recognize the name, but in terms of newer stuff that's interesting for the music's sake... There's this other site that's our main distributor for more 'indie' stuff, and that's Revolver. Oh, another thing, a year ago I decided I would start ordering more direct through the labels. This was really selfishly motivated, I realized that I could get certain stuff from Matador or whoever for $4 cheaper if I just wrote to them directly about what I wanted. 

It's cheaper for you to go direct than through a distributor?
I mean in every case for me so far, yeah. Even with someone huge like Matador. I just email this guy a spreadsheet of stuff I want and he sends it.

OK but this is all the business retail end, do you have any writers or friends or publications that you check regularly and trust their opinions and recommendations to find out about new stuff?
Probably at one point I did, but these days not really. I mean, I do go to Pitchfork. They have those record reviews. And that's usually a really good indication of what our customers are going to want, like this morning I read about this woman Angel Olsen, she got a 'Best New Music' write-up, so I added that record to my order. A lot of our customers read Pitchfork. But that's not a personal thing, that's still a customer thing. 

Yeah, I guess you can't really be thinking much about your personal tastes with this stuff.
  Yeah, we have the Pitchfork customers, we have the Foo Fighters customers, we have the guys who want all the Beatles and Stones stuff.

The dudes who want the deluxe box set re-issues
Or I mean, even just 'Revolver', I always try to make sure we have stuff like that on hand.

So you're probably so immersed in music all the time you're not really trying to recreationally seek stuff out right now.
No I am. Ultimately what I hate to admit is there isn't a lot of stuff that excites me right now. I thinl I just got a little burned out.

  What excites you about music, or what excites you on a record?

Maybe you can just think of a specific example.
Yeah. I guess you could say that's ultimately what I'm looking for... I guess I would have to deconstruct what that 'excitement' means to me. Something I've always found exciting or gratifying is when I listen to music that I relate to. I remember first getting into punk, listening to Millencolin, bands like that. When you're a kid and there are these kinda sweet messages about being yourself and not caring what the other kids at school think, I remember being excited by that. Also hearing intensely emotional stuff, like the first time I heard that Bright Eyes record Fevers and Mirrors I remember it just blew me away. I listened to it for like a month straight. So, maybe that is the problem, maybe a lot of bands aren't really saying stuff…

But everybody always says this, I just have to wonder if all of us who are former teenagers (pretty much everyone over 18 right), just relate to music in a different way now? Like, there are a lot of bands...
It's really easy to sing a song an adolescent will relate to, but now that I'm older... I guess that's why I go back to stuff like Karen Dalton too, it doesn't matter that it's old, it's articulating a way that I feel. My feelings are way more complex now and harder to articulate. So maybe I'm not finding that... or maybe it's just what I'm exposed to. But also I'm really angry. Yeah this stuff is just harder to articulate for me now. Like it's hard to find that kind of artist who isn't just some dumb overall-wearing fuck.

(laughs) Woah what's wrong with overalls? 
You know what I mean, like folk stuff.

You're saying you want to find the intimacy and raw honesty that, a lot of times, one finds in folk music, but you don't necessarily want to be listening to a certain kind of folk music.
  Yeah, I have a lot of anger and energy and awareness, I'm more awake now than I've ever been. A lot of folk is subdued. You listen to is alone in your room or something... like, stuff I relate to that I wanna see live, I love Scout Niblett.

When I saw her she did this fantastic cover of 'Uptown Top Ranking'.
I just find that a lot of people are not into emotion! Like it's not cool! It's hard to find an artist that people can relate to.

So what was an exciting release for you last year?
Well I did really like that Kanye West song "New Slaves". Other musical things I found exciting were all live, not recordings, shows where I saw you guys, Malportado Kids, Downtown Boys, Quintron, Blank Realm... But I feel like we're talking about recordings, much different stuff. Harder to be stimulated by recordings than the live stuff. I'll just have to think about this more, I'll keep brainstorming. 

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