In Chapel Hill, a small town where there are already several independent record stores operating, where the major corporate music-store chains are represented and both Wal-Mart and Best Buy lie just over the county line, it's valid to ask: Just how many small shops can one limited population support? Answer: If it's the right kind of place, it'll always find its niche market. CD Alley, located in a small space on West Franklin Street, now starting its third year, has not only survived, but thrived by becoming a stable, contributing part of the local music scene as well as a reliable outlet with eclectic stock.
All of which goes to show that someone can make a successful run in a swamped market, as long as they go the extra mile for interested comers. In CD Alley owner Sean McCrossin's case, this has meant contributing in his own way to the local network of indie artists and musicians.
Before some of the larger shows at the Cat's Cradle, McCrossin grills up some food and fills a cooler full of beer for anyone who wants to stop by and hang out before the concert. Free. "Most any show I'm going to, I'll try and set something up," he says. Then there was the time he had folks in the store to listen to The Flaming Lips' four-disc set, Zaireeka. These four discs have to be played simultaneously on four different stereos to achieve the intended effect, so not many folks can pull it off at home. (If you haven't experienced this, find a way; it's unique.) He also hosts in-store shows by visiting local bands, most recently on Sept. 25, when Superchunk was just one of five groups to play in the cramped space at the back of the aisles. Oh yeah, and McCrossin releases records by local bands on his own label, Sit-N-Spin, and sponsors shows at other venues, like a Cat's Cradle event this past July that featured local faves The Comas (who turned in a legendarily inspired set), Sit-N-Spin artists Rodeo Boy and The Kingsbury Manx (who've released a single on Sit-N-Spin). Admission for the show ran $3. Talk about bang for your buck.
"There's so much going on here," he says, "but it's not competitive. It's more of a mutual support network."
For the Virginia Beach native, the odyssey that led him to become part of the Triangle "scene" began around 1990 on the Outer Banks, when McCrossin opened his first store, also called CD Alley. "It was above a surf shop," he recalls. "In that kind of area, you had to carry the mainstream bands just to survive; there wasn't much room for expanding into other interesting branches." Tired of the area's limitations, he eventually closed shop and loaded his inventory "all into one trailer," moving to Greenville, N.C. After opening another store there, he soon helped a friend start a Wilmington branch. For the next two years, he spent his time commuting between Greenville and Wilmington, eventually expanding into the record label biz to release music by Wilmington rock trio Rodeo Boy.
"It started out as a 7-inch, then went to a 10-inch, and we ended up putting out a full-length album," he recalls.
After getting married, McCrossin sold both CD Alley stores and moved to Winston-Salem, where he and his wife ended up staying for a year-and-a-half. "It was a good place for my wife and I to start out; there were no distractions," he says. "But it was really boring." After his wife decided to attend graduate school in Chapel Hill, McCrossin found himself wandering Franklin Street and coming upon 2-Way Pull Records, which happened to be having a going-out-of-business sale (the owners were heading out West). He started talking to them, and within days McCrossin had signed the papers to take over the business. He also ended up buying their stock, quickly expanding on their inventory by bringing in loads of vinyl and hard-to-find classics.
An indie-store pitfall that McCrossin and his staff have managed to avoid nicely is the aura of smug superiority that most "hip" record stores (and their clerks) give off in their interactions with customers. Come on now--nearly all of us, no matter how knowledgeable we might feel ourselves to be, have had the experience (a la High Fidelity) of the pierced-up, cooler-than-thou clerk behind the counter making us feel like a poseur idiot by asking for something obscure, or a hopeless sheep for buying a copy of some major-label release: "Oh, the new Radiohead. ..." You won't get much of that in McCrossin's shop, or at least you'll get it with a shared, secret smile.
Add to that the fact that McCrossin has managed to fit a coffee table and sofa into the limited space between the stacks of plastic, allowing the "listening station" to actually live up to its name. CD Alley is one of the most comfortable places in the area to just check out music and to talk about it--you can slide a disc into the player on the table, slip on the headphones and get a good listen to your prospective purchase without feeling nakedly obvious to the staff or the other customers. Also, the used selection is almost as diverse as the new, and more than fairly priced.
Sit-N-Spin has also made the move to Chapel Hill from down east. The Comas have released a lovely picture-disc single on the label, and The Ghost of Rock is scheduled for a 7-inch in the near future. The label recently worked together with Voltage Recordings to put out Choose Your Own Adventure's epic debut CD, La Mancha. Look for Rodeo Boy's much-anticipated new full-length (their third) in December.
So how did he manage to end up working with all these people? "Word of mouth," he says, adding, "friends, mostly." He sees the local community expressing itself via "creativity through reflection," a mature and intuitive process that allows bands (and fans) of different artistic inclinations to build on and grow from one another's contributions. Of course, for this to work in such a way that the practitioners can make a living and put their work out for public consumption, there have to be folks like McCrossin, diligently supporting their cause by working the other ends of the musical spectrum.
In its own way, CD Alley is as much a work of creative exploration as the music you can find there. Through its selection, its shows and events and all the folks invited to participate in McCrossin's various ventures, this little store enriches the experience of music in one of its most important and fundamental ways: by sharing it.