Smile Politely

Record Swap: the history of a local legend (part 1)

As hard as it may be to imagine now, Campustown was once the cultural hub of downstate Illinois. High school kids used to come from hundreds of miles around just to walk around the place. Obviously, many had different reasons for coming. Some wanted to come gawk at the opposite sex. Some wanted to shop for clothes. Some wanted to score illicit drugs. But between 1980 and 2000, thousands of them ended up taking a walk up a darkened set of stairs and then making a hard left into a place that ended up changing their musical outlook. That place was Record Swap.

The story of Record Swap is the story of those kids. It’s the story of loyal employees who ostensibly just bought and sold records, but ultimately created a music scene. It’s the story of how that music scene lived, died and was reborn three or four times over. It’s the story of a small business surviving for thirty years through some very tough economic times. It’s the story of the corporate takeover of Green Street. It’s the story of the death of the music industry. It’s the story of technology, the information age and how we are all losing touch. It’s all those stories and a whole lot more. But none of these stores would be told without the story of one guy from Washington D.C. who loved used records.

I was a record collecting fanatic. I would go to used record stores every day. Me and another buddy decided to open a record store out there. At that point it was really just an excuse to buy more stuff. We bought three or four thousand albums for a store that never materialized. There was too much competition out east.

It seems like a well-worn cliché, but this record fanatic named Bob Diener had an older brother with some extra money living in Olympia Fields, IL. The elder Diener had a job and an interest in business. He offered to be Bob’s silent partner. Unfortunately for Bob, his brother lost his day job pretty early on in the process and lost interest in only being a silent partner.

We opened up in late summer of 1977. He was into the business aspect, and I was into the music. We never really got along, so it was a disaster. That’s why we had to open up our second store — so we could each do our own thing. We were still partners, but we kind of ran our own stores.

In 1978, at the behest of some friends, Bob and his brother started looking for a location in Champaign.

At that point, Record Service was the only used place in town. There was also a place selling new records called Divinyl Madness, which was a nonprofit record store coming out of Bloomington. Record Service opened up a store in Bloomington and Divinyl got pissed off, so they opened a location here — like right across the street. They never got along, and there was all this animosity between the two of them. So it worked out well for us because we opened up on 5th street, and Record Service didn’t even notice us.

After early success mad the 5th street location too small they moved to their famous upstairs location between Wright and 6th, where the store remained until 1999. Those twenty years could probably be termed “the Golden Age” for Record Swap. The store was a hub for music lovers, especially lovers of punk and indie. It offered an alternative for anyone who was interested in music outside of the Top 40/major label fair that Record Service offered. A lot of the credit goes to 80s employee Charlie, “the Quaker” Edwards, whose tastes ran more towards hardcore and indie.

I had just started carrying some punk 45s because I thought they were really cool. And then Charlie came. The 45’s were hitting pretty well in 1979. It was easy to take the next step and carry records and imports and things like that. Most of it was Charlie-based because he knew the stuff much better than I did. I liked some of it, but a lot of it I didn’t like. It used to be we’d play a Ministry album and then I’d have to put on reggae to calm my nerves. And then Charlie would play more of his music and then I’d play some more reggae.

Despite the store’s reputation as a beacon to the C-U indie scene, Bob always offered a diverse musical selection.

We carried new reggae stuff. I would go out to New York and get stuff from a distributor that was getting stuff directly from Jamaica. We carried some blues stuff. We carried more than just the rock stuff that got all of the attention.

I don’t like to get into a real competitive mode with other stores, so I’ve always tried to fill in what other stores are not doing. I thought we were a perfect compliment to Record Service. The majors loved them because they were right on campus. But we offered an alternative. We sold the very first U2 album when it was just an import. It was still a year or two away from being a domestic. Service didn’t have it. Charlie put a little sign on the door that said ‘new U2 here’. We ordered like 10 of them and they were gone in two or three days. It was surprising that people would know about that band.

After Charlie left, Record Swap continued as the place to get imports and the latest hard-to-find releases due to a contingent of hard working employees.

I’ve had really good employees over the years. When we were really humming, we had five, six, seven employees who were working hard on the used stuff, the imports and the cutouts. Because that’s where we made our money, and that’s how we paid our rent.

Unfortunately, Record Swap’s lease was never very solid at that location. With Murphy’s taking over their lease in 1999 and sales plummeting with the advent of Napster, Bob saw the writing on the wall.

The position we were in was that we sublet from whoever was downstairs. We never really had a sturdy lease. Many businesses came and went downstairs from us. When a business downstairs went out, we would kind of be in limbo. Downstairs was responsible for the taxes and insurance for the building. I remember once we had a big hole in the roof, BW3 had just left, and nobody would fix the hole.

When Murphy’s took it over in 1999, they were responsible for upstairs too. Sales were dwindling because of the downloading going on. People weren’t buying the new stuff. So I had one meeting with the Murphy’s guys and I said that, if the rent stays the same or goes down, I’d consider staying. And he just said ‘the rent’s going up’. It was a good move, because two stores were open on campus when we left, and they both went out of business pretty quickly.

Bob found a storefront in downtown Urbana, a couple of doors down from the Iron Post’s current location. After the move, Record Swap gave up carrying new stuff. For many hipsters and fanatics of the store, this was the beginning of the end. But with the emergence of Parasol, it was hard for Bob to justify stocking the indie stuff.

At that point Geoff Merritt (from Parasol) had his thing going. There were only like twenty people anymore that would come and buy Touch and Go stuff, but they had figured out that they could go to Geoff and get it cheaper.

For me, it seems kind of silly to compete when you can’t win — when you can’t even play the game. So you just got to change your store and do something else. And my vision has always been to be a used record store. When we were selling the indie stuff, the only reason we were able to stay in business was because our crew spent a lot of time on the stuff we could make 100% profit on, like imports, used, cutouts, stickers, buttons. We had a huge supply of t-shirts. We would import posters from England. That stuff you could make your money back on it. With a domestic release, you’re lucky to make a buck or two off of it.

The Urbana location didn’t work out for several reasons. According to Bob, it was a bad match from the beginning for the store.

They basically kicked us out of Urbana. We would get $500 sound ordinance tickets when my stereo wasn’t on — you know, when it was the apartment upstairs. Maybe I should have handled it differently. There were lawyers that shared the same space as us with one very thin wall. The ordinances are written so that, if amplified sound goes through the wall, you can give a ticket. If you or I called in, they would come out a couple of times and then they would say forget it. But the lawyers could pretty much call as often as they wanted. All that had to happen was for our landlord to soundproof the wall, but they wouldn’t do it.

About three years ago, Bob finally found a new location on University Ave near First St., where the store currently resides.

Ever since we’ve been here, things have gotten a lot better. Just being on University, a lot of people see us. Apparently, Champaign people don’t shop in Urbana. When we reopened, we had like twenty people who recognized our logo from campus and told me they were so glad we were back. Like we had put all our stuff in storage for eight years and reopened.

He’s happy with his current situation, but still aware that many people still long for the old Record Swap.

Some people, both old customers and new customers, come in and tell me that we should carry the new stuff, that there is a scene now. And there is a little bit of a scene coming back, and I really like to see that. I’d love the indies to come back. And I don’t think I’ll ever want to carry that stuff again. Because there are two stores that already carry that stuff. If, when I came to town in ’79, there would have been another store or Service would have carried really good imports or really good indie labels, then we would have done something different.

And I don’t like to be competitive. I like to be easygoing. We did well complimenting Record Service. And now I’ve got no problems with either Exile on Main Street or Parasol. I send customers either way. Actually, I was lonely. I’m really glad that Exile opened because it got lonely being the only record store in town.

Now maybe 20% of the students even care about a record store. So you’ve really got a diminished clientele. But you need the excitement and you need to have a couple of record stores. There definitely aren’t too many right now. I think we fit the needs of the town fairly well.

Among the many reason’s the old Record Swap can’t come back is the nature of the typical music fanatic. Bob’s had a front row view on how things have changed over the last thirty years.

We have a steady stream of customers, but it’s not like the old days where we would have some customers come in every day just to see what was new. We’d have people who would spend six hours listening to whatever was on and playing with the cats. You don’t have that anymore. Now with the downloading, you might listen to half a song and say, ‘oh that’s crap’. There’s always the next and next and next thing.

In the past, some people on this site and others have complained about Bob selling stuff on Ebay, but honestly, he’s just doing what he needs to do to stay in business.

We sell a lot of stuff to eBayers and people who resell their stuff. There was a guy who came in this morning who’s from Japan and has a lot of friends over there. He comes in, buys stuff, sends it back to them, adds a little charge, and makes a profit. Most of the stuff he buys is soundtracks and easy listening, like Henry Mancini. I don’t listen to that stuff, but I buy stuff if it’s in good shape and we don’t have it I’ll buy it if I think it will sell.

Everyone who’s had any interest in music in this town over the last thirty years has an opinion on Mr. Diener. And it’s safe to say many wouldn’t write his bio with a golden pen. The truth is that Bob is no saint, no hero, but he’s also not the devil. He’s just a guy who has gotten to do what he’s always wanted to do for a long time. We could all be so lucky.

I love music so much and to be able to still discover new stuff all the time. Just the other day some guy unloaded a bunch of gospel music, and it was like discovering my soul all over again. I’ve been doing this for over thirty years. I started when I was twenty-one. To do this for as long as I have has been really nice. There’s ups and downs obviously. I don’t have a boss; I run my own show. I have fun. Every day is different. You never know what’s going to come through the door.

Look for more from our interview with Bob in an upcoming edition of our podcast. For part 2 of this story, featuring thoughts from employees, musicians and music lovers, go here.

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