Fri Dec 05 2008

First, the Milwaukee Shakespeare Company goes belly up. Now this? What’s next, Fuel Café? The Cactus Club? WMSE??? When I got the email last night, I saw the subject line (“Atomic Records to close in February 2009”) and my brain instantly rejected the possibility of taking it at face value. Surely, they’re remodeling? Yet I could barely bring myself to open the message. I skimmed it first, looking for a way out, a sign that there’s a way to stop this from happening. It was that feeling you get when someone you know dies, where your mind goes into hyperdrive thinking about all the things you could have conceivably done to prevent this…rejecting the possibility that it is happening…willing the universe to send you back to the right place at the right time, until the sickening reality starts to truly manifest and you begin the process of digging out of a deep morass of denial. This is just something that can’t happen, and yet apparently, it is.

Last Spring, for the first time I’d heard of, we celebrated Record Store Day. A bunch of Milwaukee’s greatest musicians came out to jam in Atomic’s honor, and I had a new favorite holiday. Everything was right with the world. The perpetual media mantra about how nobody cares about records any more was proven false. Vinyl was coming back. It felt like a resurgence, but I guess it was a last gasp. I’ve been blundering through the rest of 2008 in a bubble of naïveté. I’ve been ignoring the signs, though. It’s all rushing into my head now. I think I have two friends who actually buy records any more, and neither of them lives in Milwaukee. I probably only know a handful of people who even buy CDs regularly. And in the name of convenience or tough economic times, I suppose they probably go to or something. I felt like a traitor when I bought the new AC/DC at Wal-Mart, even though it was the only option.

I’m beginning to feel like a relic, as Rich, proprietor of Atomic, surely does. Society remains vibrant by shedding the vestiges of obsolete paradigms, right? And I thought we were keeping something vibrant alive, while the rest of the world surrendered to force-fed ADD and rampant disposability. But if Atomic can’t stay afloat in the modern mainstream, what hope is there for people like me any more? I took the place for granted while it gave all it had. Now I feel guilty for every discount I took advantage of. I wish I could reclaim every frivolous cent I’ve spent on useless bullshit and just invest it in the store now to stop this from happening, because for me, there is no experience comparable to walking into Atomic, putting on some headphones and discovering an amazing sound I’ve never heard before, browsing through the records and spotting a lost classic, shooting the breeze with Vicki or Sahan about the show we were at last weekend…you’re telling me this is all over with? How did we let this happen, Milwaukee?

So, now what? You don’t normally get advance notice when a friend dies. How do I walk in there next Tuesday as if it’s just another day? How can I feel good about getting a 20% going-out-of-business discount? I feel like I can’t even go back there. I feel like moving to a different city, to be honest. I’ve believed in the heart of Milwaukee for so long, but now I see condos shooting up left and right and silky, dress-coded nightclubs buying up all the ad space in the Shepherd, and the best bands in Milwaukee can barely attract half capacity at the Cactus on a Saturday night. And maybe the worst part is that I’m sitting here, selfishly writing this useless diatribe in the hope that it could somehow make Atomic stay open so I don’t lose my favorite Milwaukee institution. There’s a more noble purpose buried in here somewhere as well…I’m just not feeling it right now. So on that note, I’ll just say this: thank you, Atomic, for showing the increasingly ungrateful citizens of Milwaukee what it’s like to have a record shop that ranks with the best on Earth. Thanks for sticking with an honorable, customer-oriented business model even as it drove you into the ground. Thanks for being loyal to local artists, underground artists, and the tireless work that went into the entertaining and insightful weekly mailings. And foremost, thanks for all the music I never would have discovered without you. You are sorely missed, and you’re not even gone yet.

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