Tuesday, October 22, 2019

A Faded Retelling of Al Monzo's Palace Inn

A demi-lifetime ago I worked at Music Machine, a collector's music store in Owings Mills, Maryland. Holy shit, now that I think of it this was thirty years ago. The Internet hadn't become a socially-acceptable thing to talk about or participate in, which meant the only way you could acquire and listen to music was through a local record store. Sure, you found yourself at Sam Goody every now and then when you were already at the mall. And you may have fallen for the trap that was An Die Musik. But for anyone who was both serious about their music and unashamed to rub elbows with fell crate diggers, the record store was your hang out.

No shit, all record stores really looked like Championship Vinyl.
As a teenager in a shitty high school band, I could not have had a more perfect place for my first real job (in that I was on the payroll). I got to unbox all of the latest Depeche Mode singles before they went on sale. We'd get cutouts from local college stations and listen to good music all day while we worked. We had regulars who arrived on the days of the weeks when they knew we'd have new music; it was always Tuesdays and sometimes Fridays. But the retail portion of the shop was not nearly as busy as the mail room, where I spent most of my time.

In the mail room, we received orders that were sent to us via U.S. Mail or the telephone. We had a computer system (pretty sure it was named ShipIt) that would assist with writing out labels or correcting zip codes for given addresses. But the labor involved was the best. You'd take an order from a customer, and then go digging through rows and rows and rows and rows of CDs, vinyl, and assorted memorabilia. There was an organizational system in use, I'm certain. But finding the item you needed was an art form.

I'd search for something interesting, like a Japanese version of a Pearl Jam b-side. I'd dig through the Pearl Jam section until I found what I was looking for, and then start packing it up. I remember the smell of that brown packing tape, and I remember never being good at using the tape gun. Fuck that tape gun, man.

But even the mail room wasn't the most exciting part of life as a record store employee. The big excitement was the weekend trips to record shows throughout the north east United States.

Record shows. Even typing that phrase seems outdated. Maybe I’m outdated. Maybe that doesn’t matter, because record shows still pop up along the East Coast anyway. Goldmine is still tracking them for you, if you were wondering.

A record show, for those born in the post-unironic-vinyl wasteland, is an intimate event held in a hotel ballrooms where collectors can acquire all sorts of music memorabilia, and music, too. But don’t show up looking to buy something you could stream on Spotify; unless you’re looking for a rarity, or an import bootleg, or a piece of signed merchandise you’ll be disappointed. This is not where you buy a Coldplay album.

For collectors, a record show is a great way to spend a Saturday morning: rubbing elbows with fellow fanatics, scouring each exhibitor’s table for some good vinyl to seal in a plastic bag, take home, and listen to once before you reseal the album and file it away. Maybe you’ll strike up a conversation with another patron about turntables, or whether diamond-tipped needles are worth the investment, or maybe you’ll end up trading some of your second and third copies of Beatles rarities for a signed Bowie long box.

For retailers, a record show is a two day long ordeal, one that begins Friday morning and ends late Saturday night, often early Sunday morning.

I remember working at the store on Friday, as the owner zipped around the warehouse collecting the items that he thought would attract the most attention and sell best in a show. Once he’d identified the merchandise, we started boxing everything up. So much cardboard. And those goddamned tape guns. Packing tape has a terrible smell that you only notice after spending a few hours packaging. Then the smell sticks with you forever. After all the boxes were taped shut, we’d load up a big Ford van with as much stuff as we could cram into the back. Then three of us would climb into the beast and hit the road. The owner drove, another guy rode up front, and I’d wedge myself into the single bench seat for a long ride.

On one weekend, we headed to Monroeville, a town east of Pittsburgh in western Pennsylvania. From the record shop, it was a four hour drive to Monroeville. We’d make it there in about three, thanks to the white knuckling of a madman at the wheel. The record show’s location: Al Monzo’s Palace Inn.

Keep in mind, this was thirty years ago. The memories of this place have blurred, and I can’t remember much of anything about it any more. But I remember one thing: the shower was made for pygmies. Like, the shower head was permanently fixed at shoulder height.

How awful to remember a place by such a strange detail. The Palace Inn has long since closed its doors.

You’d sleep for a few hours, but you were up early on Saturday to unload the van and set up your tables and pegboards. The show starts early, so you’d need to be up a few hours ahead of time to grab a bagel and a coffee before the crowd appeared. It was a blur.

It’s still a blur. I can’t remember anymore. Thirty years. Al Monzo’s Palace Inn, Home of the Pygmy Showers.