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A double whammy that wasn't as bad as it looked

It looked like a double whammy to end all double whammies. I don't think it is.

Late last week, in two separate and unrelated announcements, we learned that the Main Street stores of both Record Theatre (in the University Plaza) and Talking Leaves (a few blocks away) will close.

What's crucial to note in both cases is that, both Talking Leaves and Record Theatre's other stores will remain open -- Record Theatre on Main and Lafayette and Talking Leaves on the corner of Elmwood Avenue and Bidwell Parkway. Both are said to have remained profitable while their University District brethren have been losing money.

And that is the point. Apocalyptic thoughts about both the book and record business are misplaced. It's the University District that seems no longer what it once was. The cultural geography of Buffalo has changed drastically. The Elmwood Village has become such a center of youth culture and Bohemian activity that the threat of major reckless development and gentrification's rising costs have some residents scared silly. Hertel Avenue is on the rise just as much.

The South Campus of the University at Buffalo is home to a different kind of activity than it was in the 1960s and '70s. Enough vestiges of that kind of activity remained for a long time to sustain both stores for surprisingly long periods but the combination of changing demographics and digital apocalypse made it hard for both to remain profitable.

And that's the important thing to know. We're talking about fabled Buffalo retail outlets here, not the crucial products of American culture that each sell: books and records.

The digital apocalypse has already done its damage. And both "products" not only are surviving but are on an upswing. Books and records still matter -- maybe now more than ever. Digital media didn't kill them.

While it's true that the backbone of music as a BUSINESS has changed radically with digital culture, it is also true that the record is still the chief unit of presentation of everything that purports to be new and interesting in popular music.

It's true that pop and rock musicians can't count on records for the zillions that the headliners used to make. Records are now promotions for where the big money is -- live performances and big money tours charging obscene ticket prices.

Despite the music businesses' insistence on conflating the two subjects, the BUSINESS of selling music and the music itself are different subjects. Almost everything that's new in pop music debuts on record. It may be available all over the place too -- in the case of Beyonce's "Lemonade" as a long form video on HBO and online and digitally -- but when major pop music thundermakers are asked what's "new," the first thing they talk about is their new record. And then they'll tell you about the tour of New Zealand and Tasmania and Chillicothe, Ohio that the record is billboarding. (There's nothing like Chillicothe in the spring.)

The cultural forest has become such a dense cultural thicket of new music, movies, TV shows and books in the digital era that critics have never been more important to point at what's worthwhile and what isn't. To have any idea of what's worthwhile amid the flood of what's available, they have to be doing their work as assiduously as ever before.

In the kinds of music that I care about most -- classical, jazz, roots, vintage pop and rock especially -- records, especially CDs, are still central. Wednesday's BPO soloist Angela Hewitt is a spectacular pianist to whom some of us have become devoted solely because of her extraordinary records of Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart on Hyperion. Not only are the performances marvelous but she writes her own brilliantly articulate disc notes. The resultant "product" -- hours of great music and brilliant notes about the music -- is available perfectly as a record only.

The loss of one branch of our greatest independent book store has nothing to do with the popularity of books as a "product." The major book chain stores in Buffalo are thriving. And I'm one of many who have become used to the instant availability and sensible prices of book-buying when it is done online.

It simply became a geographical mistake to keep one of the two Talking Leaves going in the University District. The perfect Buffalo neighborhood for a bookstore is the Elmwood Village, which is why the bookstore there is healthy. It soon will be our only Talking Leaves, but it's such a good independent store that our cultural life will not suffer grievously.

It was, for sure, a one-two punch that couldn't help but get the attention of those of us who care about the cultural life of our community. And last weekend I'm sure I wasn't alone in being rocked on my feet.

But Michael Clement of Dipson Theaters reports that business remains good at the University District's Amherst Theatre, the flagship theater of the Dipson chain inside the city. In other words, the cultural malaise of the University District at the moment hasn't spread.

It's too bad. But I went to Record Theatre in the University Plaza on Monday to see if I could buy the big Chuck Berry box set of his music on Chess at its going out of business sale. The place was packed. There were exactly two Chuck Berry records left in the whole store: two copies of his first record "After School."

People were walking up to the cash register with DVD's filling up large cartons that they had brought with them.

To understate the case considerably, yes, the places that supply cultural artifacts will move around a little but the demand for them isn't changing.



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