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Great day in the mourning

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Criminal Records owner Eric Levin recalls a time in the not-so-distant past when it seemed like owning a record store was something to lament rather than celebrate.

A deluge of media chatter about music going digital forecasted nothing but doom and gloom for CDs, LPs and the stores that sold them. Behemoth chains like Tower and Virgin were going the way of the dodo, while downloading music for free via such file sharing sites as LimeWire was considered the future.

"For a time, whenever I met new people they would come up to me like I had cancer and say, 'You own a record store? I'm sorry... .'" Levin says. "I felt as though I was being made the butt of a joke, which implies that I am a bad business person, and I bristled at that. Overnight, record stores had gone from being cool places to being something to almost be reviled."

Rather than sit idly by while the cult status of mom-and-pop record shops deflated in the public's eye, Levin — along with a handful of record store owners, employees, and marketing gurus from around the country — hatched a plan. On April 19, 2008, that plan came to fruition with the first Record Store Day. Dedicated to the institution of the independent record store, it was a Hallmark holiday of sorts that served as a beacon to remind the world that record stores still exist. The implications resonated around the world.

In Atlanta, Criminal Records transformed the Little Five Points parking lot into a carnival atmosphere complete with bands, DJs and a makeshift flea market for selling records. Stores threw parties in other cities as well. Newbury Comics in Boston, Grimey's in Nashville, and Amoeba Records stores in San Francisco and Los Angeles all followed suit in what felt like a kitschy but successful grassroots campaign.

Beyond the stores' efforts, a handful of indie labels, including Merge, Sub Pop and Matador, joined the cause and released a few limited-edition records to either be given away for free or made available specifically for Record Store Day.

Even though Levin "dreamed that it would be a big deal," he admits last year's success came as a surprise.

Levin goes on to explain that a staff of volunteers had less than a year to make preparations and get the word out between November '07 and April '08. "A lot of people [took a] 'let's wait and see how this thing goes' [approach]," he adds.

This year, Record Store Day takes place on Saturday, April 18, and if the first one was considered a success, this year is shaping up to be even more so. According to Levin, more than 700 stores in the U.S. and more than 1,000 stores overseas are participating. It's all part of the redemptive plan put forth by the Alliance of Independent Media Stores, over which Levin presides.

RecordStoreDay.com defines an independent record store as a physical retailer that is not publicly traded, with at least 70 percent of the ownership located in the state of operation, and a product line featuring 50 percent music. But Levin offers a simpler definition: "If you can walk in and speak with the boss," he says, "it's an indie."

While big-box retailers have been hard bitten by flailing CD sales, many indie stores have found new lifeblood in niche markets like the vinyl resurgence.

Scores of special releases are scheduled to drop on April 18, including a packet of nine Jesus Lizard 7-inch records via Touch & Go. Merge will offer up a 20th-anniversary compilation. And acts ranging from Beck to Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Sonic Youth, Slayer, Jay Reatard, Radiohead, Wilco and dozens of other bands are releasing records in recognition of the day.

The Record Store Day fever is spreading this year as stores across the country embrace their own cause. In Chicago, all three Reckless Records locations will participate with dozens of in-store performances by local bands. At its Wicker Park location, Steve Krakow of the band Plastic Crimewave will draw rock and roll caricatures of customers set in classic album covers. "We're happy to still be in business as a brick-and-mortar store after witnessing numerous stores in Chicago and across the country close up shop," says Reckless' new product buyer, David Hofer. "The amount of hype around this year's Record Store Day is much greater than last year, so we've just adopted the mentality of its creators and want to make it as insane and busy as possible. There's no reason to fight it."

Both Scotland and Long Island, N.Y., have officially proclaimed April 18 as Record Store Day, and Levin harbors hope that New York's Mayor Michael Bloomberg may recognize it for the rest of the city as well. "Last year the tagline on a lot of the press was 'Say goodbye to your local record store,'" Levin says. "This year the tone is much different. For all of those writers and editors who were sitting behind desks and saying it was over last year, come see me in a year, five years ... come see me in 10 years and I will still be here selling music."

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