Sunday Morning! Hammer City Records
How can a place enter your life like an act of grace and leave like it a half-forgotten dream?
All I can really say is Hammer City Records was never much of a record store. It was “organized,” if we can use that word, like a junkshop with the names of sections serving more as a rough sketches of what might be nice to find in an ideal world; it was entirely possible you’d locate the doo-wop comp you were looking for in the “Metal” section, or a vintage punk album in “New Releases.” The floors were often filthy, usually with spilled beer, once or twice with blood. To even get there, you had to come in from a back alley and down a flight of stairs to a scuzzy basement where there were invariably two or three people (of all genders, contrary to expectations about record shops) sitting around on stools, drinking cheap beer and jawboning endlessly about music, the city, the world, and their lives.
You understand the aim of a retail establishment is to get people in, get them what they need, make sure they don’t steal anything, and get them out quickly. Most record stores don’t have five or six stools for people to sit on and drink beer and jawbone. They don’t have “customers” who have never bought a record from them. If you equate intelligence with professionalism and making a lot of money, the people who ran this shop were never very smart, frankly.
But that’s a matter of ethos and Hammer City Records was founded in a different environment than the one it now leaves- the shop closed today. James Street North has changed many times since the city’s founding. When the Hammer City shop opened in 2010, the street was considered “dangerous” and “run down.” Drug dealers plied their trade in that same alleyway. Prostitutes were stationed a few blocks away on James North and, actually, worked the corners day and night.
So, naturally, the rents were cheap. And, as has happened in every midsize city after say 1980, a diasporic bohemian village quickly sprung up, fertilized by cheap rents and relative anonymity. When I started hanging about the street, there were at least two dozen art galleries, four record shops, a number of vintage clothing stores that sold random ephemera along with clothes, at least five music bars, and a single restaurant, which was considered a big deal. It was sort of a broken down, dumpy street, but it felt like a small hamlet. It was wonderful: the very best people never set foot there.
When I first slunk down the stairs to the store, I too was broken down and a little dumpy. I was heartbroken; my marriage was ending in the most painful way I could imagine, or have ever seen. I was getting out of grad school into a brutal job market where I couldn’t get a position higher than dishwasher. And, somehow, I had managed to provoke a personality disordered married couple to wage a local intimidation campaign/jihad against me after booking a show with them at the local music club.
So, I was a little raw that morning. And I was taken aback to find there was no one else browsing records in this shop; just a few people on stools, drinking and talking, the quietest one in a mullet.
Sidenote: Craig, the co-founder of Hammer City Records, and the Schizophrenic Records label, has a mullet that is truly a wonder to behold. The Silver Waterfall is believed to be the source of his power and “a way of life,” according to Craig. It’s also the unofficial mascot of the shop and is likely sentient.
So, I wandered around shyly flipping records. Finally, after an awkwardly long silence, a voice emerged from beneath the mullet:
“So, what’s the deal with you and Mike?” referring to the angry married dude then writing epic missives about me in social media and emails.
“I don’t know,” I responded curtly. “I guess he’s mad about something.” I find gossip wars make everyone look bad.
“Is it because he’s fugging crazy?” Craig replied, shrewdly. I tapped my nose with my finger.
After that, I was there all the time. Sure, it was more like hanging out in someone’s basement than a retail establishment, but Craig and Leah, then partners and co-owners, had a way of hearing you talk about some obscure record you always wanted to find, and then texting you two weeks later with “We have that record in if you want it.” They did this with everyone, so they’d be getting hard-to-find no wave records for one friend and Latin boogaloo records for me and Swedish black metal for the quiet bookkeeper-type who came in once a month. And all sorts of oddities besides. A good record shop will get what you need and also what you didn’t know you needed.
The shop’s bread-and-beer-money was “punk and metal,” two genres of that many people think all the songs sound alike. But, every genre of music “all sounds alike” to non-listeners. In reality, they are a dizzying array of genres and subgenres and crossover hybrids. It helps to be obsessive. In also helps to be curious, in all areas of life, even though that’s a rare trait. Craig constantly asks questions.
“What exactly was Latin boogaloo?”
“If I wanted to listen to disco, where would I start?”
“Tell me more about Fortune Records?”
One of my favorite memories: Craig asking me “Do you know what this song is?” while listening to Joan Jett covering “Hide and Seek,” which led to me explaining the DC boxer Bunker Hill, Link Wray and the Wraymen, and jump blues. Which, in turn, led to the store carrying a fair amount of classic blues, r’n’b, garage, and funk records. Currently, we bring in more gospel than anything else. Not a very punk punk shop.
Really, it was more like a nursery for growing weird ideas. Bands practiced in the shop after hours and played shows in the shop or the alley out back. DJ Scratchy stopped by and spun records one afternoon, as he’d done with the Clash. Handsome Dick Manitoba hung out and jawboned, as only he can. Artists showed their work on the wall in monthly art exhibits- unbroken until COVID. I’ve seen people do performance art in the shop and “music” that seemed like performance art. I’ve seen artists cover the entire space with works that should be internationally known, and in some cases later were. And, I’ve kept the lights on while members of legendary Canadian bands would hang out and talk for hours.
Sociologists are aware that groups which form around a shared aesthetics tend to share a set of ethics. The punk scene has long championed the idea that anything you want to do, you can do. You can book a tour, release a record, shoot a movie, write a novel- just do it. Now. Thousands of tee-shirts were screenprinted in the shop. Hundreds of zines were released there. The label, Schizophrenic Records, also started by Craig and Leah, put out about a hundred albums for local bands. A walking tour of local punk history started there. There was a beading workshop, poetry readings, potlucks, and regular movie nights. For one summer, every time I came to the shop, Craig and our good friend Montour were watching Extreme Wrestling DVDs in the shop. Okay, really, it was more like a community space.
I remember one summer night partying in the shop during the street’s monthly Art Crawl, while the street outside was crowded and carnivalesque. Inside, a French movie producer, in town to shoot a pretty bad Crispin Glover film, had his shirt off and was fake wrestling with Montour. It might sound corny to say that it felt like something great was happening on that street, and we all knew it would end the usual way, but at the time, there was no place I would have rather been.
My favorite memory: A summer earlier, and I was in a bad place. I was growing tired of marginal jobs, marginal relationships, and had just lost another in a series of marginal living spaces. It was the lowest point in my nearly-decade long bout of grief. Somehow, Craig and Montour and Julia could tell how low I was feeling. None of them said anything, but every time I said it was time for me to go, Montour would protest “What? You’re not leaving. We’re listening to records! Have a beer! Put on that stupid disco record you like.” They did this for hours. After the time the shop closed. Finally, I was too tired to do any of the stupid things I was thinking of doing, and they let me leave for bed. Okay, it wasn’t much of a record shop; it was more like a place of healing for me.
And that’s the thing about these community hubs- every time I ever needed a bed, or an apartment, or clothes, food, or a job, I just put the word out and it was provided for me. The city put its arms around me and took care of me. For the better part of a decade.
Now, of course, it’s dead. The city began attracting yuppies fleeing Toronto, a city that has what is considered to be the most overvalued housing market in the Western Hemisphere. Within five years, rents here doubled, the homeless population boomed, and the IMF singled out Hamilton as the most overvalued housing market in Canada. A speculation-driven housing bubble there created a speculation-driven housing bubble here. What was once a dumpy little shithole town is now a dumpy little shithole town with million-dollar mortgages. The art galleries and live music clubs are all gone in lieu of restaurants with 47-dollar appetizers crammed with fat boomers with money. The only real industry we have now is assholes selling buildings to other assholes.
Which is not what happened in this case, at least not on the first count. And, NO, we did not close because “records don’t sell” or “COVID is killing off small businesses.” We never missed rent or pissed off the landlord. Instead, the landlord- a very nice man really, and about five years younger than me- lost his wife to cancer this year and decided to sell his buildings and stay home to raise his children. It’s a little hard to hate the guy.
The new owners, on the other hand, are tech bros from California who have likely never seen Hamilton, but know it has a “hot” housing bubble. They bought the building, evicted everyone living in the already-expensive apartments above, and all of the shops but one. Their intention, which has been no secret, is to turn them all into air b’n’bs. Come visit a dumpy shithole town in winter! In the case of our shop, I’ve listened to the architect, so I can confirm: they intend to put three air b’n’b’s in a windowless basement with one exit, which is, of course, illegal. Not that anyone would call City Hall to complain, repeatedly, as soon as they open. Not that any of us have connections there. Of course not.
Everything changes. COVID kept everyone at home. I got laid off and spent night after night alone in the record shop drinking coffee and rewriting a book that sold a few months ago, and which is something that cannot ever be taken away from me. The shop closed today, but already, the ragtag group of misfits associated with it is scouring the more decrepit parts of the city for a new location. People have donated to the cause, artists have auctioned off their art, and most likely, the record shop will survive. Too many people love it.
Well, whatever it is. It was never really much of a record shop. But, it was where the people I love hang out, so it was a bit like my home.
So, what are YOU pondering, playing, reading, watching, creating, or mourning this weekend?