Authors: Yvonne Prinz
This book is for Karen Pearson. If I am the
Vinyl Princess, she is most certainly the Queen.
sense him in my midst. The air seems to thin when he’s near me. I get light-headed. I don’t even have to look up but I can’t help myself. It’s my fourth sighting this week but who’s keeping track? He calmly takes in the standoff at the buy counter before carrying on to the bins. Our eyes meet and he nods and offers up a half smile. I follow him with my eyes and reluctantly bring my focus back to the pile of CDs sitting in the middle of the scratched-up blue countertop between Thombo and me like an island no one wants to claim. I remember when Thombo was “Thomas.” It wasn’t that long ago. He was an okay kid back then but he fell through the cracks and emerged as “Thombo,” someone you definitely shouldn’t turn your back on.
“This is the same tired pile of crap you brought in yesterday.” I slide the stack of CDs across the counter toward him.
“No, no, man. This stuff is good, it’s all good.” He twitches and scratches his skinny arm.
“Yeah? So, when did you start listening to Whitesnake and the Grateful Dead?” I ask, looking into his bloodshot eyes.
Thombo’s eyes dart around quickly. “You gotta help me out here. It’s my sister, man, she’s really sick.”
I steal a glance at my friend out in the bins. He’s flipping through the Bs in the used-CD section. I pull up the sagging waist of my skinny jeans and stand up straighter.
“Yeah? Yesterday you said it was your mom who was sick, and by the way, I saw your sister this morning and she looked fine.”
“Let me talk to Bob. Bob’s my man.”
“Bob isn’t here and you know he’d have kicked your ass out of here already.”
Thombo thinks for a second or two. “Gimme twenty for the stack. All’s I need is a twenty.” He slides the pile back toward me like a poker player going all in. His eyes become hopeful again.
“And what do I tell the guy when he comes around looking for the CDs you stole from him and he asks me what you look like and where you live?” I furtively glance out the front window, looking for Laz. Damn it, he should be here by now.
Thombo finally faces the fact that I’m standing firmly between him and his next fix and I’m not budging. He reluctantly puts the stack back into a rumpled paper bag and stalks out the door. He was waiting for me when I arrived this morning, his sweatshirt hood pulled over his head, jumping around while I unlocked the smeared double glass doors. I’m annoyed at Laz. I don’t like handling the tweakers alone. I press the worn-out play button on the amplifier.
My Life in the Bush of Ghosts
by David Byrne and Brian Eno starts up, booming African percussion and techno weirdness through eight speakers. It’s only the two of us now, alone in the store, but he doesn’t look up even though he must feel me watching him. I smooth my spiky hair and then, on second thought, I mess it up again.
The music makes it official: This house of worship is open for business. This is the place where people come to find community; they come here to confess their sins and talk to their gods; they come for validation and understanding; they come here to get their groove on, let their hair down, visit the past, look to the future, find some spirituality, search their souls, get some peace, stir things up, or live a little. This is Bob & Bob Records. This is where I work.
In the infamous words of Billy Joel, “the regular crowd shuffles in”: Blind Bill and his ancient Seeing Eye dog, Lucy; Becky, the speed freak, yanking at her red hair and always searching for more Iggy Pop like she doesn’t already own it all; Mario, the aging record snoop, hoping we put out more used classical LPs overnight; and a ragtag group of desperadoes: small-time criminals, carrying crumpled bags of stolen CDs and DVDs to sell us, hoping we won’t remember that we said no yesterday so they can trade their booty for cash to convert into cheap drugs.
Lazarus arrives in a fog of incense, back from the dead. Jimmy the Rasta dude has set up shop on the sidewalk outside the front doors. He sells incense the way Baskin-Robbins sells ice cream. He offers fifty different scents, each one a different color in a different glass jar, but they all smell exactly the same to me. He never has fewer than ten sticks burning at once. Two years of working here and my clothes reek of it. On the heels of the incense is the perpetual wall of patchouli, Telegraph Avenue’s signature scent. If you were to combine the incense, the patchouli and urine, you’d have yourself “Eau de Telegraph Avenue.” Someone might actually buy it.
Sometimes, though, on a breezy summer day—like today, for instance—if the wind is blowing just right, you can catch the licorice scent of the wild fennel that grows in the empty lot across the street from the store. That sweet smell means that summer is here. It also means school is out, which means I’m officially full-time at Bob & Bob’s for the entire summer. Just me, my beloved stacks of vinyl, a lion’s share of the craziest people in the universe and a handful of underpaid, overworked, music-obsessed people who work here with me. In other words: paradise, that is, if you happen to be a reclusive music junkie like me.
The guy starts to leave. He makes eye contact again on the way out. I look away first, embarrassed by my preoccupation with him. He brushes shoulders with Laz on his way out the door. Then he’s gone. It’s like I imagined the whole thing.
“Laz. Hi. Nice that you could make it in.”
Laz doesn’t respond. He throws his backpack and his motorcycle helmet under the front counter.
“Coffee?” he asks, heading back out the door.
“No, thanks. Had some.”
He shrugs and disappears up the street, leaving me alone again.
A guy in a wool cap stumbles into the store.
“Hey, you got a bathroom I can use?”
“Try the park.” I point my pen in the direction of People’s Park.
“I’m not that desperate,” he says, and stumbles back out again.
I don’t blame him. People’s Park sits directly behind Bob & Bob Records, and back in the day it was a political hot spot where real live hippies came to protest the Vietnam War. Riots broke out and the National Guard was called in and they stormed the street and shot the protesters with rubber bullets and teargassed them and dragged them off and arrested them. But the protesters didn’t give up until the war was ended. You don’t really see too much of that kind of passion around here anymore. Most of those hippies are grandparents now and their kids belong to the “me” generation and their kids’ kids belong to my generation. Judging by the kids at my school, I wouldn’t be expecting a revolution anytime soon. I think that you actually have to talk to start a revolution and they don’t talk, they text:
Texter #1 (after watching video on Darfur in social studies class): Dude, we should go demonstrate at the park.
Texter #2: What 4?
Texter #1: Darfur?
Texter #2: Who’s Darfur? Is that the new chick?
Texter #1: No. It’s a country.
Texter #2: LOL, is that by Narnia?
Anyway, the restroom in People’s Park was built about two years ago. It took twenty minutes for it to be transformed into a Wal-Mart for street drugs. I don’t even think the people who venture in there to buy their drugs would use those toilets.
I was born here in Berkeley sixteen years ago. My mom named me Allie, short for Alberta. When my mom found out that she was pregnant with me, she did the math and discovered that I’d been conceived on their trip to the Canadian Rockies, a place called Lake Louise in the province of Alberta. She said that the skies were
blue, the mountains
majestic and the glacier-fed lakes
pristinely turquoise there that she had to name me after that place. My mom and dad had long dreamed of taking a “rugged” vacation together (and by rugged I mean a mountain view from the window of the luxury château and optional trail rides through previously mentioned mountains). Later, when I showed up earlier than expected, my mom redid the math and realized that I’d actually been conceived in a rather down-at-the-heels Montreal hotel room on the same trip. But it was too late; I was Allie by then (she named me in utero) and Monty would have been a terrible name for a girl.
I think my mom and dad may have been expecting someone different. I don’t really look too much like either of them (and absolutely nothing about me screams pristine glacier-fed lakes, blue skies or majestic mountains) but maybe that’s because I put a lot of effort into not looking like them. In my mind, I sort of look like the love child of Sid Vicious and Chrissie Hynde. I doubt I’m really pulling it off but I try damn hard.
Bob, the sole owner of Bob & Bob Records, will wander in when he’s good and ready and generally after a couple of morning bong hits. He likes to ease into the day. My job here at Bob & Bob Records is pretty much running the place. I serve as cashier, buy used product, restock the bins, order new product, mark down old product, open the store, close the store, and do the staff schedule. During the school year I work nights and weekends but during the summer I’m here five days a week. Bob hired me back when I was fourteen. I told him I was sixteen. I’m pretty sure he knows I was lying about my age, because I’ve been the same age for two years now. It’s a good thing that Bob keeps things pretty loose around here. Not only was I the youngest person ever to apply at Bob & Bob, I was also the only applicant ever to ace the dreaded “product test,” which elevated me to a revered place in Bob & Bob history. The way the test works is: Bob hands you a box of randomly chosen CDs and LPs and you have to sort them by section, like, rock, classical, hip-hop, soul, blues, reggae, pop vocal, gospel, country, folk, jazz, and world. You’re allowed three errors. Any more than that and you walk the walk of shame, out of the office, through the bins and out the front door, jobless, not good enough for Bob & Bob.
Bob probably thought I’d be stumped right off the bat, but I breezed through the box like a champ, filing the Johnny Burnette Trio in rockabilly, Horace Andy in reggae, Shonen Knife in rock, Sun Ra in jazz, and Lila Downs in world (Mexico, to be exact). The rest was laughably easy. Country Joe & the Fish? Oh, please (rock). What Bob did not know at the time and has since come to know only too well is that I’m what people in the record store business refer to as a “throwback,” an “audiophile,” a “record geek.” Secretly, though, I’m the Vinyl Princess. My knowledge of music is encyclopedic. Before I got this job, I spent more time in this store than Bob’s employees. I owned a decent turntable by the time I was seven and by the time I was twelve my vinyl collection had swelled to nine hundred albums. When I was a toddler, my dad would trot me out at parties and yell out the names of Beatles songs and I would answer with the album they appeared on. I never missed. It’s mostly his fault I turned out this way. He started me on music when I was still in the womb, playing records, strumming his guitar, using my mom’s belly as a drum kit, dragging her to live shows even in her eighth month when she was as big as a house. In the nine months before I was born, I attended every single concert that came to the Greek Theatre in Berkeley. As an infant, I never got to hear anything as mundane as “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” My lullabies were taken directly from the Beatles’
. In nursery school, I taught my classmates all the words to “Rocky Raccoon.” The note they sent home was ignored. When I started grade school, I didn’t know the national anthem or the Pledge of Allegiance but I could chronologically name every Rolling Stones album ever released.
There’s probably only one place on earth where a sixteen-year-old girl with a gift like this could be appreciated, and that’s right here at Bob & Bob Records on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, California.
My mom thinks I’m crazy, or at least that I will be if I keep working here. When I come home from a long day of filing LPs into the bins she tells me I smell like an octogenarian’s attic.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m well aware that most girls my age wouldn’t be relishing the idea of spending the summer in a musty record store. Certainly this isn’t the most happening environment for a girl in the prime of her adolescence and I’m already dreading the endless hookup stories my peers will be broadcasting at school come September. Summer vacation is, after all, backseat mating season for adolescents, and I’ve fared rather poorly in that area thus far for various reasons. I look in the mirror and I see pretty but not the right kind of pretty. Not the kind that gets asked out; more the kind that gets called
a lot and left alone. I think I might look like I want that, to be left alone. But I’ve been looking like this for so long that I don’t know how to be someone who says, “Ask me out.” To be brutally honest, one might go so far as to say that I’ve created a life here at Bob’s because if it weren’t for Bob’s I would have no life. Sometimes I even wonder if it’s more of a place to hide than anything else. It’s not that I’m not open to the experience. I’ve been groped, kissed badly, and my bra came off once, but I’ve never been romanced. Is it absurdly old-fashioned to wait for romance? I know that I don’t look like the type who craves romance, at least not the storybook kind, but I continue to believe that it’s out there somewhere. I’ve never been delusional enough to think that it could simply walk in the door of Bob & Bob’s, but then, a week ago,
started showing up and I started wondering for the first time in my two years here if maybe love had come for me. I’ve got a really corny side that’s been thinking lately that maybe this summer will be different. Crazy, right? Anyway, my first love is vinyl. Vinyl lives here and here I am.
Laz returns with a large coffee and a newspaper and settles in at the buy counter to read it. His elbows rest on the counter and long, wavy strands of his black hair dangle down, obscuring his face. Every now and then he calls out a headline and shakes his head. Laz is disgusted with the world in general. He feels that humans have evolved into mass consumers of emptiness and we’re all destined to die in a fiery and/or watery death when the planet finally and imminently succumbs to global warming. Laz finds solace in speed metal.
Mornings tend to drag around here and I take advantage of the time to go online and check my brand-new blog, even though Bob has specifically told us we are not to use the computer for our personal business. I will remember to erase my history. Recently (like three days ago), I started a blog called thevinylprincess.com. It started out as an experiment to see if there was anyone out there in the world who cared about music and vinyl the way I do, I mean besides Bob and some of his customers. It occurred to me that if you were a chain-saw juggler and you Googled
you’d find your people in a matter of seconds, so how hard could it be for me to find
people? I’m hoping that if there’s enough of us and we all find one another, maybe we can band together and turn the music world around; maybe we can start a movement just like in the sixties in People’s Park. We could revolt against corporate rock and downloading and digitizing and Clear Channel. Okay, sure, you won’t see vinyl collectors rioting in the streets, but at the very least we could become a vinyl preservation society.