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A Remembrance For Chicago's Jazz Record Mart

By Howard Mandel | NPR
Monday, April 18, 2016

Chicago's Jazz Record Mart attracts visitors from all over the world. At least, it used to: Last month, owner Bob Koester sold the store, saying he was just too old to run it any more.

Koester began selling used records when he was a teenager in Wichita, Kansas. After moving to Chicago, he opened his own store, as well as his own jazz and blues label, Delmark. But after more than 60 years in business, he decided this spring that it was time to pack it in.

"One reason I'm selling is that my son, who will inherit the label, isn't too interested in the retail business," he says. "I'm 83 years old."

Another reason, Koester says, is the rent — too steep for his current budget. On Jazz Record Mart's final Saturday, the store was jammed with loyal customers, among them local radio host Leslie Keros, teacher Shawn Salmon and pianist Robert Irving III.

"It's been a few weeks since I've been here," Keros says, "but I used to work downtown and my lunch hour became lunch hours, because I came here to browse."

Salmon says there are certain advantages to going to a brick-and-mortar store instead of shopping online.

"I love going to stores, because usually online they just kind of show you what's happening, what's cool, what's selling. And it's always the same stuff," he says. "You can walk into a store and [say], 'I had no idea that existed,' or 'I've been looking for that forever.' I love it. I'd just spend hours and get lost."

Iriving has fond memories of the store as well.

"I can't remember the first time I was in here," he says, "but I think I even performed here once, many years ago. And it's just an institution. Considering what's happened with the record industry at large, the fact that a jazz record mart or shop has survived this long is pretty remarkable."

Another regular customer was Bill Sagan, back when he was in college and business school in Chicago.

"It was a store where people came in and relied on some very capable store employees that could route them to either what they wanted to buy and listen to, or what they should want to buy and listen to," Sagan says. "And if you ever run into someone that tries to convince you that making a purchase in any of the great record stores that we've all gone to in our lives is the same as the experience you have online, they would be kidding you. It is not the same and it will never be the same.

That's saying something considering that today, Sagan runs the online store and subscription service Wolfgang's Vault. He bought the Jazz Record Mart's entire collection of jazz, blues, gospel, experimental, rock and world music — along with the name.

Sagan is putting that inventory online, starting today, in a special section of the Vault, but it won't have those employees to guide you. A lot of them were nascent writers, like me — I worked at the Jazz Record Mart back in the day. Some of them were musicians, like trumpeter Josh Berman. He clerked at the Record Mart longer than he cares to remember, getting educated by listening to the store's stock.

"I think I got a lot of my aesthetic from the Record Mart," he says, "because I started there so young. I didn't know anything. I mean, zero. I knew about Miles Davis. And I saw the future of what I wanted to do in the Record Mart."

Not to glamorize the Jazz Record Mart — it was no Apple store. It was dusty and funky; the boss could be cranky and had his own way of doing things. Josh Berman says the hours were long and the wages low, but there were benefits.

"I kind of, like, lived there, you know?" he says. "I was there all the time. There was a piano in the back, and I was practicing there every night. You know, you'd go on tour, you'd come back, the job would be there. They were very flexible, so there was a generosity that was kind of amazing."

However, with the rise of online sales and low-cost streaming services, brick-and-mortar retail outlets must adapt to survive. The Jazz Record Mart did have a website, but the physical store was the thing. It was an experience — and not just for the customers. Bob Koester loved being there.

"Jazz fans are really interesting people, good-to-know people, and usually very nice people," he says. "It was part of the business that I enjoyed — especially Saturdays, you know, you'd get these guys from out of town. And it might only be, 'Hi there. I'm from Belgium,' or something. It's just fun to meet them. That's something I'm gonna miss."

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