When I ask Mark Weglarz, proprietor of Metal Haven, when he decided to shut down his store—not only one of Chicago's most singular music retailers but probably one of the best heavy-metal record shops in the world—he pauses for a moment. Then he says: 7 PM on October 13.
"Just kidding," he says a second later, cackling.
Actually it was probably November when he made the call, he says. "September is usually my slowest month of the year," he explains, "because it's mostly younger people up here and September they go back to school." This past September was especially bad—sales fell off a cliff. "Then October ended up being slow, and then November they were even worse than that. So I went from the worst month of the year to even worser to even worser than that."
Weglarz seems remarkably sanguine about the situation. Metal Haven is so clearly a labor of love for him that I'd expect him to be crushed—instead he's cracking jokes about the imminent death of a business he founded in 1999 and has subsidized since 2002 with a downtown job running what he calls a "little Kinko's within an office." But though he can laugh, lovers of metal are mourning, not just in Chicago but far afield.
Metal Haven's expertly curated inventory is a treasure trove for serious metalheads—and has almost zero to offer anyone else. The shop's stock of current releases contains basically nothing by mainstream crossover artists, unless you count the 2009 album Babylon by W.A.S.P.—the group that earned lasting notoriety when their 1984 single "Animal (Fuck Like a Beast)" appeared on the Parents Music Resource Center's "Filthy Fifteen" list. Weglarz carries records by bands that have crossover audiences in the indie scene—Mastodon, Isis, High on Fire—but the great majority of the music on offer is by acts much weirder, uglier, or more obscure. Metal Haven favorites like Portal, Lord Foul, and Toxic Holocaust reside on the outermost branches of metal's taxonomical tree—a tree on which even the biggest subgenres have intimidating names ("grind," "thrash") and some of the less familiar ones don't sound like types of music at all ("blackened crust").
Despite the limited commercial viability of extreme metal—in black metal especially, a band can enhance its reputation by refusing to seek publicity or even maintain a Web site—Metal Haven has survived longer than retailers as big as Tower Records, despite the recession of the past year and a half and market conditions that have already killed off brick-and-mortar stores in droves. Weglarz says that after March 2007, when rising rents forced it from its original pedestrian-dense location near Belmont and Broadway to a relatively out-of-the-way strip mall at Montrose and Damen, the store didn't lose much business. Metal Haven is a destination—I have friends from Michigan who'll make a four-hour drive to shop there.
It owes its longevity in part to Weglarz's low overhead costs: He has just one employee, who opens around lunchtime, and during the week he arrives at 6 PM or so, after work downtown, to finish out the day. The rest of the reason the store has held on for this long is certainly its maniacal focus—not only does it cater to a very specific demographic, it caters to the right demographic. Metal is the domain of the lavish limited-edition vinyl package, the picture disc, the hand-numbered cassette, the alarmingly expensive hoodie. I won't pretend to have any sales data from the dozens if not hundreds of independent labels whose products Metal Haven offers, but in the current file-sharing free-for-all it's got to help business to be dealing with customers who still spend money on product—and the sheer number of band T-shirts owned by the typical metalhead is testimony that he does.
Weglarz agrees that metalheads buy more music and merch than the average fan. Or rather, he says, "They usually do until they lose their jobs. Unfortunately this recession affected everybody. I mean, this recession affected more blue-collar people than any other I've seen." The majority of his customers, he says, are blue-collar. "I've been through a few recessions and still this the first one where a significant number of people I know or that come in here lost their jobs."
There's no set date for Metal Haven to shut down. It's probably going to take a few months to sell off the shop's inventory, and Weglarz will hang onto his employee and maintain his usual hours till the bitter end. "We've got a lot of music here," he says. As part of the store's Armageddon Sale, which began in late January, he's offering 15 percent off almost everything but new releases (which will keep coming in till the doors close), and he intends to raise the discount rate by 5 percent every so often to keep stock moving off the shelves. He doesn't have any plans to reopen in the future—he's not looking for another, even cheaper location—and when the store shuts down, its mail-order business will too. "I mean, I'm in my 40s now, and I've been working two jobs for over seven years," he says. "It's gotta end at some point."
Even if you hate metal you should be sorry that Metal Haven is closing. Few record stores anywhere, to say nothing of Chicago, can claim to be just as fanatically obsessive as their most rabid customers. They've always been rare. Now they're in real danger of extinction.