Albums on the Hill is the last independent music store

P.J. Nutting | Boulder Weekly

Take a trip to Albums on the Hill before it’s too late.

Go there before it succumbs to the inevitable fate of the record industry, before it turns into a pizza place, into a sandwich place, into a novelty store and suddenly you can’t recall how it felt to hold music in your hands.

Go there before you forget the warmth of culture blanketing all five of your senses, before you forget the look of a grimy basement saturated in Americana and the sour scent of liner notes, the feel of plastic cases clacking under the stroke of your hand and the bittersweet taste of elitism. Go before you forget the pain of opening shrink-wrap, because one day, it too may disappear forever.

Go to Albums on the Hill if only to meet Andy Schneidkraut, the captain going down with the ship. He has owned Albums for 22 years, fondly remembers the foreign concept of midnight releases, and has watched Albums shift from a cultural staple to the only independent record store, and now to the only dedicated record store in town.

Though Bart’s CD Cellar across town, which closed Feb. 14, had the same indie vibe, it was sold to Value Music Concepts (based in Georgia) in 2006 and left Schneidkraut alone on a professional desert island. “Bart’s was doing significantly better than my store,” he said. “But the (record) business is so troubled. The death of Bart’s might be a lifesaver, but I’m not optimistic.”

So far, Albums has only inherited a flood of people looking to sell used CDs, for which Schneidkraut can only offer a dollar or so. With hardly anyone in the market for CDs, he advises one customer over the phone to take his collection to Arc Thrift Stores for the tax rebate rather than the meager sum Albums could pay.

Optimistically, Bart’s former clientele of north-Boulder residents and Pearl Street shoppers may help Albums to offset the younger, tech-savvy Hill residents who fill the neighborhood. “They have trouble understanding the value of an mp3,” Schneidkraut said of the former, explaining that small things like artwork, liner notes, and artist thank-yous are necessary creature comforts to many older customers. The new concept of only buying sound is an artistic bastardization in comparison, but the iGeneration has no trouble accepting it.

The Internet has been helpful through venues such as Amazon, but working online leaves Schneidkraut feeling unsatisfied. “My job has become data entry and shipping work,” he said. “It’s not the same as talking to people about music; it’s not the same.”

“Knowledge coupled with a love of music — that’s what I really offer,” he said.

There’s a feeling one gets inside a genuine record store, the same one that swells in your heart when you walk into someone’s home. Inside Albums, it feels less like Schneidkraut is slinging merchandise and more like he is warehousing his personal collections. You can see the autographed headshots on the wall, signed for him, and it’s easy to imagine you are in his teenage bedroom (one of Chuck Pyle reads: “To Andy: life may be short, but it’s wide. Keep’er steady!”). You listen to the music he puts on and hear his surprisingly intonated sing-along, and suddenly you are transported to his living room. You see the piles of music left unshelved and fail to see the difference between this and his desk at home.

“With online singles, the opportunity for a real musical relationship is not there. It’s like being friends with benefits,” Schneidkraut says with a condescending laugh. “Now there’s a term we didn’t have when I was growing up.”

“Emoticons can’t replicate the look in someone’s eye when they’re talking about something they love,” he said. “On the Internet, enthusiasm can be dishonest, and this is a generation of insincerity, where I may feel you aren’t important enough to ignore my cell phone.”

He answers an imaginary phone call. “I’d rather talk to the kid in the back with the King Crimson record,” he says smiling, pointing to a grungy vinyl collector in the back of the store.

“What do you mean, ‘Kid with the King Crimson record’? What are you saying?” the customer nervously laughs, gripping his prize with white knuckles.

It goes deeper than corporate products here; it’s about cultural literacy, about understanding what it means to be a kid holding a King Crimson record, or to ask for a Jaco Pastorius double set, or a Joy Division b-side, or even to be the girls who now enter the store asking for T-Pain. Schneidkraut gives them their album with a smile (“I hate that dick-swinging crap,” he’ll say later).

Schneidkraut is working the counter on a lazy Sunday when a girl named Shannon greets him by name. “Hi Andy,” she says as she bounces in the door and quickly tosses together a random stack of eight or ten CD’s: the two on top are Sweatshop Union and Metallica.

Schneidkraut laughs as he rings up the motley collection.

“Have you ever heard of Adele?” he asks in a polite tone. “She’s cancelled two shows at the Fox, so she kinda pissed me off, but she has a beautiful voice.” Shannon hasn’t, so the two discuss the new British invasion of female vocalists and Schneidkraut produces an Adele limited album with an extra live disc.
“Have you ever heard of Mirah?” a young employee timidly offers. The suggestion bounces; both Shannon and Schneidkraut shake their heads: “No, that’s a little indie for her,” he says with sage understanding, “she likes a little more rock in it.” Shannon acknowledges this with a smile and leaves the same way she came.

A customer in a shredded black t-shirt descends into the store and asks if they have anything by The Haunted. “A metal band,” recites Schneidkraut as he shuffles through a pile of jazz on the counter. “They just put out a new one. Which title were you looking for?” He asks for Versus, which is not on iTunes and not in Albums, either. Schneidkraut places a special order for the guy and takes his phone number.
“I like metal, actually,” he admits later. “The technical skills that go into it, the dynamics, the power!”
“I’m not really into the vocals though,” he adds, “I’m not that big into the whole Cookie Monster, vocals-from-beyond kind of thing.” The young employee, the only other person in the store, shows a lost expression that hints he doesn’t listen to a lot of metal.

Schneidkraut stares at him for a quiet moment, then rumbles “Coooookiiieee!!!” through the silence of the empty store. The young employee gets it now.

“Every style has artists with merit,” he tells him with a laugh. “But lyrical content that’s like 13-year-old boys sitting around a campfire trying to gross each other out, that’s obviously not for me.

“I’m trying to do something I love and make it viable — which is becoming harder to do as we become a museum,” Schneidkraut says with a twinge of calloused pain.

Albums has not become a museum because people are listening to less music  — it’s the process of buying music that has turned people like Schneidkraut into tour guides. But people like Schneidkraut are the exact reason that real record stores are not stores at all. Shopping at one is not like buying groceries at a supermarket, not like manhandling produce and despondently choosing your cereal for the month.
No, at a record store, you go to be a real human being: to chat and to loiter and to discuss and to interact, to learn something new and pick up awful stuff you’d never buy simply to see if the employees will talk you out of it. Try getting that courtesy from iTunes.