When people are trying to assess the economic viability of a city, they tend to focus on the value of the real-estate market. It's not hard to understand why. The median price of houses and condos are concrete figures, and therefore less prone to arbitrary, race-and-class-blurred measurements like crime and employment. And though the 2014 census put home ownership rates at 64 percent nationwide, there are plenty of people among the remaining 36 percent to whom the idea of buying a house is as unfathomable and out-of-reach as the idea of building one. Which is to say: It's technically possible, I suppose, but let's be serious. It's probably never going to happen.
More to the point, however, housing prices are a reliable indicator of how much money people make in a given city. They don't tell you much about the actual quality of life there. For example, the news that Seattle's median home price in 2016 was $624,000 might lead a sensible person to wonder why so much of the culture that made the city interesting and beloved has been forced to find a new place to live.
During The Stranger's fact-finding mission to Spokane, I didn't go looking for houses to buy. I sought out the kinds of places I'd want to spend my leisure time if I suddenly found myself living there. (Which, given the way Seattle is going, is hardly out of the question.)
This led me, naturally, to record stores, a weirdly thriving microeconomy among the steady growth of Spokane's urban life. With no real effort, I found my way to four excellent, apparently successful shops that sell a wide range of new and used vinyl, but also function as informal gathering places for a community (i.e., people who still think, talk, live, and buy records) that is increasingly underserved and priced out of certain larger Northwest cities I could mention.
With the exception of the one guy who was born and raised here, the people who run these stores all came to Spokane—or, in some cases, back to Spokane—from points west (Seattle) and south (Arizona) for the same fundamental reason. Because you can live out the American promise: rent a reasonably priced home, lease a commercial space, conduct an honest trade, make a humble profit, and not feel like you're being turned into a drone in a corporate beehive or just another hateful sucker stuck in a perpetual traffic jam.
In the space of several hours spent browsing through the overlapping but interestingly distinctive crates of these shops—Groove Merchants, Resurrection Records, Garageland, and 4000 Holes—I was struck most not by the records but by the conversations. In between comparing notes on an old Donovan LP, people ask each other about their kid's operation, about the work they had done on the tree in their yard, about their road trip from Moscow, about just how "progressive" the city council actually is, about whether or not they had seen Mr. Robot. These conversations proceeded at a leisurely pace, often while the participants flipped idly through records.
These were the kind of interactions you normally associate with cafes or barbershops, the kind of talk that reminds you of when conversations between people still happened face-to-face, in public spaces that made you feel included in a community (as opposed to "community") whether you were part of the talk or not. Because you can always cut in and say, "That record is amazing" or "I love Mr. Robot" or "Sorry about your son's rotator cuff."
Moments like these remind you of when life felt less alienated, when your worth felt less directly tied to your earning potential.
I'm sure it's an indication of my general failure to take seriously the normally accepted terms of grown-up life, but the fact that these record stores were so rich in social capital definitely gave me the sense—ridiculously, absurdly, maybe even offensively—that if things really hit the wall in Seattle, I could conceivably be happy in Spokane.
Also, I spent about $250 combined at the four shops. (Research!)
A RECORD STORE IS A TASTEMAKER
Everyone agrees that for many years the only store in town worth a damn was 4000 Holes, established in 1989 by Bob Gallagher. It's a classic second city record store, shelves packed with new and used CDs and vinyl, and walls crowded with memorabilia related to Gallagher's Beatles obsession—hence the store's name (as in "in Blackburn, Lancashire"). Having weathered the long downturn of the retail music biz, Gallagher is now enjoying the upswing, and is bullish about business. "It's more than I can handle," he says. "Almost!" The store is crowded with people at 11 a.m. on a Friday.
"Things are going well here, and in Spokane in general," Gallagher says ebulliently. "You can tell because this is what I call the luxury economy. I don't sell anything that anyone actually needs, but it's all very important to me, and to my customers. The fact that we're doing so well is a great indicator."
In 2014, David Thoren moved from Seattle to Spokane to open Groove Merchants, a small, well-appointed shop that specializes in used vinyl and high-end used stereo gear. He tells me that he made a kind of pilgrimage to 4000 Holes to seek Gallagher's blessing before encroaching on his turf. Gallagher blessed him, and the two enjoy a mutually beneficial coexistence.
A year later came Resurrection Records, a highly specialized (which is to say small, but very good) shop in a tiny, 150-square-foot space. After stints in Los Angeles, Seattle, Portland, and Austin, Mike Roberts tells me he chose Spokane to hang out his shingle for two reasons: It's close to where his mom lives and "you can afford to live and work here without killing yourself."
JJ Wandler, owner of the Greenwood French restaurant Gainsbourg, moved back to Spokane two years ago under circumstances that will be either familiar or chilling to every longtime Seattle resident: After living for several years in a two-bedroom house in Wallingford for which rent was $1,300 a month, he received word that the owners had sold to condo developers, and he and his wife would have to move. When they couldn't find a comparable place for less than $2,500 a month, he looked around and realized that, in addition to the standard complaints about Seattle—"rents, traffic"—there was a larger absence opening up in the city he had called home for nearly 20 years. "Honestly," he recalls, "I just felt like every place that I loved and enjoyed in my time there was disappearing."
So they took the radical step of moving away, first to Sequim, and then to Spokane, where Wandler had gone to college (and cut his record-collector teeth picking through the crates at 4000 Holes).
A few minutes outside town, they found a four bedroom, 3,000-square-foot mid-century A-frame house on four acres, "with wild turkeys that come into the yard and even a couple of deer." The rent is $1,300 a month.
Soon after moving back, Wandler opened Garageland, a very selective record store/memorabilia emporium that also has an excellent bar and kitchen. As fate had it, it turned into a bar/restaurant that also sells great records. It's going well, but, because it's a combination of retail and restaurant businesses, he explains, "it's feast or famine." (The night I spent there was pretty feasty.)
Still, Wandler is excited by the influx of money and energy he sees coming into Spokane. But more than that, he's glad to be able to contribute to the local music culture that the four record stores are helping promote, each in its own way: "I really feel that having new music come into a town and having a meeting place influences a generation of musicians and music listeners," he says. "I mean, I know music is online, but... It's different when you have a place to go. A record store is a tastemaker to a certain extent. I'm really happy to be bringing cool music into this city."