Worshipping at the Altar of Brick and Mortar

I remember it like it was only yesterday, but in reality it was probably more like 30 years ago. I walked into my favorite hi-fi store—the one on Dixie Highway. The owner greeted me by name. He was very active as a recording engineer for classical-music groups, and a trusted name in audio. His inventory was pretty high-end and a little spendy for a lowly college professor like me, but we had done some critical listening together and I greatly respected his opinions.

I walked into his shop not to particularly buy anything, but to see his newest audiophile gear. He generously showed me his latest offerings, not so much to sell me something, but as someone who was genuinely excited about the technology and eager to show it to another aficionado. When I left his shop, I felt uplifted, my faith in hi-fi reinvigorated. The same feeling as when you leave church.

Yesterday—and I remember it well because it was yesterday—I walked into a really big store that, among many other products, also sells audio and video products. I won’t make any cranky and curmudgeonly comments about the salespeople or the shopping experience there; I’ll let you make up your own remarks. Suffice it to say that I didn’t find the sermon—the pastor was too busy checking his Facebook page to notice me—particularly inspiring.

Two very different experiences. And as you can guess, the hi-fi shop on Dixie Highway, like many locally owned hi-fi shops, is no longer in business. And there’s the problem. Our places of worship have largely vanished.

Imagine a world where all the churches, mosques, synagogues, and temples have closed down. Imagine that all the ministers and priests, imams, and rabbis, have found other lines of work. Instead, we have really big warehouses with kids selling Bibles they have never read.

Of course, you can still buy all sorts of hi-fi products at the big warehouse. And if that floor space isn’t roomy enough for you, you can turn to the biggest warehouse of them all—the internet. The selection of products there is truly amazing; last time I counted, the number of things for sale in the vast rainforest of consumer electronics stood at infinity minus 1. You can price-shop like crazy and get smoking good deals, and the FedEx driver can have the box at your doorstep tomorrow. Before long, a drone will drop it off even sooner.

It’s so convenient. You can shop for audio gear at home, take delivery at home, and listen at home. No need to find a parking space or worry that the congregation has filled up the pews, especially the ones centered between the speakers. The store never closes, you can get Sunday delivery. Gorge yourself.

Alienation. I guess that’s what I’m trying to say. Without all those little hi-fi shops, we’re missing the chance to rub elbows, talk to an expert, and ask the guy sitting next to you if the ride cymbal sounds a little funny. It’s like your neighborhood bar closed down, and you have to buy your liquor online. Instead of sharing a drink with good friends, all of us hi-fi nuts are at home, drinking alone.

Too many mom-and-pop hi-fi stores, like record stores, are mainly memories now. Still, there are some left. If there’s a hi-fi shop in your town, go there right now. Even if you don’t need a new receiver, go there. Talk to the owner and sit down in a good acoustic space and listen for a while. Buy what they’re selling, or not. Either way, you’ll feel uplifted as you leave.

Billy's picture

I used to frequent a great little place in Eau Claire, Wisconsin called Elite Audio. It was opened and ran by two guys who used to work for another place called Mountain (something, can't remember, getting old) These guys were awesome. They would let you come in and kick the tires on all sorts of great quality audio, even if they knew you wouldn't buy, because it was building up good will and someday you would. I eventually did. Bought some great used stuff there too. These guys loved to talk about the experience, knew all sorts of things about great music, movies. Loved to demo stuff. Most of all, they knew their stuff. They could educate you on WHY something was better and they backed that up with setting up the gear to be its best. You got the whole experience. Now they are gone (though one of the partners is still in town under the same name, but he only repairs gear, though that is an awesome service as well. Thanks Walt, you rock!) and I wish I could still go there. Our kids are pretty much done with college, and I have some free cash to spend, I could be a better customer then I once was, and they would definitely get the business. I go to Best Buy, and not only do they not even have the audio stuff even set up to demo, the sales people are pretty dense. I know so much more then any of they do. Its sad. BB sales person this week, McDonalds next week. Oh well, guess its part of the sad state we find our country in, in general these days, but that's another subject altogether. I also miss my small independent record shops, esp. the used ones. Used to be hunting for some old obscure music was a years long quest, and when it was found, it was a delight! The hunt was part of the thrill. Today, I can sit in my pajamas at the computer at 3AM and call up anything my heart desires (usually for free if I just want to listen), and that is awesome. I will never bad mouth digital music, the ability to stream it, have 3000 songs on a stick to randomly come up in my car or on a walk, is almost like a miracle, but I do miss something from the old days. Maybe it was just being young, I do miss that.

pw's picture

At Brick and Mortar shop you could come in at the end of the month with $2000 cash and usually buy a $3000 item..

hk2000's picture

Those days are not coming back, and I'm afraid your metaphor extends even further, real houses of worship are just as dying a breed as the Hi-Fi shop. (As I'm typing this, Hi-Fi in any variation is being flagged as a typo, enough said)

prerich45's picture

"True dat"!

John_Werner's picture

Lawrence Hi-Fi was a watershed for me in the early 70's. I was a kid who couldn't afford even their entry-level Dual and Sansui systems. But, I, as a 12-year old kid, was always welcomed in and allowed listening sessions in their sound room. My first big memory comes from listening to Wishbone Ash's Vas Dis on Bose 901s powered with McIntosh amps. Today if you can find a Hi-Fi store you can't get arrested unless they think if you've got 10K ,or more ready to drop, and an appointment. It's like why are you here?.. These places helped themselves out of business by attitude and price. Though I read Stereophile and The Absolute Sound I find myself mad because 80% of the stuff they review is ridiculously high priced. You see when I was old enough I bought a McIntosh C-26 preamp from Lawrence and it was because several years earlier they just loved showing a kid stuff. What happened to affordable gear and a welcome mat?

drny's picture

Ken is nostalgic for a by gone era and I empathize. However, present day high end audio shops are not interested in disseminating (preaching) the gospel truth of fine audio, but rather like TV evangelist or a Ferrari dealership, they're trying to gauge your wallet.
Just as a Ferrari dealership you must be pre-qualified through a series of queries before you are allowed to get near the product.
Just like a Ferrari dealership they try to up sell you into an even further over priced model.
Yes Ken, in present day you can still hear, see and touch high end audio gear, its just not worth the hassle going to a small hi end store. I say good riddance to price gauging and snob treatment high end brick and mortar stores.
A Ferrari is really a hedonistic expression for those who must show the world their social economic status. As such a trip to the Ferrari dealership will be enjoyable for those who desperately want to tell the world I matter, look at me.
Audio enjoyment is also a hedonistic pleasure also, but it is often quite private and secluded worship session. No need for the pastor (salesman /owner) to evaluate if you are worth saving.

Electroliner's picture

My two favorite shops were called the Sound Room and Classic Stereo.
The Sound Room closed, about the time Classic Stereo began. Lost Classic Stereo in the GFC. Now KAZOO Audio is on the scene. I've known the owner for 35 years, who worked at both prior establishments.

Customer is key. I enjoy being able to preview products and bring in music in what ever form I have to audition. Staff is very knowledgeable about all music genres.

I will keep buying audio/video products from this store as I get support that I would not receive at something like Magnolia.