Like My Rolling Stones: A Tribute to a Great Record Store (But NOT a Eulogy!)
I was lucky enough as a young kid to live in close proximity to a well-known record store. Rolling Stones Records, admittedly not the most original name, was a short bike ride from my boyhood home. Located in Norridge, an adjoining suburb of Chicago, Rolling Stones was a Petri dish of adolescent rebellion, sexuality, and bacteria in its heyday. On weekend nights, you could barely crack the door of the place it was so packed. It was a place for everyone—burnouts, nerds, geeks, jocks, rockers, headbangers, hipsters, outcasts, and whatever I was at the time (a hybrid, I think). There were plenty of adult customers I’m sure (too old to rock and roll, too young to die), but when you’re a kid they’re pretty much invisible so they don't occupy my memories. The store’s façade was covered with cutouts of rock superstars old and new, a retail version of the Sgt. Pepper’s cover. Inside, it was a carnival funhouse—it’s no wonder I was so intoxicated by it—and I never wanted to find the exit. Perhaps due to issues only self-diagnosed decades later, it seemed like the place moved at double speed when I was in there. Overstimulation is an understatement—the flurry of activity and barrage of stimuli took some getting used to. All I know is that my heart raced whenever I approached the front door. The thrill of discovery, still my compulsion decades later, was a fresh sensation then. And there was no getting enough of it. I was there at every opportunity. Even the most minor financial windfall resulted in a record or two.
I was double-lucky to have come of age during Rolling Stones’ glory days, which in my estimation was between 1975 and 1995 give or take a few years. The store was a Mecca for sex, drugs, and rock & roll during that period. Anything was possible at Rolling Stones. Behind the glass counter, pipes and bongs beckoned (eventually phased out, I presume, from external pressures). Behind the bongs (which would be a great name for a stoner rock documentary), counter girls in tight t-shirts reluctantly waited to ring up your lame purchases. These girls had snagged the ultimate high school job and they knew it. They looked exotic in their surroundings, exuding a blasé sexuality that rendered me a virtual mute during each and every transaction. They barely registered my presence (no matter how many records I bought or what type) but I secretly yearned for their approval (would an acknowledgement of my good taste be too much to ask?). The store was so popular they needed a bouncer to man the door and, at one time, even had a DJ booth. All records were played at punishing volume, much to our delight, only adding to the commotion. Even at a very young age, it didn’t take long for me to realize I’d found my spiritual home—even if I couldn’t relate to the myriad inhabitants of this jungle, I could at least relate to the music that was their soundtrack.
We used to call the place the “The Stoner” back then, likely in a futile attempt to sound cool. Upon entering, there were records as far as the eye could see. What I loved most about the place was that the more you went there, the more you mastered its nuances. Sometimes the same record would be randomly and intentionally marked lower than the rest of the stock (one $4.99, the rest $7.99, for example). They wanted you to score! They wanted you to search for buried treasure! They were your audio wingmen, luring you in with the thought of getting lucky! It was even telegraphed by their slogan: “The secret to finding a great bargain is knowing where to look!” And you’d be shocked at how much time I spent doing exactly that. The pursuit was as thrilling to me as a lion stalking a gazelle across the Serengeti Plain.
And I wasn’t alone in that pursuit, not by a long shot. Rolling Stones sold a shit-ton of records back in the day. I imagine Led Zeppelin IV and Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon could’ve been certified platinum based on sales at this one location alone—and I’m not
even sure if I’m joking. I would also challenge any record store that thinks they have sold more Iron Maiden records than Rolling Stones to a duel. I didn’t even know there was an “I” section at Rolling Stones for about two years it was so hard to reach such prime rack estate—it was more a myth to me than a reality. To this day, I bet an alarm goes off if the stock of The Number of the Beast dips below triple digits. I vaguely remember the store being presented with a trophy almost as big as the Stanley Cup to reward them for their part in making the record a success. If you were a metal head, Rolling Stones was heaven and hell in one convenient location. I would love to see their inventory logs from the glory days. I can’t even imagine.
Suffice it to say, almost every life-changing record I bought from 1975 until about 1987 was sourced from these teeming racks of rock and roll history. For the first 10-12 years it was exclusively vinyl, a very rare cassette here and there, and then a ridiculous number of CDs once “the conversion” was off and running. One day recently, a friend and I were strolling into the store and we speculated as to how much money we’d spent there over the years (he also suffering from the same addiction). He responded, without any trace of shame or remorse, “Maybe $20,000.” That stopped me in my tracks. Could that possibly be? (And that was his personal total, too, not our combined haul!) Later, I did the math (you knew I would). It made sense, between vinyl and CDs, at a weighted average of 9.99 per, that’s about 2,000 records purchased. Suddenly, the number seemed almost conservative. How could you not love a place that has “given” you so many gifts that are still supplying thrills more than three decades later? (Well most of them, anyway.) Rolling Stones will always be sacred ground for me, no matter what happens to physical product. It was my second home when I needed one and it changed my life for the better. Which is why I mourn the demise of any record store and cherish the ones still in existence. Each closed store likely “belonged” to many people just like me and every store that stays vital could play that role for someone else someday. We’ll likely never get back to anything remotely resembling the glory days, but having a place to commune with music, where likeminded people congregate, has never been more important. Not every store has to have “legendary” status like my beloved Rolling Stones, it just has to stay open and survive.
Postscript: Yes, Rolling Stones is still there. I return every once in a while even though I’ve moved about an hour away. It still looks pretty cool outside and in, but it won’t be the same experience ever again. Like an abandoned amusement park on the Jersey Shore, you can imagine its glory years, but you don’t have to look too closely to see that it’s wounded beyond repair. People still mill around the store, but there’s no bustle in the hedgerow anymore. They’re surviving, thankfully, but the energy is gone for the most part (the last purchase I made there was rung up by some geezer in his 60s). They still do a helluva job stocking the racks with new and old records of all varieties and if there are enough loyal customers out there they just might make it. Oddly, Rolling Stones is one of the few stores left that focus primarily on CDs and stocks only a couple rows of vinyl. Perhaps that’s due to the continued support of the steadfast and enduring heavy metal community, which still seems to buy CDs. I certainly hope they know what they’re doing by not diving head first into the vinyl revolution. I also pray they survive long enough for record stores to come back full-throttle (an irrational pipedream, I know). Until then, I wish every young kid could understand the tactile experience that made the store magical for me way back in the 70s and 80s. Rolling Stones needs to survive forever and as long as there are new Iron Maiden fans, they might do just that. Much love from The Pickled "Judas" Priest!
Tina Turner danced out of the way just in time! (It's going to take more than this to take down the almighty Stoner!)