PHYLosophy: Memories … A Matter of Record

Flashback: It was late summer 1977 when I snagged that cool job at National Record Mart’s brand-new store in downtown Wheeling. (It was something to do during my one-year hiatus between colleges.)

Previously, a small record store filled the music-lovers’ needs at Stifel & Taylor’s Value City. But that tiny store expanded to a huge, bright space on Market Street, right next door to the Morris Plan Bank.

My first task on the new job was painting the shelves for paperback books. It was a nice matte black. I was dressed for retail that day (peach-colored linen pants, as I remember … really, I do remember). As a directive from a corporate boss, we were forbidden to wear denim to work, which we all thought was a bit odd because our store attracted a young, hip crowd to buy the latest albums.

Albums. (We didn’t really call them vinyls back then.) And cassette tapes. And paperbacks. That’s what we sold.

We were the place for the latest and greatest in music. We had a $3.99 hot hits wall that changed every week. We had fancy records — the Beatles’ White Album was actually white vinyl. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band had its elaborate album cover pressed into the vinyl.

We had rows and rows of wooden bins and bins and bins and more bins of albums — jazz, blues, rock, classical, spoken word.

My very favorite album cover was Electric Light Orchestra’s Eldorado, the one with Dorothy’s red ruby slippers sparking a bright yellow flash to fend off the Wicked Witch’s green, bony fingers. I would always put that at the front of the ELO bin so that I could see it every time I walked by.

Arranging all our albums in just the right spots (by genre, alphabetically) was a big part of our job — besides standing around chatting about our exploits out on the town the night before. And dusting those blasted matte black bookshelves. (Have you ever tried to dust matte paint?) And restocking albums, of course. Oh, and waiting on customers — yeah, we did that, sometimes reluctantly.

The cassette tapes were under lock and key. We all wore the keys on coiled bands around our wrists, as I recall, to open the weird contraptions that kept shoplifters from the music behind the glass sliding doors. None of us wanted to wait on the cassette customers — those keys and doors were such a pain. We’d see someone walking toward that wall of shelves, and we’d all slink off in another direction as if we just remembered we had something important to do.

Some of our customers knew exactly what they wanted; others could browse and browse for hours on end; still others, just came in to ask us girls out or to stare at rock star Chris.

What a crew we were. Chris, Lynne, Cathy, Susie, Diana, Sissy and me — all under the watchful eye of Edie, our fearless leader.

Edie, with her cat-eye glasses on a chain around her neck, was small but mighty. She didn’t mince words, but she was a pussycat of a manager when it came to allowing us to switch up our schedules to suit our social lives. She was an Elvis fan to the nth degree, and when he died on Aug. 16 that year, she was a mess and a half. She didn’t make it to work that day. (I just hope she and Elvis are dancing up a storm these days. And Susie, too.)

Chris really was our record store rock star. He was in the band “Teaser,” and he attracted a bevy of groupies. A Ron Wood look-a-like, he was “inspired” by the Rolling Stones, noted fellow Teaser bandmate Butch Maxwell.

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Cathy reminded us of a rock star, too, with her coal black eyeliner and tousled hair — perhaps a combination of Pat Benatar, Stevie Nicks and Joan Jett — but in a quiet, shy way that didn’t really match her looks. She and Chris hit it off and made quite a stunning couple. (And, Chris’ sister was a dead ringer for Cher.) Cathy once got mugged as she delivered the night deposit bag to the bank next door. (The thief was someone I sat near in homeroom all through high school! I once asked him — after he was caught and charged — if it had been me dropping off the cash that night, would you still have taken the money and run? “Yeah,” he shrugged.)

One of the perks of working at NRM was great seats — discounts, too — to all the shows in Pittsburgh. Twentieth row back, on the floor of the Civic Arena for Billy Joel, thank you very much. NRM was a Pittsburgh-based company, so it was concert central.

Sometimes we hosted musical acts that came to town. A group called Clover arrived one February afternoon. Feb. 8, 1978, to be exact. They were opening for “Dream Weaver” Gary Wright at the Capitol Music Hall. They signed posters and offered free tickets to our customers. They invited us to the show, which none of us had intended to go to. But we did — hey, we were with the band.

So happens, the lead singer was a guy named Huey Lewis. (Years later as a news reporter, I joked that a photo of the two of us showed the real “Huey Lewis and the News.”) The NRM girls escorted the band to popular hot spot Tin Pan Alley after the show. I fell in love with Shawn, the drummer — but just for a minute or two. (The next evening — also at Tin Pan Alley — Bruce Wheeler asked me out. That was 40 years, five months and 26 days ago. Two days later, we went to see the movie, “The Turning Point.” And it was.)

Eventually, NRM moved out to the Ohio Valley Mall, the downtown store closed and, finally, the store at the mall closed. By 2002, all NRM stores were shuttered. Downloading was taking over. CDs had replaced cassette tapes, and albums really just seemed a thing of the past.

Flash forward: Today. Vinyl is back.

I know some 30-somethings who are all about vinyl. Collecting, displaying, getting them signed. Even listening to them.

So, congratulations to Jon Napier of Nail City Record for the new spin on vinyl. (Read Weelunk’s story on Napier’s new downtown location that recently opened.)  And thanks, Jon, for prompting all these NRM memories. He joins a short list of downtown record stores — along with NRM, there was Slater’s Record Shoppe, which did business in Wheeling from 1939 to 1980.

I hope Nail City Record has a steady stream of music lovers and record collectors venturing into the vinyl frontier for years to come.

And Jon, do you think you could find me a copy of Eldorado — preferably with that flashy cover stamped into the vinyl? I just can’t “get it out of my head.”

• After nearly 38 years as reporter, bureau chief, lifestyles editor and managing editor at The Times Leader, and design editor at The Intelligencer and Wheeling News-Register, Phyllis Sigal has joined Weelunk as managing editor. She lives in Wheeling with her husband Bruce Wheeler. Along with their two children, son-in-law and two grandchildren, food, wine, travel, theater and music are close to their hearts.