Smile Politely

The Curator: Bob Diener’s Record Swap

Cristy: I like to hear music store owners’ viewpoints. It’s a window into how they run their businesses. This is how I came to comprehend how Bob Diener runs Record Swap. “I don’t consider ‘new’ music the end-all, be-all,” he remarked. At first I thought it was the typical cranky declaration of an older music fan, but as he continued, I understood what he meant. “Anything can be ‘new.’ It doesn’t matter if it’s 30 years old or 30 days old. If it’s new to you, it’s exciting — a brand-new discovery.” And that’s what Record Swap is: full of new discoveries.

William: It’s a great place to browse, an immense and well-organized museum of records. Arguments about the merits of CDs vs. LPs get tedious, but let me offer just one thought. Whenever I find myself trying to explain the Beatles, for example, to my friends from Croatia, or XTC to Cristy, I pull down the records to show. It wouldn’t occur to me to show CDs. This is not just because the LPs have more striking cover art, but because when the world first felt the explosions of those Beatles albums or the nudge of those XTC albums, the LP was the form in which those artifacts entered the culture.

C: I asked Bob what he thought about the current state of music. “People now,” he said, “listen to music as they multi-task. They’re on the computer, surfing the web or playing games; they’re exercising; they’re working. They don’t have the time to listen to an entire record. As a result, the album doesn’t have the same impact as it did. Something’s lost. Used to be, you’d buy a record, take it home, and listen to it over and over and over because they’re wasn’t anything else to do!” Bob laughed. “You’d buy an album because the cover looked cool. Even if you didn’t like the music much, you’d still play the record until it was worn out. I learned to respect bands like Mahavishnu Orchestra that way.

“In 1980, in Champaign-Urbana, there was limited entertainment: no VHS movies, much less DVDs; no cable TV, and regular TV ended at 11:30 p.m. or went religious; no computers; and no video games except at the arcades. We spent a lot more time listening to music as a main event. It’s odd, but now rock music is much more out there – for example, it has replaced muzak in the stores and it plays a much bigger role in movies, TV shows and commercials ([and video games)]. But in my opinion there are fewer times that people give 100 percent of their attention to what they are playing. I’m guilty of that myself because most of my listening is done at the store.”

W: Record Swap goes way back. If the store seems anachronistic, don’t underestimate the extent to which independent rock culture here owes a debt to the institution of Record Swap. For more than a decade, it was the place in town to discover alternative rock.

The first Record Swap was opened in Chicago Heights in 1977 by Bob and his brother, who were raised in Washington D.C. They opened Record Swaps in five cities in Illinois and Indiana.

C: Wow. I had no idea there was more than one. It doesn’t have a chain-store vibe, like Musicland, or even more “indie” record shops such as Appletree. Record Swap seems like one store, one guy’s labor of vinyl love. It reminds me of Val’s Halla in Oak Park: dusty, musty, crusty and full of treasure.

W: So it is. When the C-U branch opened in 1979, it became the central hub and the other stores soon closed. It opened in a location near Fifth and Green streets (currently a tattoo parlor) but flooding caused by the nearby Boneyard Creek was an ongoing concern. In 1981, the shop moved to the second floor of the 600 block of Green Street, approximately above Murphy’s. For 18 years, Swap stayed in that location, a cornerstone of the then culturally-thriving University of Illinois campus.

“Campustown was a mecca attracting people from hundreds of miles around,” Bob reminisced. “It was like American Graffiti, with kids in jalopies circling the block and flyboys coming in for the weekends.”

At that time, there was a unique chemistry between Bob, who is especially fond of reggae and African music, and one of many great employees he has had, the notorious “Charlie the Quaker,” who was obsessed with underground rock during the 1980s when independent music labels were blossoming. Bob and Charlie took turns playing music in the store and the result was “like a Bad Brains concert,” with soothing reggae interspersed with abrasive hardcore.

Bob said that once in 1985, a customer walked in and slapped a dollar on the counter, saying “that’s for being the only record store in town not playing Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band Live.”

When, as a high school student, I walked up that long stairwell coated with graffiti and flyers — a sort of anarchist kiosk for local acts and interests — I knew I was entering someplace important. Record Swap was filled with cats, intriguing VHS tapes, hand-decorated tabs for bands, a new arrivals section worth flipping through every week, stickers on favored records to give the Quaker’s reviews of obscure new independent rock (pointing me to Savage Republic, Scratch Acid, Snakefinger and then-obscure bands called Sonic Youth and Nirvana), T-shirts, buttons, stickers, walls plastered with colorful posters, album flats and more or less the complete catalog of any worthy band. Innumerable local rock stars put in hours behind its counter. I personally owe the store my rock education.

Talking to Bob, I learned that the fatal blow to the independent rock scene and the old Record Swap may have come from the advent of CDs — underground labels could not mobilize to embrace the new technology, so established commercial rock dominated the new format. When people came to Record Swap to buy CDs, the selection was limited to stuff like, well, Bruce Springsteen, which was not the store’s specialty. By 1999, the year Record Swap left campus, students were browsing the store — not to shop — but to write down music to download in their dorm rooms.

C: I don’t really see Record Swap as a “hub” now, especially for recent underground music. It seems to be more of a vintage store. I don’t go to Record Swap to buy new stuff. I consider it a surprising trove of older music that I’d like to learn more about. Berlin, the Fixx, the Smiths, the Damned — Record Swap is perfect for that. It’s even better for discovering bands whose records haven’t seen the light of day since 1975. Cases in point: Lucifer’s Friend — a creepy little German band, and Starcastle — Illinois’ answer to Yes.

W: To his credit, Bob is aware that Parasol does a fair job of stocking new releases by underground bands, and does not wish to duplicate their efforts. Still, to me, Record Swap’s current incarnation on University Avenue near First Street is not a throwback so much as a testament to its tenacity. Its sister store, Record Service, which for years was right across Green Street (and did sell Bruce Springsteen) died and was reincarnated as an ugly apartment building. The list of record stores that have come and gone in this town is — while Swap has hung on — would fill pages. Swap might not have the Radiohead CD you want, but once inside the store, you have stepped into a time tunnel.

And one last note: in interviewing downstate record store owners, we heard that Bob is sitting on a basement full of great stuffalbums, a rumor Bob has corroborated. Expect Swap to continue to have an influx of great vintage vinyl for years to come.

Music store strengths: alphabetization, record storage not requiring spelunking gear to browse (and a whole floor of $1 LPs—bring your kneepads).

Music store weaknesses: new arrival CDs, new vinyl

(Astute readers will note that, according to our ratings system, Exile on Main Street and Record Swap are perfect complements — we in the stereo cities are so lucky to have the bases, covered)

What we bought (used vinyl):

Happy Flowers, Oof
The Smiths, Hatful of Hollow
Ralph Records’ Frank Johnson’s Greatest Hits

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