Their sound system usually blasted hardcore, which matched the dress and hairstyles of the staff. That wasn't our scene, but we tolerated it to comb through the broadest selection of music around. There really was a crow's nest inside, attached to one of the thick wooden posts that supported the roof. But the store was named for owner Floyd Crow. Most of the records at Crow's Nest had two prices, a regular selling price and a discounted "3 for..." price. As compulsive collectors, we appreciated the encouragement to buy more (in fact, the store later subtitled itself "The Collector's Choice"). The more obscure our tastes became, the more we enjoyed perusing the bins, flipping through thousands of records in several genres. Eventually we got to know each other so well that we cut our flipping time in half -- each of us knew what the other was looking for.
We instinctively headed for Crow's Nest the night of the prom. The closest we came to getting lucky was lusting over the punked-out, dangerous-looking cashiers, but we could have done worse: a classmate sat at home and watched a Facts of Life reunion show. At least we were in the presence of live females, even if they had black fingernails and skeleton earrings.
My friend moved out of the state as Crow's Nest expanded to Naperville and then Aurora with CD-only stores. Although the Aurora store was half the distance, I still preferred to shop at Crest Hill for the ambiance as much as the selection. When I moved to Chicago after college, Crow's Nest followed me, opening downtown at the DePaul University campus. A few years later they opened a Lincoln Park store, but it didn't stand a chance. It was poorly located, too far west and too isolated to get the foot traffic that helps Lincoln Park stores pay the high rent. I shopped there a couple of times, but when I returned a year later it was closed.
In the meantime, the Aurora store quietly locked its doors, followed by the Naperville location. In January 1999, my best friend came to visit as my best man. We went to Crow's Nest with my brother for my "bachelor party." I bought them classic white-on-black Crow's Nest t-shirts as groomsman gifts.
Two years ago my friend returned to Chicago on business and we went to Crow's Nest downtown. After flipping through CDs for a while, I noticed the sale signs -- this location was closing, and everything was marked down. It was bittersweet; as bargain hunters we appreciated the savings, but we knew it didn't bode well for the business. I found an article saying that Crow bought out Rock Records in the Loop, but if he did, he didn't change its name. The Crow's Nest chain of five Chicagoland stores was scaled back to only Crest Hill, where it all began.
Last year when my friend came on another business trip, it was his turn for a bachelor party. Once again the three of us made a pilgrimage to Crow's Nest in Crest Hill. It was still the best record store around. And yes, the young women at the registers were still punky, although they didn't look as dangerous now that multiple piercings had become de rigueur.
Last Friday, my wife and I were driving from my parents' house to Champaign via U.S. 30 through Plainfield and Joliet. While dodging construction horses in Crest Hill, I looked across the road to see the venerable Crow's Nest. But something wasn't right. The parking lot was empty, and a sign advertised the property for sale.
"Come Dancing" isn't one of my favorite songs. Heck, it's not even one of my favorite Kinks songs. Ray Davies describes how when he was a kid, his older sister would often go dancing at the local palais (actually, he has six older sisters). Then comes the song's climax:
The day they knocked down the palais
My sister stood and cried.
The day they knocked down the palais
Part of my childhood died, just died.
I've seen a lot of record stores come and mostly go. Appletree Records in Aurora closed not long after I got my driver's license, and a few years later the DeKalb location shut its doors. The entire Rose Records chain collapsed, as did Flipside. Small chains were devoured by larger chains, and independent stores disappeared one by one. Even the mall stores where our less savvy friends shopped fell victim to consolidation.
Big box retailers have taken the high-volume business of selling the hits for less, and Internet sites offer breadth and depth that we never even dreamed of in the 1980s. As both proliferate, independent shops get squeezed more and more. They can't compete on price, and the thrill of the hunt that my friend and I relished is gone with the click of a mouse. A few years ago I was disappointed by the closure of Record Swap in Homewood, a mecca for new and used recordings where we had discovered many gems. But when I saw Crow's Nest on Friday, the sense of loss was palpable. I sent an e-mail with the real estate listing to my friend and wrote, "I feel like Ray Davies' sister."
Appendix: Crow's Nest Honor Roll
These are the artists whose music I bought at Crow's Nest on vinyl in the late 1980s. I wish I could say I remembered them all, but I had to look them up in my files. I used to fill out an index card for every record I bought, including purchase location, date, and price (I stopped keeping track with CDs).
The Beat Farmers, David Byrne, Camper Van Beethoven, the Church, Eric Clapton, Bruce Cockburn, the Cramps, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Jim Croce, Bob Dylan, Steve Earle, Melissa Etheridge, Steve Forbert, the Grass Roots, Guns N' Roses, Howlin' Wolf, Husker Du, Jethro Tull, Louis Jordan, Love, James McMurtry, Steve Miller Band, Bob Mould, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Pink Floyd, Chris Rea, Lou Reed, the Reivers, Jimmy Rogers, Skid Roper and the Whirlin' Spurs, Rush, the Smithereens, Soul Asylum, Talking Heads, George Thorogood and the Destroyers, Big Joe Turner, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble, Tom Waits, Joe Walsh, the Who, Webb Wilder, Link Wray, X, Neil Young, Warren Zevon, and the Zombies.