Waxing and Lamenting – Jim Russell Records in New Orleans
By Brenton Crozier
Stepping through the door of Jim Russell Records is truly a revelation for record collectors, music enthusiasts and appreciators of community culture alike. The Sounds of the Re:Union recently visited New Orleans to film our inaugural podcast. Our on-the-ground insiders and our own research consistently pointed us to this area staple.
We went to Jim Russell Records merely thinking it would make the perfect backdrop for an interview that we were conducting, but quickly learned that this neighborhood institution had a story all its own. A sea of vinyl records, massive selection of local music and picture after picture of store owner with industry moguls is only the beginning.
All it takes is a minute of talking to the staff, or in this case you could say the family, that run the store and you’ll recognize that music isn’t simply just business for them, it’s truly a passion. This passion is seemingly infectious. During our time there, we met Patrick, a volunteer at the record store. He immediately recognized what a gem Jim Russell’s is and doesn’t want to see it realize the same fate that great record stores around the country have met over the last few years . . . but I’ll let him tell you about it.
SOTRU: What brought you to New Orleans? And from there, how did you find Jim Russell Records?
Patrick: My girlfriend introduced me to New Orleans culture a couple of years ago, and I was struck by how music plays such a large role in everything here. We also noticed, obviously, the after-effects of Katrina, and decided to become a part of the recovery effort. We decided to move here this year and, being a musician, I began to look for music-related work.
SOTRU: How did you become a volunteer there and why?
Patrick: I walked into Jim Russell Records in May as a customer, and began talking about New Orleans music and the history of the store with Denise (Jim Russell’s daughter-in-law and Store Manager). Throughout the course of the conversation, I began to think of ways the store could make some basic improvements. When I asked her if they needed help, she said she couldn’t afford to hire me, so I ‘volunteered’ to volunteer.
SOTRU: Tell us about the record store.
Patrick: Jim Russell opened the store to the public in 1969, my understanding is prior to that it operated as a wholesale record dealer supplying new releases to other record shops around the city. For a mom-and-pop record store to have been in business now for 40 years is impressive, especially when you factor in the economy and the fact that physical sales of music are decreasing while digital sales are increasing, yet there is still a huge market for vinyl records, because they sound so good.
SOTRU: Do you consider the store an integral part of the community and why?
Patrick: Jim Russell once said, “Every record holds a memory for someone” and that rings true, we carry a lot of titles that are out-of-print, you can’t get them at Wal-Mart or any of those big box stores. People from the neighborhood come in all the time and ask about a song, they may not remember what it’s called or who sang it, but they’ll hum a few bars, or maybe remember part of a lyric, and we’ll find it for them. When we play it for them, their face lights up. I don’t know if that happens at Best Buy very often.
SOTRU: What are your goals and what are you trying to accomplish at Jim Russell Records?
Patrick: The building is getting old and needs a lot of repairs, primarily the roof. A fresh coat of paint probably wouldn’t hurt, either. Neighborhood graffiti is becoming an issue, but I think if they (local graffiti artists) had an outlet, say, a mural of New Orleans musicians painted on the side of the building, that may curb some of the vandalism–take something negative and turn it positive.
I’d eventually like to make a space for local and touring bands to come in and do in-store performances, meet-and-greets, etc. and maybe even have food and drinks available. That’s a bit further down the road of course. I think right now the priority is to repair the roof and go from there.
SOTRU: What is the most interesting aside that you know about the record store?
Patrick: There is a mischievous ghost that lives upstairs who likes to come downstairs at night to move stuff around and knock things over.
SOTRU: How can people help?
Patrick: We could use a few more volunteers at the store for day-to-day operations, there’s a lot of work to be done.
SOTRU: When you are there as a music fan, do you feel like a kid in a candy store and what are some gems you have brought home for your own collection?
Patrick: I live in a pretty small apartment, so I’ve downsized my own record collection quite a bit. One of the things I like about the store is having access to such a huge collection, and whenever I need to hear something, I can just find it and play it in the store.
SOTRU: What is the sound of New Orleans?
Patrick: I hear the ‘New Orleans sound’ likened to gumbo frequently, that’s a pretty valid comparison. There are a lot of different flavors in the mix; Traditional Jazz, Ragtime, Swamp Funk, Cajun & Zydeco, Salsa & Mambo, Delta Blues, the list goes on…
SOTRU: Has the renewed interest in vinyl benefited the record store? Why do you think this resurgence is taking place?
Patrick: There are definitely a lot of college kids and hipsters coming by to check out the store for the first time, and we’ve been selling more turntables lately, too. Besides the sound of an LP being better, I think people enjoy the artwork and overall package design of most records, as opposed to MP3s which can be overly compressed and impersonal.
SOTRU: What else do you want people to know about both the record store and what you are doing there?
Patrick: The record store has been through a lot in the 40 years since it opened, and some adjustments need to be made to keep it running for 40 more. I’d like to retain the old-fashioned, mom-and-pop aesthetic but modernize other areas to help things run more efficiently. There’s a lot of work to do, but it can be done.
Visiting New Orleans or live in the area? Jim Russell Records is a must. Stop in at 1837 Magazine Street or give them a call for directions at 504.522.2602.