Monday, July 17, 2006

Requiem for a Record Store

I suppose I visited Crow's Nest Records & Tapes in Crest Hill before I could drive. But it was after I got my license that the store became legendary, indelible in my mind. My best friend and I were both record fanatics -- I'm talking about vinyl -- and Crow's Nest was our favorite local store. Although we went to Rose Records more often (and bought more there since they had an extensive bargain bin, especially when the major labels were liquidating LPs as CDs came to the fore), going to Crow's Nest was always something special, the sort of trip we saved for a Saturday night.

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.

14 comments:

Samantha said...

I really miss the store, too. I enjoyed going there with my husband and I also found the CD I wanted that had the ORIGINAL cover and not the edited one. It was Scorpions' "Lovedrive". One of my fave CDs of all time.

Anonymous said...

This store goes way back for me. Floyd was my brothers best friend and as a little girl I had gone in there with my brother many many times. Seems he worked there with Floyd forever. Then we moved out of state and hadn't been back since. So sad, an era has died.

Anonymous said...

Funny, I ran across this while searching for information on some old paraphanalia I own. I'm sure you've all heard of a 'dugout', a small wooden box that you fill with 'tobacco' and a small, metal pipe, often called a 'bat' or 'hitter'.
This particular one has a prominent gold medallion on the front stating that it is a 5th anniversary dugout.
I have since then come to find that this was PATENTED by Floyd Crow (Owner of the Crow's Nest)in 1980.
The most ironic part, however, is that I frequented this very store throughout my teenage years and had no idea. Thank you Floyd, and The Crow's Nest will be sadly missed.

David Johnsen said...

That doesn't surprise me, although I never saw anything there. Did you ever go to Blue Skies Records and Tapes in Naperville? I think they had a head shop upstairs. IIRC, they got busted in the early-mid 1990s.

Anonymous said...

I recall buying that specific dugout at another favorite South Suburban haunt of mine called 'Trendsetter' in Harvey, always in the news and controversial. Hi Lenny ;)

Matt Wardlaw said...

Just went home to Chicago for the weekend, and discovered that Crow's Nest is no more. SO bummed. This entry was quite a flashback for me. Rose Records, Flipside, I went to 'em all....but Crow's Nest in Crest Hill was the best of them all. I last went to Crow's Nest about 4 years ago. Wish I would have gotten a t-shirt. It appears that Toad Hall in Rockford lives on.....I need to go visit.

Anonymous said...

I grew up in Crest Hill in the 1970's, Crow's Nest was such constant in my long term memory. I moved away in 1982 but came back for a visit. Crow's Nest was a destination I had to go back to. I slowly drove up to the place not knowing if I would still recognize it. I found it had been closed for years and the sign was even damaged. I felt that time had marched on and we were now in a new era. Then I reminisced to the first video I had ever seen on a new medium called "Cable TV". The new network was called MTV and video was called, "Video Killed the Radio Star". The song is an nostalgic look at radio and how it has changed. I replaced "Video" with MP3 and IPOD. The lyrics seemed more poignant then they ever had.

"I heard you on the wireless back in Fifty Two
Lying awake intent at tuning in on you.
If I was young it didn't stop you coming through.

They took the credit for your second symphony.
Rewritten by machine and new technology,
and now I understand the problems you can see.

I met your children

What did you tell them?
Video killed the radio star.
Video killed the radio star.

Pictures came and broke your heart.

And now we meet in an abandoned studio.
We hear the playback and it seems so long ago.
And you remember the jingles used to go.

You were the first one.

You were the last one.

Video killed the radio star.
Video killed the radio star.
In my mind and in my car, we can't rewind we've gone to far

Video killed the radio star.
Video killed the radio star.

In my mind and in my car, we can't rewind we've gone to far.
Pictures came and broke your heart, put the blame on VTR."

Anonymous said...

I only ventured out to the Crows Nest a few times in the early to mid 90s, searching for metal imports and singles. I remember seeing their extensive line of metal t-shirts, and drooling... Unfortunately, it is a new era, and record browsing is a lost art. While I love being able to easily find b-sides and obscure imports with zero effort, it does not come with that sense of accomplishment from getting a Japanese CD with that ellusive bonus track.

Also, they had a lot of very cool, autograohed memoribilia.... whatever happend to it?

Anonymous said...

I bought my first album at Crow’s Nest. It was Everybody Knows this is Nowhere. But at that time the store was the location in the Hill Crest Shopping Center. I think he had a partner then and one or the other of them would make frequent runs to their distributor for out of stock albums. The head supplies were at a small counter in an alcove at the back of the store. One might have been able to purchase SteamRoller there! Or even a sweet bong made from a St. Pauli Girl bottle. Did Floyd REALLY invent and patent the DugOut?

Anonymous said...

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this details from you.

yyasken said...

Nice article. Crow's Nest started in Hillcrest Shopping Center, moving to the location on Plainfield Road (pictured) in Nov 1979. Floyd invented the dugout and patented it, and sold it thru Crow's Nest and also to other companies for many years. Some pictures at: http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.2317487062335.2137294.1404261324&type=3&l=dc452102cb

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Anonymous said...

I remember going there in the 90's to buy heavy metal cd's. Metal was almost consumed by grunge at this time and looked as thought it would die. Crow's Nest had an employee at the time named Neil. I think this guy was single handedly keeping metal alive. He knew absolutely everything about the genre! He was the nicest guy and would actually call me to let me know when some obscure metal album was to be released by a European label on cd. Later I learned that he went on to international fame with a syndicated heavy metal radio show.

Anonymous said...

I used to walk to Crow's Nest when it was in a little storefront in the
Hillcrest Shopping Center. If you got into the store early, you could order from the paper catalog and your vinyl would be in the store by the late afternoon. They had fully stocked head shop in the back.