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Second Set: Rewinding days of Wax and Vinyl

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 13, 2012 - On Monday afternoon, I walked down to Euclid Records during the middle of my Mass Communications class. It was an intentional move, as I met my 24 students there, only a few of whom had ever been to Euclid before. The idea was to bring alive the differences in buying physical media (say, records) and securing music from online sources, often done without paying for it. What better place to have that conversation that at one of St. Louis longest-running, most-respected record stores?

At Euclid, manager Steve Pick ran through the various changes that have rocked the industry in the three-decades of Euclid’s life, split between runs in the Central West End and Webster Groves. Record albums were challenged by tapes, CDs and mp3s. Buying habits adapted with each addition to the playbook. Big box stores were the heaviest competitors to the health of record stores for a time, only to be replaced by digital stores and sharing systems, from Napster and Rhapsody to iTunes and Spotify.

Heck, you can build a decent music collection with a laptop and a library card. So who needs record stores? This was the question presented on Monday, and a few days from today, I’ll find out what the 18-23 year old set feels the answer(s) might be.

But one thing that Pick mentioned really resonated: plenty of neighborhoods and small towns used to have their own record stores, just as they’d have a hardware shop or bakery. Pick says when he began in the business, there were at least 20 in operation, probably more. These days, we see mostly attrition, with Webster Records the latest local shop to cease operations.

West End Wax was a must-go when out on the record rounds of the 1980s and ‘90s. (Despite talking to several of the principals in the store’s run, no one had exact dates for the shop’s open and close.) Each store had its own twist, its own vibe and its own stories.

I met up with two longtime West End Wax employees, at the CWE’s Llywellyn’s, just around the corner from the old West End Wax storefront on Euclid. Darren Snow also did time at Euclid Records and Vintage Vinyl, has been a KDHX DJ for many years and currently spins records every weekend at the Cabin Inn. Sheila Mikles was the kid sister of WEW manager Debby Mikles and shared a band with her, The Misses, who enjoyed a seven-year run.

They might be without exact dates, but stories? Those they’ve got.

The Wild West (End)

The tales of cities can be told in chapters, split by the artificialities of time or through the organization of major events. The story of cities can also be found in more ephemeral moments, smaller, less-specific passings of time. For example, a couple of decades back, studio-released motion pictures were being shot here with regularity, films like “American Flyers,” “Escape from New York,” “The Big Brass Ring,” “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” and, relevant to our story, “White Palace.” For a time, it seemed that St. Louis was destined to become a Hollywood, a hub for Midwestern-theme settings.

Adapted from Glenn Savan’s book of the same name, “White Palace,” was set in St. Louis, making this the perfect fit for location shooting. Sheila Mikles remembers that “everyone in town was trying to get cast as extras,” but she and Debby didn’t make the list. Still, things worked out, since part of Euclid was shut down for filming and members of the cast and crew regularly visited West End Wax during down times.

The male lead of the film, James Spader, briefly became one of the store’s regulars. As Mikles remembers him, “Always bought reggae cassettes.” Eventually, they used Spader’s credit card slips as part of a shrine built to the actor inside the shop. Because the Chase Park Plaza was bringing in major stars for hotel stays, a few of them wandered through; but the main “celebrity” shoppers were often well-known locals, like newscaster Robin Smith and sportscaster Gary Apple.

Bands also made routine passes through the store, though the small footprint didn’t make it a great place to have in-store concerts. But signings were held and bands simply knew to come by before gigs, for their own shopping pleasure. And, as Mikles and Snow remember it, at least two groups had members stopped by the shoplifting device, which still brings a laugh from each.

But a mild sense of chaos runs through their stories, too. Snow talks about racing down the block, chasing down a shoplifter, only to see cops roll up as the two, semi-comically circled a light-post. Mikles remembers leaving the store on many evenings in the company of a regular who lived nearby; her protector on those evenings was later imprisoned for rape and murder. And writer/DJ/record store mainstay Tony Renner has written about a wild scene on the block in his own no-holds-barred look back at West End Wax, in which he describes running down Euclid after a shoplifter, while owner Pat Tentschert unloaded several shots at the intruder, the bullets whistling by the pursuing Renner’s head.

If these notes indicate that Euclid had something of a wild feel a couple decades back, that’d be fair. There was a little more street action and that did weigh on the minds of employees, especially at close.

But mostly there was fun.

“We were all pretty good kids,” Snow says. “What were we doing in the record business?”

Good times in stereo

If you’ve ever worked at a record store - my own time was spent over a year’s period, at both the main Euclid Records in the West End and at the affiliated Vinyl Shack in Webster Groves - you know that getting your songs onto the house PA was about as important a move as you’ll make all day. The music sets the tone for the mood and feel of the shop, more than anything else you can do. Share time with an employee who has radically different taste and you are looking at 40 minutes of hell until your next opportunity to program music. Mikles remembers a time period when she was overdoing 2 Live Crew, to the point of upsetting co-workers; though that tape, and others, also made for great, clear-the-house music at the closing time.

“With some people,” Snow admits, “you’d be excited to hear what they’d be playing.” And everyone who passed through as a worker there - the Mikleses, Renner, Snow, Buddy Archie, Lori Blue, Ann Holter, Jennifer Flores, Steve Berg, John Corcoran, Alan Grosenheider - had their own takes on what sound good. And what sounded good loud.

Mikles’ funniest story involved when she and co-worker Dennis Yawitz decided to see how loud the house stereo could be played. Yawitz ran down the block, as Mikles dialed up Guns n’ Roses landmark debut, “Appetite for Destruction.” Eventually, Mikles admits, “I might’ve left the store, too. We were both down the block.” At least until the amp blew. The party was over for that day; and, eventually, Mikles and Yawitz weren’t allowed on the same shifts. Too much fun.

Snow remembers that the store’s look lent itself to a bit of a party vibe.

“It was really colorful,” he says. “Lots of maroon and turquoise. It was a lot more fun than Euclid down the block. It’s a record store, man, it’s supposed to look fun! We had huge subway-size posters on the walls and lots of stuff hanging from the ceiling. At least we did, until we got a security system and the air conditioning blew all the stuff around, setting off the motion detectors.”

During down times, Snow worked as the in-house artist, just as he did later at Euclid. He’d make small, crazy displays for the store, with his co-workers frequently cast as cartoon characters.

While customers might’ve been open to suggestions, they also knew what they wanted. A couple of groups of shoppers were catered to, including the DJs of East Side clubs like The Oz, who came in for new, white-label dance vinyl. And there was also a definite dance-vibe to the young, college-age shoppers who feasted on new releases from bands like Depeche Mode, The Cure and anything released on Chicago’s Wax Trax label.

But as noted, West End Wax was a neighborhood shop. So it had cycles based on those neighbors. On Sunday, for example, the well-heeled customers dining at Kopperman’s, the venerable cafe across Euclid, would stop in. A totally different feel than the shop had at Saturday night close, just a few hours before. Located on the spiritual hub of the West End (near the intersection of McPherson and Euclid), West End Wax also enjoyed the patrons of nearby Left Bank Books and, more than anything, the customers of the wild, wacky Heffalump’s, directly next door; St. Louis has never had quite a gift shop like it.

As Mikles and Snow talked, often finishing sentences and thoughts for one another, I was easily transported to their old store, remembering a lot of the small stuff that made shopping there fun. Record shopping was a different animal then; it was nothing to plan a Saturday afternoon, intentionally hitting Streetside in Webster, Vintage in U. City and Euclid and West End Wax on one, big tour of the stores.

On Monday, I think Steve Pick tried to get across a little bit of that feel, as he talked to my class. I’m curious what my students will pick up of that vibe, which included fun on both sides of the counter.

As Snow wrote me, after our talk, “If I had to tell the West End Wax story, I'd make sure that everyone knew what a nutty, hilarious place it was and that the people who made it what it was would be laughing the loudest! I got to make radio commercials in my living room and meet Barry Manilow (not in my living room). Wouldn't trade it for anything!”