Ajax Won't Quit
Some habits die harder than others: the last time Ajax proprietor Tim Adams spoke in this column, almost two years ago, it was to explain why he'd decided to shutter his East Village record store, quit putting out records, and focus on the original business of Ajax, which was selling indie rock by mail. Burned-out and depressed by the state of the art, he said, "I no longer got a kick out of it." But this Friday afternoon the Ajax store will reopen just a few blocks from its first location, and Adams has even announced plans to revive the label.
Since the fall of 1996, Adams has been running the mail-order business out of his home, successfully enough that he didn't need to take another job. But though Ajax started as a living-room business back in 1989, when Adams was employed as an accountant at Ernst & Young, he says he's been suffering from cabin fever. "I had to decide to do Ajax more professionally--to get an office--or I had to get a regular job," he says, taking a break from moving boxes of records and CDs into the rough new space, a former sign maker's shop half a block south of the Empty Bottle. He sent out resumes for jobs in copywriting and computer programming as well as accounting, but when two months went by without a response, he hopped on his bike and began scouting the city for the perfect office. But when he found the cheap space on Western, already zoned for retail, he figured he might as well reopen the store.
Adams got into the indie-rock racket well before anyone in his right mind thought it was profitable. As a junior at Notre Dame in 1987, he started publishing an acerbic music fanzine called The Pope; in late 1988 he got the bright idea to distribute the better records he was writing about, which were mostly hard-to-find seven-inch singles. Ajax carried records by Nirvana, Pavement, and Sebadoh back when most people were still trying to figure out if Axl Rose was really a man. Concurrently Adams started his own label to release singles by obscure, noisy postpunk bands like Antiseen and Modern Vending, though later Ajax became known for lo-fi acts like the Mountain Goats and the Cannanes, New Zealand experimentalists like Peter Jefferies, and weird popsters like Shrimp Boat and Amsterdam's Joost Visser.
Adams had found a neglected but genuine niche in the market, and by 1991 his witty, personable catalogs and relative efficiency had earned him the right to quit his day job. Adams's success inspired the start-up of several competing operations, including Parasol in Champaign, Scat in Cleveland, and Forced Exposure in Somerville, Massachusetts. And after Nirvana broke, major-label A and R execs began their plunder of indie rock's Eden. But Ajax weathered it all--until November 1993, when a neighbor reported Adams to the Chicago Department of Revenue for running a business without the proper license.
Adams's solution was to go legit. He opened a store on Chicago Avenue, next door to the original Soul Kitchen, and ran the mail order and label out of the back. Considering that he had no retail experience he did a decent job expanding his customer base, but when he lost his lease in 1995 and had to move to a less gentrified stretch of Chicago east of Ashland, things began to collapse. "What I should have done was close it down then," Adams says. "Moving was expensive, we had just put in a new phone system, we had to get a new sign." He'd also laid out for a new security system. The store wasn't turning a profit, and the five-person staff was demoralized.
As for the label, Adams says he'd just lost the spirit. "I used to be really passionate about singles and discovering new bands, but now there are so many people with labels, clubs, studios, et cetera, that the chances of me finding anything great in a pile of demos or a stack of self-released singles is slim," he says. "The underground is so big now. I saw someone with a Sub Pop bumper sticker near where I live and I'd bet you a million bucks that I have nothing in common with that person, whereas ten years ago I would have been like, 'Hey, Sub Pop.'"
But though he told me in September 1996 that Ajax's last record would come out in February 1997, Adams released another CD by the Cannanes just a few months ago, and he plans to follow it with a single by Seam, three CDs of Mountain Goats ephemera, and the compilation Hey Dan K. (a long-delayed crosstown poke at Dan Koretzky's Drag City label and its 1994 compilation, Hey Drag City). He is also soliciting demos.
The musical neighborhood Adams will reenter has changed a bit in the two years he's been gone: two nonrock specialty shops, Dusty Groove and Beat Parlor, have siphoned off some scenesters, and in late August Reckless's North Avenue store is supposed to move into the much larger, more prominent space at 1532 N. Milwaukee. For a while at least, Ajax will wisely follow the model of Dusty Groove, keeping limited hours: it'll be open Tuesday from 1 to 8 PM, Friday from 1 to 9, Saturday from noon to 9, and Sunday from 1 to 6. It's at 1017 N. Western; for more information about the store or the label call 773-395-4108.
Fred Armisen's camcorder antics at the South by Southwest music conference, described here back in March, have been edited into a 21-minute mockumentary, Fred Armisen's Guide to Music. Armisen will screen the movie at Lounge Ax this Sunday around 8 PM; afterward the amusing former Trenchmouth percussionist will kick off the club's new monthly karaoke night. Admission is free; call 773-525-6620 for more info.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Tim Adams photo by Nathan Mandell.