I’m not exactly sure how long ago it was that Aboveground Records earned my undying loyalty. It might have been nearly 10 years ago after the Christmas dinner at which my Edinburgh-based brother in law asked me about a young blues singer from the Vineyard named Willy Mason — prompting me to sheepishly admit that I hadn’t heard him yet. I called Aboveground’s owner Mike Barnes and asked him to help me find Willy’s music. When I did, I immediately became a fan.
It might have been the many times that I called to place special orders for CDs that are hard to find, usually because my requests indicated embarrassing musical tastes. Every time, whoever answered the phone took down the order without batting an eyelash. I was so relieved not to be met with an attitude of record store clerk condescension so well immortalized by Nick Hornby in the novel High Fidelity — “Really? You’ve got to be kidding.”
Looking for, say, the spoken word CD of Alan Cumming performing Shakespearean monologues? “Sure, I can get that for you” was and always has been Mike Barnes’s response.
A few years back, I decided to stop buying from big box stores and only purchase from independent businesses. There was never any question that Aboveground would be the only source for CD purchases. My choice wasn’t just about the disappearance of independent music stores where I live in New York city, which had recently bid farewell to the legendary Bleecker Bob’s. I chose Aboveground because it’s a place that has always felt like home, and the selection was like an extension of my own vinyl collection. Indeed, many of the CDs I bought to replace my vinyl collection have come from Aboveground’s bins. It’s also a place where I never felt pressure to buy more or to buy at all. Mike and the staff would casually make recommendations for what I might like, and they’d show me where it could be found in the bins. But if I wanted to just browse, daydream or talk for a while, I was welcome to just hang out and have fun. Try doing that on amazon.com.
But I think it’s likely that the golden road to unlimited devotion, cultivated over so many years of finding gems in the bins, was really sealed through the many, many times I walked into the store and was greeted by Mike Barnes cheerily asking after my parents, the status of my mom’s iPhone purchase or how I liked the CD I’d bought months ago on my last trip to the Island. Nowhere else did I get that kind of homecoming and customer service. Cheers might have been the bar where everybody knows your name, but Aboveground Records was more — a welcoming refuge into a magical land of convivial banter conducted against the background of an eclectic mix of great music and Star Wars action figures.
Mike once described the store as a clubhouse. If so, it’s one that was without a secret handshake. Whether you were a regular customer or someone coming in for the first time, you were welcomed and enveloped by the atmosphere.
Aboveground has been a haven for music lovers to find familiar favorites. It’s where my sister came across hidden gems such as an old double CD from the Jerry Garcia Band and a seldom-heard Joan Baez recording. But it’s also been a place where you can afford to stretch your musical tastes without taking a wallop to your wallet. My brother-in-law speaks of taking my nephew in and buying $10 worth of CDs, each priced at $1, of unfamiliar music and embarking on the adventure of hearing new sounds. The business model of selling used items cheaper than can be purchased on iTunes is one that works well for so many reasons. It’s a great way to discover. It makes it possible to keep coming back.
Those discoveries leapt out of the bins, too. On an Island where music making is so enthusiastically encouraged, Aboveground has been an important part of the scene, supporting the sales and live performances of local musicians. We can all thank Mike and his staff for the concerts they produced at the store and at other Island venues, and the performance opportunities they created for both Island musicians and up-and-coming mainland bands. The bin for CDs by local artists is usually right by the counter, tempting an impulse buy but also reminding you of what’s important, shouldn’t be overlooked and deserves to be singled out for your consideration.
Don Groover’s Christmas CD? Got it, along with a replacement copy of the treasured Rick Bausman conga CD bought years ago and played for the children of my friends and family.
In a few months, the Aboveground fan base will hear two words I’ve never heard from Mike Barnes’s mouth: “not available.”
It’s understandable that after nearly 20 years, Mike wants to do something else. And I don’t think anyone who has ever walked into Aboveground could wish him anything but success with whatever the next step is in his journey. Team Aboveground has been a great part of the Island and a great part of our lives, and it is going to be missed. Thank you, Mike Barnes and Aboveground Records, for a real good time.