The story of Almost Music, the vintage record store that just opened at 6569 Maple St. in Benson, is the story of a guy who escaped a life caged in a cubicle to pursue a dream he's held for 20 years.
Brad Smith got into the record business way back in 1993 at age 20 when he joined the staff of the legendary Antiquarium Record Store in the Old Market. Tucked away in the basement of a massive bookstore on Harney Street, The Antiquarium was the touchstone of the Omaha music scene throughout its heyday in the mid-‘90s.
Smith joined a staff that included Chris Deden, singer/songwriter Simon Joyner and The Antiquarium’s legendary frontman, Dave Sink.
“Dave was the mouthpiece, the spokesperson,” Smith said. “That’s what he liked to do -- drink coffee, smoke cigarettes and BS with people. Chris and I actually worked really hard because we had to make up for the fact that Dave didn’t.”
While Smith, Deden and Joyner broke their backs keeping the shelves stocked, Sink stood behind the counter and shared what he knew about the music business (and baseball) with young bands, young record labels and, yes, young music journalists. Sink and the store played a central role in creating a scene that spawned Saddle Creek Records and bands such as Bright Eyes and Cursive.
Technology eventually drove Smith out of The Antiquarium in 2000. He and Deden had set up a website called Starsailor Records and began selling rare albums on a new online marketplace called eBay. Smith said Sink viewed the Internet as a passing fad.
“Dave’s quote was, ‘This is the new CB radio. It’s hot right now, but you’re wasting your time.’ The whole idea of cyberspace was a hard concept for someone Dave’s age to grasp.”
As you might guess, a career selling records isn’t exactly lucrative. Smith said his years at the Antiquarium brought in just enough to pay the rent. “I was single and so were Chris and Dave,” he said. “It was enough to make a meager living for a single person. I would have made a better living if I hadn’t spent so much on my own record collection.”
Needless to say, things changed when Smith had his first daughter, Matilda, in 2001. Now with a child to support, he felt he needed a more substantial career, one that actually supplied health insurance. Smith had earned a degree in Business Administration from UNO while working at The Antiquarium, which helped him land an insurance job and eventually a credit analyst position at Hewlett-Packard in 2007. By then he’d met his current girlfriend, Sarah Gleason, who had two kids of her own, Nora and Jack. Together, the couple had Dorothy, who just turned 3 and a half.
Even with a “regular job,” Smith said there was no real security at H-P. Shortly after he joined the company, the bottom fell out of the economy and the layoffs began. “We went from four floors of employees to two,” Smith said. “We had waves of layoffs every nine months. I survived four of them.”
His number finally came up in April of this year. By then, he already had the idea of opening Almost Music. “I knew a record store could be successful if I did it right,” Smith said. “Even before I got laid off, Sarah said, ‘You have to do it.’ She knew I hated sitting in a cubical all day. Once I got laid off, there was no excuse not to.”
Smith already had begun accumulating inventory when the storefront became available. Located a few blocks west of the heart of Benson, Almost Music shares the space with Solid Jackson Books, a satellite location of Jackson Street Booksellers. The bookstore’s name is an homage to ‘90s rock band Solid Jackson, which released a record on a label run by Deden and Joyner.
“I really wanted to do something like The Antiquarium, where it’s not just a retail shop, it’s a place to hang out and have discussions and have a cup of coffee,” Smith said. “That wasn’t feasible without the bookstore.”
Open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 6, Almost Music sells an eclectic mix of vinyl -- everything from high-end collectables (a Sun Ra album from 1968 is priced at $350) to clean, cheap copies of albums by bands like The Go Go’s and Fleetwood Mac.
“I try to make it a well-curated selection,” Smith said. “The Antiquarium did the same thing. We had our cheap section and kept the good stuff separate. Ninety-eight percent of our albums is really clean and in nice shape. You don’t have to check the condition.”
On a trip to Almost Music last weekend I picked up a rare copy of a Smiths 12-inch single (“Barbarism Begins at Home” b/w “Shakespeare’s Sister”) and Richard Thompson’s Hand of Kindness LP, while Teresa snagged Claudine Longet’s debut album and Queen’s The Game, both for $2.
It’s only been open three weeks but the shop is already doing well. Smith said the store isn’t the couple’s only source of income. Sarah also has a part-time job, and they both intend to take advantage of insurance available through the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. Obamacare).
Still, was opening the store scary?
“Oh yeah,” Smith said. “I kept looking for a job I couldn’t say ‘no’ to. It never happened because my heart was never in it. My heart was in this.”
Almost Music and Solid Jackson Bookstore celebrate their official Grand Opening this Saturday, Oct. 19. Festivities include live performances by Simon Joyner and Noah Sterba of The Yuppies. Come on down, have a cup of coffee and listen to some good music.
Over The Edge is a weekly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on culture, society, the media and the arts. Email Tim at email@example.com.