Jan. 2 2013 02:19 AM

A longtime clerk pays tribute to his profession

The author at The Cow

was raised by record stores. They took custody when I was 13. I stumbled into a spot called In Your Ear in Harvard Square, Mass. Black Sabbath's "Hand of Doom" was playing at crushing volume, and with youthful marvel, I asked the clerk what it was. I was a young black kid from the inner city asking about a '70s metal band I had no business being aware of. The clerk answered with classic tones of record-store snobbery and hints of "How dare you not know Sabbath!" 

I was hooked. I wanted to wield such condescension, cradled by a blistering soundtrack.

By the time the torture of high school reached its bitter end, I'd been accepted to about five universities. My decision to attend Boston College was based on the caliber of the city's record stores. When I graduated with a bachelor's degree in psychology and my mother asked what would come next for me, I responded, "I'm going to move to California and get a job at a record shop." 

After a pregnant pause, she exhaled the most half-hearted "Oh" that's ever been sighed.

Following the advice of a man dubbed "Tricky Dan," I wound up in San Diego. It was 1999, and I got a job at Music Trader in Pacific Beach. Then I moved to the Downtown location, and later to one in Sports Arena. Dull moments were scarce at the Sports Arena shop, thanks to the high concentration of meth in the area. Fiends would steal DVD box sets from Target and walk into the store, setting off our alarm. 

"Yeah, man, I got three Godfather DVD box sets for Christmas," one guy said.

"I have a metal plate in my knee—it always sets off alarms," someone else explained. 

These were folks who could easily have passed for extras in The Walking Dead. They probably hadn't received Christmas gifts since Mötley Crüe's heyday. Oh, and metal plates don't set off magnetic alarms. 

Eventually, I graduated to my favorite record store in San Diego, the Ocean Beach Cow (5029 Newport Ave.), where I currently work. 

The Cow is a special place. Where the sidewalk of America ends, the neighborhood regulars congregate to gaze at the vast blue expanse of the Pacific. Nearby stands a museum of sorts—4,000 cassettes on the wall, 8-tracks in the back and vinyl for days. We even have Waterworld on LaserDisc (so help me, God, I will sell that thing). Indeed, there are a few dusty items that I've vowed to sell during my tenure. So far, my successes include a Charles in Charge Season 1 DVD, two Insane Clown Posse dolls, a Robert Downey Jr. CD (yeah, he sings; he shouldn't) and a Julio Iglesias picture disc. 

I feel a weight of importance behind my position—I'm a kind of preservationist. The way we take in songs has so much to do with the memories they create: mix cassettes mingling with my first cigarettes in borrowed cars of youth, my mom's records playing through the house when I was first feeling the Braille of my surroundings. One day at the store, a little girl came in with her pops and asked what a cassette was. 

"Honey, that's how we used to listen to music," he replied.

She held it up to her ear and said, "Daddy, it's broken." 

We've come to expect our music in an instant, but so often, music is served best with patience. I've listened to The 13th Floor Elevators on Spotify, but the true gratification came when I'd searched high and low for their debut record on vinyl and finally found it, after many years, in a dollar bin. This wasn't quite a Mordor-like quest, but it was close. So, in the better moments at the shop, I am a purveyor of memories to come.

In the more entertaining moments, I behold the kooks and quirks of Ocean Beach. I've seen an elderly man build a fort of VHS tapes in the corner of the shop. I've seen a sun-ruined lady slowly apply ChapStick to her entire body while blocking the doorway. I had a crazed-looking girl play the most frantic air drum solo to a song on Hole's Live Through This; she propositioned me for both sex and a job, but received neither. A young man once asked me if we had any good White Power music. As a black man, I didn't really know how to field that question. However, it's worth noting that we do carry some powerful white music—try The Zombies' Odyssey and Oracle

Within the Cow's dusty stacks, magic dwells. I get nostalgic because, after 20-plus years, the store's going to move to a new location across the street. The space where we are now will become a sports bar—basically, the antithesis of all that we were. As Ocean Beach's streets get a little drunker, with irate fists punctuating last call, some of the neighborhood color fades. But as we brave our new home early in the New Year, I know we'll survive. The neighborhood needs its musical narration—the sounds in the background that pull us forward. 

In addition to working in a record store, Alfred Howard plays in The Heavy Guilt, The Black Sands and The Midnight Pine.

Write to editor@sdcitybeat.com.