The late ’90s and early aughts were a different time. You had to be at home to receive a phone call. Climate change was merely a minor concern instead of an enormous existential threat. Gonorrhea was easily treatable with antibiotics. And Top 40 music was actually a lot worse than it is now, no matter what you may think. (No, really – I’d take Ariana Grande, Drake and Lil Nas X over Matchbox 20, Puff Daddy and “Smooth” any damn day of the week.)
Another difference is that people bought music on shiny discs at stores built from some combination of brick and mortar. And so it was that I, a lonely, depressed, autistic teenager, made my weekly-or-more pilgrimages to the local music store (which also sold books, for some reason), A&B Sound. With a little bit of allowance and nothing better to do, I would wander over from my mom’s apartment to purchase bargain classical CDs, along with a little bit of hip-hop, and clearance Penguin Classics books. The combination of Shostakovich and Sophocles did wonders for my painfully cultivated self-image as a young intellectual who didn’t have many friends because I was, like, totally too deep for people. But more than that, it gave me an improbable feeling of community.
With the trauma of my parents’ fresh separation, going to a different school from my friends and almost getting expelled, and the overall toxic brew of autism, isolation and teenage hormones, I badly needed something to hold onto. Partly I found that through retail therapy – stretching out my allowance money to accumulate almost a thousand CDs, some of which I never listened to, and hundreds of books, the vast majority of which I never read. In retrospect, it was not an ideal method for filling the great black emptiness of my soul, speaking economically, environmentally, or psychospiritually. But the ragtag assortment of regular staff I interacted with during my visits made me feel, however loosely, like a member of my family. Here are the ones I remember:
Trucker Hat Man (Kevin?): Kevin was the store manager, and seemed to hold an attitude of low-key benevolence toward me. I know this because he gave me access to the coveted employee/friends and family discount, which gave me 20% off on regular-priced merchandise. He was super chilled out, he liked to wear a trucker hat, he sorta reminded me of Harry Dean Stanton, and he gave me discount privileges – This is the distillation of Trucker Hat Man Kevin as a human being.
Hot Girl (Karen): Karen the cashier was one of those girls who could make a self-loathing autistic teenager feel better about himself with nothing more than a smile. The secret, I think, was that she was super hot and, like, super blond; but more than that, she just radiated kindness and acceptance, even toward lower non-hot life forms such as myself.
Hot Guy (Rob): Like Karen, Rob was young, hot and blond. Unlike Karen, Rob was kind of a dick. Having been an insecure teenager, I realize my attitude toward him may have been negatively affected by his hotness to the same extent that my attitude toward Karen was positively affected by her hotness, but no, I think he was really an aloof dick. Oh, and there was the time that I somehow (temporarily?) lost my discount privileges, and he coldly reminded me that the discount was a privilege, and not a right. I’m not sure if that proves he was a dick, or just proves that my bias against him was based on insecurity and self-interests. Either way, being that he was totally hot and worked next to hot Karen, I really hope they never hooked up.
Verity: Whereas Karen was hot in a bubbly blond kind of way, Verity was beautiful in that bookish, waifish brunette kind of way. She did some sort of indeterminate work out on the sales floor, existing in the amorphous realm of the non-cashier/non-trucker-hat contingent. Possibly a Manic Pixie Dream Girl before it was a thing, Verity bravely paved the way for Zooey Deschanel and her ilk. And, I was utterly enthralled by her beauty and laid back affability.
Verity’s Male Counterpart: VMC was usually seen within close proximity of Verity, possibly because they had similar non-trucker-hat job roles, and possibly because Verity was a Goddess Incarnate. Aside from the prime Verity access afforded by his company, I’m pretty sure he was actually cool as shit. I can’t remember much else about him – like, say, for example, his name – possibly because I have atrocious memory and possibly because I wasn’t in love with him.
Raver Drug Guy: A jittery, bug-eyed fellow in his late 20s or early 30s, Drug Guy seemed to spend his working days waiting for the weekend raves and “treats”. I was quite naive at the time, but in retrospect I wonder if he was often on something at work, or if he had consumed such vast quantities of “treats” that his mental state was permanently impacted. Mostly I had no interest in talking to him about EDM or, as it was known back in the heady days of the early aughts, “electronica”.
Snobby Jazz Guy (Vadim): The jazz and classical CDs were located in a separate room from everything else, so as to not have their rarefied air polluted by the merely popular. Vadim had to heroically bear the brunt of my autistic classical music obsession. He knew enough about to at least politely disagree with me about which composers sucked ass, but he was also a jazz musician, and I understood that jazz was his true passion. And, I remember he wasn’t too fond of Robert Schumann – poor guy, first he went mad from syphilis in the 1850s, and then 140 years later he has to endure the approbation of an A&B Sound employee. (But, in case you’re wondering how Vadim measured up in my assessment of every A&B Sound employee, I guess I’d have to say he was actually pretty cool.)
These reminiscences probably reveal more about me than they do about the individuals being reminisced upon. I can only hope that whatever shallowness they reveal was only the shallowness of a 17-year-old fuckup, rather than the more nuanced and thoughtful shallowness of a [insert my current age here]-year-old fuckup.
None of the A&B Sound Gang actually seemed interested in spending any time with me outside of working hours. Somehow, they were able to resist the considerable allure of an anxious young classical music enthusiast with a penchant for wearing heavy coats in the summer, like a sort of young Glenn Gould without any musical ability. And yet, with very few exceptions (coughRobcough), they all made me feel accepted, and they transformed A&B Sound into a safe space for me. They certainly didn’t have to – I doubt the $2 books and $5 classical CDs with a 20% discount were doing much to pad their profit margins, and I’m sure that I occasionally weirded out other, potentially more free-spending customers. And yet, for whatever reason, they always made me feel like I was welcome in their store, even when so many other public spaces not-so-subtly made me feel like an autistic freak.
Over time, many of the old A&B staff moved on, and I began to find meaning in volunteer work instead of in chatting up music store employees. Soon enough, A&B had lost its pivotal place in my life. One of my last memories of A&B was talking to Manly Trucker Man Kevin about the recent purchase of the chain by Seanix, a Canadian computing company. “Don’t worry, the old A&B is gonna be around for a long time,” he wistfully declared. Shortly afterward, A&B Sound went completely out of business, and indeed ceased to be around. Is it because their trucker hat-wearing store managers were dispensing friends-and-family discounts a little too freely? Well, I’d say it was about 49% my personal fault, and 51% the fault of poor management and changing economics in the retail industry.
Although it’s now the year 2019, my office is a laptop, and Spotify Premium is practically my only source of music, I’m still skittish about ordering any physical products over the Internet. Somehow, I still feel the need to see and touch something before I’m ready to hand over (electronic, card-based) money for it. But beyond my jitters over buying something I can’t touch, I can’t help but mourn for what we’ve lost with the decline of brick and mortar detail, and especially of independent and local businesses with regular staff, regular customers, and some sort of discernible personality. A&B Sound may not have been any substitute for the mental health care that I was fortunate to have been receiving concurrently (possible future blog post: My Hot Psychologist), but I think the A&B Gang did their share to stop me from spiraling into a non-fun form of madness during an incredibly difficult period of my life. And so, Trucker Hat Man Kevin, Hot Girl Karen, Verity, VMC and Vadim, thank you all for being [cool/uncool]. And Raver Drug Guy, I’m kinda neutral about you, but I hope you got all the “treats” you ever wanted. And Rob, I forgive you, because I can only imagine how hard it must be to be young, hot, male, and not a dick.