A record store is more than sturdy walls and wax tracks. It’s a breathing beast that noses you to new experiences and grants free-entry access to a sonic sanctuary.
A world of music is a few key clacks away – until the power goes out or a corporation screws with your tunes. Owning music matters. Having that music on a forever-accessible format like vinyl matters. A streaming service can’t obscure or oust a band from your playlist if it’s on your shelf, and it’ll take a sci-fi future before algorithms turn into artificial intelligence that can answer, “What should I listen to if I like the political disruption of the MC5 at the ’68 Democratic National Convention but want a Burroughs-meets-Rimbaud vibe?”
Who can answer that? The folks at Southwest Sound. They’d play you Patti Smith and chat about how the gonzo rock critic Lester Bangs said she created a “new Romanticism built upon the universal language of rock’n’roll.” Someone else might pop into the shop, see the “Horses” album in your hand, and mention there’s a new Steven Sebring documentary on the 40th anniversary tour of that same album, which could lead into a joint convo about philosophically toned or generally uplifting music docs.
Record stores matter. The community they provide matters. Regrettably for Durango, its harmonic haven is closing.
Southwest Sound will shutter up come mid-summer.
Southwest Sound owner Robert Stapleton has been in the music retail biz for 50 years. He started at Tower Records when he was 14, and continued on with Southwest Sound when he moved to Durango.
“We’re looking at a couple months from now,” Robert said. “Probably end of June or July, if we’re lucky.”
The shop’s impending closure is due to the usual causes.
“People’s buying habits have changed and so has the retail market,” said Robert.
He noted that even big box stores are giving up on selling music.
“Back in February, Best Buy and Target, who account for about a third to half of all CD sales in America, announced they will no longer be selling CDs or, in Target’s case, only on a consignment basis,” Robert said.
“It seems like music no longer has a value to people,” said Robert. “Everyone wants to stream music, to have it for free, but there’s no ownership there. Streaming to me is high-tech radio.”
“It’s time. Our lease was up. Cooper (Stapleton) was moving,” he said. “Business is not what it used to be. My daughter is graduating from the Fort and everything pointed to this being the time.”
Cooper Stapleton, Robert’s son and manager of Southwest Sound, agreed.
“It’s hard to live in Durango now. It isn’t affordable,” Cooper said. “I don’t blame people for not being able to spend money on extras that are not essential to daily life.”
Southwest Sound’s closing ain’t marked with doom and gloom, though. The shop brought hella joy to those on both sides of the counter.
“The store enabled me to live and raise my children in a great community and have a lifestyle I enjoyed,” Robert said. “I got to come play in my garage every day and talk about the thing I love the most, outside of my wife and children. Music.”
“I got to see and work with my son every day. This was really not like a real job. It was coming to work with great people and great customers and interacting over a common love of music. That is success,” Robert said.
Cooper added that his dad’s knowledge of music was a valuable commodity alongside those vinyls.
“My dad has a billion stories and I’ve heard only about a tenth of them. I was able to learn something from him every day,” Cooper said. “He’s been in the record industry since the late ’60s, and his father, my grandpa, worked for Capitol Records. Being able to talk to my dad about why we do this and what we both get out of it has been really valuable.”
For Cooper, that value was a combination of learning the physical, collectable side of music, and the business that surrounds it.
“Being able to absorb so much music every day, that’s special,” Cooper said. “Being able to talk about it.”
“Even music I was not personally passionate about, I continually met someone who was, and I learned from those sorts of conversations,” Cooper said.
Southwest Sound isn’t the sort of record store you walk into where a pretentious clerk arbitrates your musical taste. It has been a storefront dedicated to conversation and community building.
“I’ve always thought about us as not just a place to go and buy things,” said Cooper. “So many of our best customers come in to hangout and chitchat for sometimes five minutes, and sometimes a couple hours. Half the time, they don’t buy anything and that’s fine. We enjoy the act of talking about music. I’ve always hoped we were a place where you could go to learn something and be exposed to music you might not be exposed to otherwise.”
Robert said that’s been one of the greatest parts of Southwest Sound.
“That’s one of the best things about this store. Being able to turn people onto music they’ve never heard before and vice versa,” Robert said. “Our customers constantly turn me onto music I’ve never heard of.”
Southwest Sound has a philosophy of treating customers like more than walking stacks of greenbacks. Don’t have a credit card to order a rare album on Amazon or Discogs.com yourself? Southwest Sound would order it into the store for you.
Or, perhaps you’re just a local who comes in often.
“If I know you’re in here twice a week, once a week, or every two weeks when you get paid, I’m going to reward you because I know you. You’re a regular,” said Robert.
“That’s the coolest thing that we’ve had the ability to do, connecting people to music that they love, that they’ve been searching for forever, for a fair price,” Robert said. “I understand the hunt of collecting records and finding that one album in the thrift store or bin that you’ve been searching for your entire life. The Holy Grail. I’m going to miss seeing and helping people on that search.”
Southwest Sound has seen a fair share of epic records.
“Probably one of the coolest albums I’ve come across in the shop was a German David Bowie ‘Heroes’ album that had an exclusive version of ‘Heroes’ sung in German. A woman brought us a bunch of French, German, and Italian rock records and that was one,” Robert Stapleton said.
The record went to a local Bowie fan even more obsessed than Robert.
“I knew he would go nuts for it, and he did. That’s the beauty of being a small business. You can cater to people and know what your customers like who come through,” Robert said.
For Cooper, a Bob Dylan record is what conjures up the nostalgia.
“We had a sealed ‘Bob Dylan’ (self-titled) album come in. The trick with those old Dylan records is that he was on Columbia and they had different center labels for each pressing. We got a sealed ‘Bob Dylan’ in and we knew it was old and we had to open it to see what pressing it was. I would love to sell a first, sealed “Bob Dylan” album no matter what pressing it was, but our curiosity got the best of us, so we put gloves on and very carefully slit the side with this tiny knife that we have in the back office and pulled out the record,” Cooper said. “Thankfully, the record was sealed inside, as well. I had never seen that before. It had a perforated top that you could rip off, but it was clear packaging and we saw that the record was a second pressing.”
“My personal Holy Grail, I actually had and I sold,” Robert said. “That was David Bowie, ‘Man Who Sold the World,’ original English copy, which is what they call the ‘Dress Cover,’ where he is wearing a dress and lounging on a daybed and he looks like Lauren Bacall. The reissue from nowadays looks like that exact same cover, but the first pressing is a highly prized album, and I found it back in the day. At the time, I needed money so I sold it for $100, and now it is worth probably $1,000, maybe $1,500, and I would never pay that for it. But maybe someday it will turn up again.”
A haggard, UK first-pressing of “London Calling” and “If You’re Into It, I’m Out Of It,” by Christoph de Babalon are several prized finds for Cooper.
“That (de Babalon) album is amazing. That came in and I had never heard of it and the cover grabbed me. It’s a dude in a letterman sweater staring darkly at the photographer in black and white. It’s a mix of dub, European hardcore, and ambient music,” Robert said.
You weren’t only going to be staggered by bin-digging at Southwest Sound. The joint had celebrities consistently pop through. Slipknot’s Corey Taylor, Charlie “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” Daniels, country star Marty Stuart, ska legends Fishbone, and dang near almost every musician that passed through the Community Concert Hall or Animas City Theatre stopped by.
Or, perhaps like Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA. The who happened to pop into the shop one day after a show.
“I was lurking in the back when he came in,” said Cooper. “My coworker Travis had to deny RZA’s American Express Black Card because we didn’t take American Express at the time. He paid with a big ol’ wad of cash from his take from the show the night before instead.”
So what happens when a small town loses its only record store?
“I don’t want to get into soul and heart, but it is a sad thing,” said Robert. “What we’ve heard from a lot of people is that people don’t want to live in a town without a record store. People aren’t going to move, but it does leave a void. We would love to pass this on to somebody, and I would definitely entertain someone wanting to buy it. If not buying this specific shop, I would love to see somebody step up to open another store after we’re gone.”
“If you want to keep cultural places like this shop, or the next record shop, alive, come in and talk to us about the music you love, make sure we know you want it, and when you make sure we bring it in, you come back and buy it,” Cooper said.
“That money helps us, it helps the artists you love, the town you live in, all of that. It’s all interconnected.”
Southwest Sound is more than bricks and glass housing wax. It’s an auditory anchorage that has armored hearts with song and stoked the fire of human connectivity in a digital age.
It’s been a damn honor to have you in our town, Southwest Sound.