Chicago DJ and producer The Black Madonna debuts a new SmartBlog series with a deep look into legendary record shop Gramaphone and the man behind it: Smart Bar resident DJ Michael Serafini. Our new series will follow Smart Bar’s guest DJs on a trip to the store and a peek into the bags (and sometimes boxes) that they carry out.
I got to Gramaphone around 8:45 PM, the hour it really slows down on weekdays. Only the lone holdouts —part time employees, incurable vinyl wonks and industry regulars are left. They shuffle around, putting releases back on the wall, deciding between records and ramen noodles, wrapping up consignment deals with Michael. Michael is Michael Serafini, the constant, steady, and capable captain of one of the truly preiminent and most influential record stores in these United States.
It’s past the hour to turn the lights off, but Michael never hurries anyone, taking time to answer everyone’s questions in a way that feels welcoming, considerate and completely unrushed, even though you know he must want to go home. Finally, when everyone’s left, he asks me to walk to the currency exchange with him. The first snow of the year is falling on Clark Street when we walk outside and he apologizes. He hasn’t had a chance to get any change today. Someone has missed a shift. It happens all the time and tasks that get missed often fall to him. Years and staff come and go, but Michael, his partner Jason and a handful of deputies are the ever-reliable guard at the shop. In the countless times that I have been in the store, his only absences are the Sundays he deservedly spends at home, before working at the late shift at Smart Bar. It all starts again on Monday. As the owner of an independent record store in a challenging era for vinyl sales, he puts in hours that would frighten mere mortals. But it hasn’t always been that way and he hasn’t always been the owner. In fact, Gramaphone hasn’t always sold dance records.
Opening in 1969 at the original location, 2663 N. Clark St., the store was purchased for the first owner by his parents, whose interest in shepherding a retail record shop was short-lived. Power transferred to two employees of the store, Joe and Carl. With record stores now collapsing at an unfathomable rate, it’s hard to imagine that Gramaphone opened in an area known at the time as “Record Store Alley,” which boasted an astounding 15-20 record stores within a two mile radius. This zone supported the musical needs of Chicago, with jazz, classical, and rock and roll all offered in close proximity. Nestled in that bustling music district, Gramaphone became a sort of petri dish, reflecting the mutating strains of music that would eventually combine and give birth to Chicago’s distinct dance culture. Servicing a growing gay clientele, who wanted access to the blend of European disco, electro and American soul they heard in venues such as the Warehouse, Gramaphone’s stock shifted away from the standard fare. Michael tells me, “With the house music coming in, they had a customer they hired by the name of Andy Moy, who was one of the first young guys– outside the circle of their friends (Joe and Carl) — that worked at the store that started to be someone who was a buyer of music for the store. His focus was to be buying more of the dance music and house music, what they would call ‘New York beat’ and ‘New Jersey house.’ It was freestyle and stuff like that.”
This is the part of the story you probably know. As the popularity of their dance stock increased, Gramaphone hired a who’s who of Chicago’s dance music legends. Ralphi Rosario, DJ Sneak, Derrick Carter and half the DJ’s that you love worked the counter in quick succession. Josh Werner began cultivating the alternative and techno stock after quitting his job at Coconuts, while still in high school. Jacques Renault eventually became the Drum and Bass buyer. If it sounds like magic, it kind of is. Enter Michael, who joined the staff in 1993, after working at Best Buy.
Of Gramaphone’s earliest and influential staff, Michael laughs as he winks and he tells me, “They are very nice people now, but back in the day they were notorious for buying only four or five copies of a record until it was broke by them and their friends and then stocked in the store regularly. They have lots of little tricks that they used to do back in the day.”
I’ll get this out of the way: I’m not a journalist. I’m barely a writer. I am the opposite of objective: I love Michael Serafini. I love Gramaphone. Of all the stores I’ve ever shopped in, it’s my favorite and my home. When I moved to Chicago, Michael was, as he is with everyone (I later learned), warm and welcoming. He had just purchased the store with his partner, Jason. He was and is a great ambassador for the city. So, when it comes to Michael and the store, I am admittedly biased, but I’m also not alone. The warmth of the staff and of course the depth of its stock and long, rich history have made Gramaphone an essential destination for dusty-fingered commoners and dance music royalty alike, which brings me to the reason I’m writing this this piece for Smart Blog.
The history between Smart Bar and Gramaphone is long, complicated and often fuzzy. These two institutions have long been required coursework for DJ’s hoping to graduate from Chicago onto the world. It’s a proud and shared tradition. Smart Bar and Gramaphone have been trading and sharing employees for almost 20 years. “Over the years,” Michael says, “the DJs who worked at the store, becoming successful and travelling… and becoming producers, they moved on from the store, other people took their places and carried on.”
But that’s not the only connection between these two. While many of Smart Bar’s top visiting DJs haven’t worked at Gramaphone, they’ve certainly spent enough time in it. You’d be hard pressed not to put Steffi and Prosumer at the top of a list of Smart Bar’s most notable and universally praised sets in recent memory. And like many guests, both Steffi and Prosumer requested a trip to Gramaphone and left our fair city with much heavier crates. They aren’t alone. This happens all the time. Many of Smart Bar’s biggest headliners have spent the morning after getting their fingers dusty at Gramaphone. Knowing this happens with such regularity, I wanted to know what the hell these guys and gals are buying.
And that’s just the question we’re going to be asking in this series from now on. What are our favorite visiting DJs buying at Gramaphone when they wrap at Smart Bar?
Michael tells us that, more often than not, they take a little piece of Chicago home with them, “OK, for example, we were all very surprised when Herbert came into town back in the nineties. He was such a huge artist at the time. He bought Dance Mania. Recently Bob Sinclar came in the store. We were closed. We opened specifically for him and he pretty much shopped the Dance Mania section and bought ghetto house. You really wouldn’t expect Bob Sinclar to be buying ghetto house. Hot Chip comes in here regularly when they’re in town. The DFA guys. Mostly when those guys come here they look for Chicago house and classics. American classics and Chicago classics. Todd Terje was in here looking for a record by the Peech Boys, which we didn’t have but then later found and we put it on hold for him.” And lest you think that kind of service is reserved for the likes of Todd, I’ve seen the staff dig through bins and search stock to find clubby remixes of songs for wedding DJs too.
So who are the superdiggers, you may wonder? The aforementioned Prosumer and Steffi, of course. And, Michael adds, “Danny Krivit, he would spend a lot of money. Cassy, she spends a lot of money.” We’ll be catching up with just one such superdigger in the second edition of this feature. Get excited. We were blown away by what we saw.
I wanted to work on this series for several reasons. First, I’m just plain curious. I have a record shaped hole in my heart. I want to know what’s in that bag. I want to know what you’re buying when you get done making my feet hurt at Smart Bar. But it’s more than that. What I know is this: most of the people I revere in dance music stood on one side of Gramaphone’s counter or the other. And most of them stood behind the decks at Smart Bar… or in front of the left front speaker. That means something. I personally believe that records are important, but this series won’t be referendum on the “war” between vinyl and digital by any means. I think Steffi and Prosumer’s sets would do a better job making the case for vinyl than I would anyway. But, there is often connection between the truly lights-out amazing sets at Smart Bar sets and pro-level digging. Smart Bar and Gramaphone are fundamentally connected. Both represent the pinnacle of the American dance music tradition. They share a culture that I treasure and fiercely want to protect. I believe that starting a conversation about the role record buying serves in this amazing club that we proudly call “home” is a step in the right direction.
By the time Michael and I get done gossiping, it’s late enough on a school night that even the light dusting of snow has hushed the neighborhood a little. Michael puts a record in my bag and folds the corners inside to protect my purchase like he does every time and we make plans to see each other on Sunday at Smart Bar.
Chicago is so damned lucky.