A CD-Only Music Store That Plays to Its Own Beat

By MERIBAH KNIGHT NY Times  04/14/11

One of these days, Chris Miller is going to run out of space for compact discs at his CD-only music shop, Chicago Digital, in Oak Park. Last week he had to put a second shelf in the restroom. It extends from the top of the toilet’s water tank to the ceiling and accommodates classical composers from Liszt, Franz, through Mozart, W. A.

“I have pretty much packed out where I can go,” Mr. Miller said.

He said he believed that Chicago Digital, which opened in 1985, was the first compact-disc store in Illinois. The shop now holds around 40,000 discs, Mr. Miller estimates with a tape measure allotting three discs per inch. (His only vinyl is a box of LPs someone abandoned three years ago, and it still sits on the shop’s floor.)

Mr. Miller’s CD inventory is dizzying — it is “theoretically” alphabetized, stacked from floor to ceiling, some of it precariously, and occupies every available surface. But shoppers won’t find Justin Bieber, Katy Perry or Ke$ha in the mix.

“I have never had Lady Gaga in this store; I have no idea what’s a top-seller,” said Mr. Miller, who spends his mornings writing art reviews for New City and sculpturing in his nearby studio. “This store strictly has whatever unusual things people who live around here might want.”

Occupying a niche along recorded music’s evolutionary path from LPs — now enjoying a retro revival — to the portability of Mp3s, the compact disc is rapidly approaching obsolescence. CD sales have fallen by 20 percent for the fourth consecutive year, according to Nielson Soundscan, and more vinyl albums were bought in 2010 than any other year in the 20-year history of the firm’s record keeping.

But Mr. Miller, 62, who is lanky with wispy shoulder-length hair, is convinced that his business is still viable.

It helps that his rent has not been raised since 1985, that his customers — typically in their mid-50s — would rather have their teeth pulled than buy something on the Internet, and that his huge collection of out-of-print stock, amassed over 26 years, has grown valuable as an asset, often worth 10 times as much online.

“I don’t get younger people anymore; I don’t get normal customers anymore,” Mr. Miller said. “I get people that for one reason or another are outside the mainstream of American merchandising.”

So it makes sense that for Record Store Day on Saturday, a worldwide promotion of independent record stores that began in 2007, Chicago Digital will feature just one item amid the hundreds of releases that the industry is offering for the day: a Jimi Hendrix single.

“I’m a nonconformist in every possible way of thinking about it,” Mr. Miller said. “I’m not even a regular record store.”

The shop’s ethos is written across its windows: “Top 40 to Bottom 40,000. Unfamiliar music bought and sold. Olde fashioned compact disc emporium. Way too many obscure jazz vocalists.”

Before opening Chicago Digital, Mr. Miller sold high-end audio equipment, driving a beat-up old car store to store. The moment the format started changing to CDs across the board, he saw an opportunity. (That’s one reason he believes his was the state’s first CD-only store.)

“It has gone nuts ever after,” he said of his growing stockpile, which comes from distributors, walk-ins selling items and a few older clients who have died and bequeathed him part of their collections.

Joel Young, a regular who visits about once a month, strolled in on his lunch break looking for nothing in particular and walked out with some Steve Hackett and Steve Howe.

“Sometimes I’m a classical hound; sometimes I’m a jazz hound,” Mr. Young said. “I have no borders. That’s the nice thing about Chris’s store: there is something for everyone. I can’t think of anyplace like it anymore.”

Mr. Young, who lives in Palatine — “the Sahara Desert of music stores” — said he enjoyed the organized chaos of the Miller shop. Because nothing is put back quite right, “there is no possible way you can be confident that there is nothing there for you,” he said.

Mr. Miller, who said it was best just to ask at the counter for what you want instead of looking, is glad to have Mr. Young’s business. “I haven’t put Joel’s head on the Shelf of Honor yet,” he said, pointing to a row of busts he has made of his best customers.

The next day, while waiting for a friend, Carlos Sanchez, 22, walked into the store for the first time and went straight to the hip-hop section. Mr. Miller said Mr. Sanchez was the youngest customer he had served in a while.

“I’ve seen this store so many times, but never come in. This place is awesome,” Mr. Sanchez said as he bought “Chicken N Beer” by Ludacris.

“So you’re really the first CD store in Illinois?” he asked.

“I believe I was, and I’m trying to become the last,” Mr. Miller replied.

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