The sticker said “Hot Licks” and “6.29.” I held the album in my hands and stared at that sticker like the price would change if only I had enough will power. But i was too young for a green ring and without that, what could i do? I only had 5 dollars and change. $6.29 was out of my price range. I put al stewart’s year of the cat back in the rack. These twin cities prices were just too much for me. But the store? Oh, that store was another thing. Hot Lick’s in the Phalen Shopping Mall off white bear avenue in St. Paul was the first real record store I ever entered. And it was nirvana to my 11 year old self.
I’d been to K-Mart and the Co-op (even the Pamida after the Co-Op closed) in Menomonie, and that’s where i bought my first albums (barry manilow’s even now and billy joel’s the stranger) But they weren’t really record stores. They were fine for the 4.99 on sale top releases, but if it wasn’t top ten (or country) you were kind of out of luck. Fortunately, my tastes were pretty top ten (top five if you want to get fussy) and the mass market stores mostly served me.
But as i hit the big 10 and developed a huge Casey Kasem addiction, the limited selections locally were becoming a problem. Sure, i could wait for the columbia selections to come out 8 months down the road, but damnit jim, i needed Gary Numan’s Telekon STAT! I needed selection. I needed options. I needed a chance to discover the unknown. I needed a real record store.
My sister had assured me that there was a real record store in the Phalen Mall where the Montgomery Ward outlet center was located (just three years older, but she was far more worldly than I was). And of course, the idea of a REAL record store (what could such a thing be?) consumed me. I just had to see it. The annual family pilgrimage to the Monkey Ward store seemed to take forever to happen. Delayed by a price drop in milk, postponed because of weather, the packers were having a good season, obstacles kept appearing to keep me from my goal. I didn’t give up hope. But the day finally arrived (grey november day, although i really couldn’t be bothered to notice) and no sooner had the car (a suburban) been parked than i was out the door, striding across the parking lot with a backwards wave, focused intently on the banner over a shop near the end of the strip mall, HOT LICKS.
The first thing that hit me when i opened the door was a wave of incense. The scent nearly knocked me over (or it might have been a gust of wind, or the emotion of the near religious experience, I dunno) Of course, i only knew incense from being an altar boy, so i was pretty confused as to why a record store would smell like a funeral. But i barreled in, undeterred. Looking back, i’m pretty sure the place was a hole in the wall with barely enough room to fit a smart car, but to my un-attuned eyes, it was the Taj Mahal.
Rock posters covered the walls, racks hung from crazy angles all over the place (walls, ceilings, off the door), holding god knows what (but lots of paper, that much i’m sure). Down the middle of the room was a double sided row of bins filled with brand spanking new albums. On the far wall was another row of bins chock full of albums. The clerk held court along the other wall on a sticker festooned elevated dais with a cash register instead of a scepter, from which he surveyed his mighty kingdom. I didn’t know whether to genuflect or just walk through the door. The clerk gave me a look (i was 11, but i’m sure i looked 7, i should have had my money pinned to my shirt) then dropped his chin back into The Hobbit. I took another look around the shop (what were all those glass doodads underneath the cash register?) in order to get my bearings, wiped the drool off my chin and got to work.
I started hitting bins at random, a little overwhelmed by the totality of what i was seeing. This (abeit small by most standards) was 4 times the amount of vinyl i’d ever seen before. And i knew only the barest fraction of the bands. (There is security in Anne Murray albums, security i say). I had my list of albums i was hoping for, but i was a little discomfited to find ALL of them. I was lucky if i found one of them when i went to K-Mart. I didn’t know what to do with options. So i just kept flipping from album to album, bin to bin. It’s sorta strange that i can’t remember all the titles and artists i saw that day. The album covers were so enticing, the artwork, the newness of the vinyl, all these intriguing band names; i wished i had enough money to buy everything in the rooom and just sit for days and days and listen to it all.
Definitely information overload and i lost all sense of time (even though i had a limited amount of time before i had to catch up with my family at the monkey), but what i mostly remember is the sense of something unfolding, this sense that this was the way it was meant to be, that this fulfilled some barely understood need in me. (which could easily have been the result of unlawful substances wafting around the barely ventilated room) Even now, 30 years later, i have a hard time sorting out all the impressions i had in Hot Licks but i still remember the warm and fuzzies i got as i flipped through the stacks of wax.
Eventually, (could have been 5 minutes, could have been 5 hours) i decided on an album. A pretty risky move by me by an artist named al stewart. I’d only heard The Year of the Cat a couple times (it had long since fallen off the charts but was still getting airplay on WEAQ) and i was mesmerized by the piano hook and the saxophone (which is kinda funny, cos i’m not a big fan of horns these days). it was a little too rock for me, and year of the cat was the only song i knew (i usually needed at least two hits before i would invest), and the cover looked a little risqué, but what the heck. this was as adventure. i knew i’d gone down the rabbit hole and i was gonna take a chance.
Except......$6.29 on that sticker. and i’d only budgeted for a 4.99 price (the perils of shopping a discounter). Nothing doing....i wasn’t gonna negotiate with the clerk, even if such a thing was possible. I had to put the record back and even though there were a couple other albums on my list that WERE affordable, i’d decided. If i couldn’t get Year of the Cat, i wouldn’t get anything. I walked out of the store, into the gusty November afternoon.
I caught up with the family just as they were checking out (How long was i in Hot Licks?). I think my mom asked me what i bought and i said “nothing.”
“All that time and you couldn’t find anything,” she asked.
“Oh i found what i wanted, I just didn’t have enough money.”
I don’t remember what she said, but i’m sure it was some combination of “You should have brought more money. It’s good that you didn’t exceed your budget. and/or I’m sure you can find it cheaper back home.” None of which really made me feel better.
I did the charlie brown walk back to the car (suburban), helped load the discounted odds and sods from monkey wards into the back and dejectedly took my seat (middle, right hand window side, no seat belt of course). Dad fired up the car (suburban) and started driving out of the parking lot. i’m sure my head was pitifully pressed against the window as i watched the mall roll by.
But wait, we aren’t heading for the exit, we are heading to the other end; the Hot Licks end. Mwaaaaaah? (translation: what is this?). My dad pulls into the space in front of the record store and stops. My mom turns around and hands me a dollar. “Do you have enough with this,?” she asks. “Oh sure,” i exclaim (i’m all jim nabors when i’m surprised). I grab the dollar (and maybe a couple of her fingers), open the door and i’m back in Hot Licks in a flash. i have a momentary freak out when i can’t find the album (ok, i didn’t put it back in the “S’s”) but in short order i get it located (feeling the super clock on me as i can see everybody in the car waiting for me), get up to the clerk and he says “six dollars and fifty three cents” (or something like that).
oh damn...i forgot about the twenty nine cents...am i gonna be short change? i hand the clerk my fiver and the dollar bill my mom gave me, then i start digging around in my pockets (and not the good kind of digging around in my pockets that i once got a cuffed on the back of the head cos i was doing it during church) looking for the change. quarter, nickel, penny, penny, penny. Damn. Am i going to have to run out to the car (suburban) and ask for a quarter (cos i was too close to the Cat now, there was no turning back at this point)
Ok, other pocket. Penny, i’m close now. Lint, lint, nickel. Dig, Dig, Dig. I’m practically scratching my knee now, wearing a hole in that pocket, looking for the difference.
“ah, close enough” goes the clerk (i take back whatever unformed mean thoughts i might have had about him...and they were all based on intimidation anyway) and i fly out of the store before he changes his mind (or gives me the receipt, although i don’t suppose i was really thinking of a return.) i’m back in the my seat, door shut and staring straight ahead, record held so tight i’m surprised i didn’t warp it. I stared at that hot licks price sticker all the way home.