In this age of digital downloads and bootleg discs, finding a shop that sells real CDs, or even good old vinyl records, is becoming an increasingly difficult task. Luckily, for music addicts like me who are living in Southeast Asia, and who prefer the “real thing,” there are still some independent shops operating in cities such as Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur where you can find such product. Over on the other side of this warped planet, in my hometown of Orlando, Florida, East-West Records celebrates their 40th Anniversary this year! Owners Roman and Hanna Skrobko are still holed up in their shop on South Orange Avenue, battling armed robbers and the digital demons that have devoured retail over the past decade. It’s certainly not easy operating a shop in the USA nowadays, but Hanna and Roman have the spirit and personal touch that enable them to persevere.
I have fond memories of shopping at the East-West branch in Winter Park when I was a teenager back in the 1970s. I remember walking into that cozy little shop, packed solid with well-stocked racks of record albums, the smell of incense in the air, colorful album posters on the walls. For a kid like me who lived and breathed music, this store was sheer heaven. East-West stocked a variety of records in genres such as Rock, Blues, Soul, Jazz, Reggae, and Country. It’s where I bought my first Neil Young album, Harvest. It’s also the shop where I discovered artists as diverse as Nils Lofgren, Heartsfield, Nektar, Pousette-Dart Band, Tim Moore, Bob Marley, Emmylou Harris, Waylon Jennings, Crack the Sky, and Guy Clark. Needless to say, this was not a Top 40 megamall shop, but a wonderfully quirky place that reflected its owners’ broad range of musical tastes.
I was never lucky enough to land a job at East-West, but eventually I opened my own record shop on the other side of town in 1983. I was definitely inspired by the indie spirit of East-West, hoping that my own place would some day be as cool as Hanna and Roman’s store. Even though we were technically “competitors” at that point, it was a very friendly rivalry. In fact, most of us in Central Florida’s pool of indie music shops were kindred spirits, often having worked together at other chain stores in the area over the years. If we didn’t have something in stock at our shop we would happily refer customers to one of our competitor pals.
Even though I’m living halfway around the world these days, I’ve stayed in touch with Hanna. Whenever we have disasters (natural ones, or catastrophes caused by people wearing colored shirts) in Thailand, Hanna will always send me a note of concern. And when I heard that she had been robbed at gunpoint in her shop earlier this year I sent her my own worried note. Us retail lifers got to stick together, you know? With their big anniversary coming up soon, I e-mailed Hanna a list of questions about East-West Records and her life in music retail. Here are her replies:
When did you and your husband open East-West Records? What inspired you to open a retail record store?
July 1, 1971. We were planning to open a clothing store (Roman was a very young manager of the very tony Fred Segal store in West Hollywood), but when we saw how nobody really cared about fashion in Orlando, we switched to music. Luckily for me, that was MY field, literally having grown up inside record shops since I was old enough to walk or take a bus ride. I spent HOURS inside record stores reading liner notes, and listening ti anything I could get my hands on. This is how I got my geek on!
What were the biggest challenges during those early years?
Because we were so young (I was 18, roman was 23), we didn’t see anything as particularly challenging… just a new skill set to be learned (ah, YOUTH!). We were told by EVERYONE this would never work. Labels, distributors (in their infancy, back then), all told us this could not be done. We started with a couple of thousand dollars, and a whole lot of L.A. attitude … kinda bluffed our way into Orlando’s landscape. Timing was definitely on our side.
How did you choose the name?
We named ourselves after one of our favorite records at the time … East-West by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. We were from the west, now in the east … it just kinda worked. By the way, we argued about the name for at least a couple of months before this happened.
Where are you from originally?
Both Roman and I ”grew up” in Southern California. West Hollywood, Santa Monica, Venice … that was our background. We graduated from the same high school (Fairfax High in West Hollywood) five years apart. We had every intention of returning to California, and to go to college, but the business here took off, and we realized we could maybe pull this off.
When you were a teenager, what was your career dream?
Roman would’ve been some kind of entrepreneur to be sure … I was going to be an actress. And a singer. And a songwriter. I was going for Joni Mitchell on my hazy days, and Julie Andrews or Barbra Streisand on my “practical” days.
You were also a popular DJ at WORJ-FM in the 1970s. How did you get started in radio?
When we opened our record shop, we decided to advertise on our only cool radio station … WORJ-FM… I was offered a gig from 2 am to 10 am … did that for a couple of months, and then started doing mid-days. It was an amazing time, and some of the happiest memories I have.
You were also a voice on many radio and TV commercials in Central Florida. Do you still do any voice work?
Not as much as I used to, but that’s because I’m now bogged down with keeping my last surviving shop going. Roman and I are down to our last little shop, and now, we’re working for health insurance. It costs a FORTUNE to insure two middle-aged self-employed people in America today. I’m not kidding.
How difficult was the transition from record albums to CDs?
Just retro-fitting our tired old bins, and a whole lotta money. I proposed initially … no I BEGGED record companies to keep LP packaging intact, and just fit CDs into the already existing LP packages, but no one listened. And now, LPs constitute 20% of our stock (new & used) again.
Were cassettes and (shudder) 8-track tapes ever a big part of your product mix? If so, how did you phase those out?
Tape product was a large part of our stock. But we do what we must. The smaller a shop or a company is, the easier it is to adjust, don’t you think? The only purpose for tape product was transportability. Now, it’s MP3s, making us, within a decade, antique dealers. I will, however, always be a Hardcopy Girl. The first thing I do after purchasing a CD, record or book is open it, and SNIIIIFFFF. I love the smell and physicality of that act. It says; “I’m In!”
At one time you had several stores open in the Orlando area. What happened to expansion plans?
The economy, chronic technological “advancements”, Box stores (which are closing all around us!), etc. We had four stores and a small distribution business in our heyday. Now, we consider ourselves lucky to have this one little shop… and the only reason we’re able to have this one is because we own the property that we’re on. We did THAT right. Just surviving will be our last hat-trick.
What are some of the strangest requests — or strangest customers — you have had at the shop?
Anymore, anyone buying hardcopy music is a bit of a weirdo, a dinosaur, and therefore KINDRED to me. My regulars are some of the most colorful people you could imagine. Mostly older (40-90) … music-lovers, all. No request seems strange anymore…
What is your product mix nowadays? Do you sell any secondhand titles?
New & used CDs and DVDs … new and used vinyl. Lots of Blues, Jazz, and classic R&B and Rock. People are going back to their ear-ball comforts. Whatever your age, nostalgia is the new NEW.
Are you as pessimistic about the future of music retail as everyone else seems to be these days? Can anything be done to save indie shops?
I’m no prophet … I’m struggling to survive, like everyone else. All I can say is: TENACIOUSNESS.
What should the big record companies have done to halt the steep decline in music sales this past decade? Or is it just a question of evolving technology and not being able to stop people from downloading music for free?
Big record companies did this to themselves by re-acting instead of acting. Sadly, they’re taking me and mine down with them. You can’t make a new generation of folks love the visceral connection. It just can’t be done.
You were recently robbed at gunpoint, and physically assaulted in your store. How has that experience affected the way you go about doing your daily business now?
Oh, yeah … I’m packin’ heat now. But really, I’m still more than a little PTSD from that experience.
Times are tough in music retail. Why do you still do it?
Who’s gonna hire us now? One does what one must to survive. I’m just lucky that it’s an arena I LOVE and am comfortable in.
Who are some of the more memorable celebrities to visit your shop?
Radiohead, Raekwon, Jonathan Richman, Terence Blanchard, Randy Newman … these entities were memorable and are still respected by me. But we’re not “star-magnets” like some cool records shops are. The names above happened very organically.
Which musicians would you most like to meet and why?
Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Jack White, David Byrne, Joni Mitchell … because they represent authenticity to me. it I would have REALLY liked to have met John Lennon, Bob Marley, Johnny Cash, and Miles Davis for the same reasons.
Do you play any instruments yourself?
I play a little guitar and piano, but sing and can harmonize to ANYTHING. I’ve always wanted to learn to play the cello, as I love the tone of this sublime instrument. However, I’d probably be a bass player, if I could start over. I’d be Mi’chelle n’dege’o'cello!
What genres of music do you enjoy listening to? Is there anything you really dislike or just aren’t moved by?
Rock, Jazz, R&B, Electronica, Country, Blues, Classical, International … Anything genuine or authentic. It has to ring true. But it’s like mining for gold in a muddy river, as there is a preponderance of fake, ugly, remanufactured, and totally fake stuff out there. Sadly, it’s a time when any asshole (with the right software) can YOUTUBE or MYSPACE him or herself into their allotted 15 minutes of fame.
What are some recent favorite albums, or new artists who have impressed you?
Lykke Li, Middle Brothers, Decemberists, Twilight Singers, Drive-By Truckers, Old 97’s, Imelda May, Beady Eye (Liam Gallagher), Exene Cervenka, Afro-Soultet, Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings are currently in the player. Love ‘em all!
Okay, time for a really tough one: name your Top Ten Desert Island Discs!
1) any Clash/Joe Strummer/Big Audio Dynamite
2) Talking Heads – More Songs about Buildings and Food
3) Beatles – White Album
4) Rolling Stones – Exile on Main Street/Beggars Banquet
5) Marvin Gaye – Any of his 70s albums
6) Serge Gainesbourg – Any
7) Johnny Cash – 60s & 90s-00s
8) Bob Dylan – Any
9) Radiohead – Any
10) Bob Marley – 70s-80s
Best concerts you ever saw?
Large Venue: Joni Mitchell, Jimi Hendrix, Talking Heads, U2, Frank Zappa, the Cars, R.E.M., Pink Floyd, Rolling Stones, Roxy Music, Springsteen, Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Led Zeppelin, Police.
Small Venue: Tim Buckley, Jeff Buckley, Sharon Jones, Elliot Smith, Marc Ribot, Tom Waits, Nick Cave, Oingo Boingo, Emmylou Harris, Pretenders, Tori Amos, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Howlin’ Wolf, Police (again!), Pat Metheny.
Which living artists would you like to see perform but haven’t yet?
Radiohead, Todd Rundgren, any Jack White joint, Muse, Gogol Bordello, Pixies, Elbow, Gorillaz, Budos Band, Raphael Saadiq, Brad Mehldau.
You are also a book reader. Who are your favorite authors?
Hunter S. Thompson, Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Pynchon, John Irving, Tom Robbins, Mark Twain, Jane Austen, any Bronte sisters
When you want to get out of town and relax, where is your favorite vacation spot?
HAWAII!!! I wanna live there, one day.
When you retire — if you ever get around to it — which countries would you most like to visit?
Thailand, Vietnam, Japan, China, Spain, Portugal, Greece, UK.
Next week I’ll include some comments from employees that used to work for East-West Records … and survived their retail experience!