Down at the bottom of the musical food chain, yet historically crucial to its health, were Mom & Pop record stores. In every African-American community there were at least one and often two or three retailers with speakers placed out on the sidewalk blasting music for passersby on busy shopping strips. These were places where the owner was always ready to play you a new track or help you identify that hot record you heard on the radio you hadn’t caught the name of. These places, often small, narrow, and cluttered with posters and vinyl, were as much a part of a black neighborhood’s identity as the local church, soul food spot or bar.

But the major’s dominance of black music threatened their existence, since they focused on large chain retailers and big box stores like Sears. These bigger companies were about big orders and, if the orders were big enough, a chain store could buy at a discount.  Earth, Wind & Fire’s ‘All ’n All’ might retail for $12.99 but, because of a discount, a large retailer could sell it at $10.99 or even $9.99. The majors wouldn’t sell directly to Mom & Pop stores, so they had to buy through a wholesale outlet at list price. To make a profit the small stores would charge $13.99 or more for that same EW&F. Black buyers, while loyal to the local shop, began buying the hottest LPs at the major retailers. It the start of a slow death for these retailers.



The Mom & Pop stores complained loudly but not too much effect. The black music departments aided many of the stores in buying together as a co-op, making them eligible for discounts. But these efforts were band aids and the Mom & Pop owners knew it. Being based in inner city hoods that, in the ‘70s were in steep decline, didn’t help their disposition. In 1979 they were hanging on. By the ‘80s, when crack overwhelmed these areas, most would close. Way before the digital revolution changed music purchasing and gentrification their hoods, these black owned businesses were already doomed.


BIRDELS RECORDSYet, at the BMA and when I would cover their struggle in the ‘80s, these feisty women and men were some of the people most devoted to the music. The hip hop crate digging culture that was just in its infancy in ’79 was pretty much based on the records sold out of Mom & Pop retailers. I remember traveling out to Birdel’s Records store on Nostrand Avenue in Bedford-Stuyvesant in fall of ‘79 to cover the sales success of the Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight.” Owner Joe Long talked at about how hot the record was. The copies of the 12 inch he had were so new there wasn’t even a Sugar Hill logo on it — just an orange label featuring the group’s name and that of the label Sugar Hill. For much of the early ‘80s it was indie rap singles that helped Long, and his peers pay their bills. In their knowledge of their buyers and ability to sell new music these Mom & Pop retailers weren’t merely crate diggers. They’re the ones who created the crates.