t the end of June, Black Dots opened in the basement of a pedestrian house on the corner of Lafayette Avenue and Grant Street. It’s a record store specializing in punk, metal and hardcore, with the Misfits, Dead Kennedys and Black Flag as some of its biggest names. It’s also a record store in the truest sense, dealing only in new and used vinyl and cassettes, with not a single CD for sale in its black wooden shelves.
Just to reiterate: Black Dots opened in June 2013. As in last month.
A new record store, especially one so specialized, might seem as feasible as a new fleet of pay phones. More than 4,000 record stores shut their doors in the last decade, according to the Almighty Institute of Music Retail, a Los Angeles market research firm.
Buffalo saw much of its own music stopping, with one-time holy lands Home of the Hits and New World Record disappearing, and the Record Theatre chain shrinking to two Main Street locations. The city’s last new store, Spiral Scratch, opened in 2008, a lifetime before smartphones and Spotify overhauled the music industry all over again.
So what’s with Black Dots opening on our local stage?
“I know it sounds weird to a lot of people, but the only experience I’ve had going around and seeing other stores is now’s as good a time to do it as any,” said Joshua Smith, owner and sole employee of Black Dots, who uses a vocabulary that makes most of his quotes unprintable.
“You’ve just got to do it right,” he added.
For Black Dots – named after the Bad Brains album – doing it right means thinking small. With a few thousand albums jammed into less space than many stores once reserved for individual genres, Black Dots looks more like an extensive yard sale than a musical Mecca. But these days, something-for-everyone warehouses, like the Record Theatre near Lafayette Avenue, are hard enough to maintain, let alone open. If record shops have a future, this is what it looks like: Small, cheap, independently owned boutiques that stay afloat by sticking to a niche. And the idea of anyone attempting a new store is so surprising that even Black Dots’ would-be competition applauds the effort.
“It’s nice to see that instead of someone closing up, someone’s opening up their doors,” said Wayne Zagan, manager of the Record Theatre at Main Street and Lafayette.
Fortunately for Black Dots owner Smith – who wore a black shirt, black jeans, black shoes and black socks in a cordial in-store interview – he knows his niche well. The 26-year-old Syracuse native, who moved here several months ago from Western Massachusetts, is a die-hard member of hardcore music scenes, spending most of his life amassing records, attending basement shows and ambling through a slew of hard-hitting bands. On tours, while his bandmates would drink or party, Smith preferred digging through dollar bins in music stores across the country.
“I like getting up, getting to where we need to go, finding good vegan food and checking out the cool record stores in town,” he said, recalling his travel routine.
The years of playing and purchasing music showed Smith an important business lesson: Punk, hardcore and metal are surprisingly sustainable ventures, precisely because they fight the laws of a fluctuating music world. Many punks rebel against industry standards by adhering to anachronistic traditions, like pressing several hundred cassettes or 7-inch singles while never minding the bollocks of CDs or social media. With vinyl making an unprecedented comeback in the last few years – even the mall chains Hot Topic and f.y.e. amplified their offerings – this fares well for bands running on limited-run releases.
“It seems like punk and hardcore scenes were never really into the digital formats,” said Alex Kerns, drummer of the Buffalo band Lemuria and owner of the Black Dots house. “It’s definitely a genre where you have to dig to find the music you like. It’s a genre that’s not on the radio or on the Web. People who are into that music are really into knowing who produced the records, and they want to support the bands.”
Long before Black Dots, Smith sold thousands of albums on the side, becoming something of an unofficial retailer. His years of avidly collecting and trading records made him confident about starting a store for his favorite styles.
“The fact that I’ve been doing it for so long and not had to break down and get a real job means something,” he said.
He started working at Spiral Scratch almost immediately upon moving to Buffalo, but also started planning his own place – and sold about 200 of his own records to do so. (Don’t worry – he has thousands more.)
From the peanut shells littering the floor to the “sign” next to the front door – a small cardboard square with “Black Dots” and, indeed, a big black dot, scrawled in black marker – Black Dots is suitably shabby. With a wall of black band T-shirts, bootleg posters for Mohawk Place shows and black-and-white fliers for underground concerts, headbangers who miss Home of the Hits will feel right at home. It’s the kind of place where labels like Deathwish Inc. and Art of the Underground are strongly represented; where someone’s tortuous quest for an Aaron and the Burrs cassette will finally end; where, if you dig deep enough, you’ll discover a 7-inch called “Syracuse, Kill Yourself,” which comes with its own razor blade.
The average music shopper might not care for these releases. But a few minutes after Black Dots opened for its second day, a couple from Toronto was spotted on Grant Street, looking for the store. (The sign didn’t help.) The boyfriend, Chris Green, said he was searching for a place to get some Fugazi, Boris and Dropkick Murphys albums – and he expected his search to stop here.
He said he finds a place like Black Dots in “one out of 10” record stores he sees, before going with his girlfriend down to the basement.