Still alive at five | Music Column | Chicago Reader

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Still alive at five

Permanent Records may not be permanent yet, but Lance Barresi and Liz Tooley are celebrating an anniversary that nobody would’ve guessed they’d see


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[Permanent Records Sampler #3 cover art]

Download the full sampler as a zip file.

Bomb Shelter1:39Naked Raygun

#1 Dad3:15Running

I Am the Counter Culture (Drop Out)3:18Charles Albright

End of a Primitive4:33King Blood

One More Time3:54Brain Idea

Weak As a Sheep4:38Psyclones

Earth Doesn't Deserve You2:51Cacaw

Reckless Thoughts3:34Black Math

Like a French Assassin5:11Cosmonauts

Almost Washed My Hair9:19Purling Hiss

Two thousand and six seemed like a bad year to open a record store. Brick-and-mortar retailers had begun dying in droves, and the effect had leapt up the food chain from independent operations to massive chains. When Tower Records declared bankruptcy for the second and final time in August of that year, many saw it as a death knell for the business of selling music in a physical form.

So it was surprising to see, just a few weeks later on October 1, a very physically existent record store open its doors in Ukrainian Village. It was smallish and stocked with cool-kid stuff—the inventory, which was maybe three-quarters vinyl, only got about as mainstream as Sonic Youth—but the people behind the counter were earnest and nice. I remember feeling bad for them, since there was no way the store would last a year.

"Everyone was all doom and gloom," says Lance Barresi, 29, who co-owns Permanent Records with girlfriend Liz Tooley, 33. "Digital sales were booming, everyone was ditching their CDs, and nobody had really seen the forthcoming 'vinyl resurgence,' quote-unquote. So when we said we were opening a store, they were all, 'Why would you want to do that?'"

The answer is that Barresi and Tooley really, really wanted to. Both were years into careers as record-store clerks, working at separate Columbia locations of Missouri-based chain Slackers, and they were determined to finally be their own bosses. For more than two years they'd spent their vacation time scouting cities—from Richmond and Raleigh to Philly and New York—that seemed like good places to live and in need of another record store. Despite a fervent desire to get out of the midwest and warnings that Reckless had the local market locked up, they chose Chicago, moving here a month or so before opening Permanent.

"Luckily, despite everyone's warnings, it all turned out OK," says Barresi. The Ukrainian Village store—which operates in the black, supporting four full-time and two part-time employees—is about to celebrate its fifth anniversary. The $30,000 loan Barresi and Tooley took out to open it was paid off "fairly early on."

Barresi attributes Permanent's continued existence in part to an attitude that he feels sets it apart from other indie record stores, as well as from the popular stereotype of an indie record store. "I won't name any names," he says, "but everyone's had it at one store or another, one time or another—that shitty feeling you get when the person behind the counter ignores you or judges what you're buying or acts like they know something more than you do. I've always been amazed that any store, no matter what business they're in, can get away with treating people like shit and stay in business."

Vee Dee front man Nick Myers is a manager at Laurie's Planet of Sound, a similarly minded store that's been open since 1997, and he likes the way Permanent does business too. "I feel like they really know their clientele or know what people are looking for, so when you go in there you don't have to paw through piles of crap," he says. "The biggest thing with those guys definitely is creating a community vibe."

That said, Permanent certainly doesn't cater to the comfort zone of the average consumer. Its stock—which initially consisted of Tooley and Barresi's album collections and one small order of new product from Touch and Go—is based largely on what the employees are into. You'll find a big variety of stuff—garage rock, psychedelia, Krautrock, and of course indie-qua-indie rock—but not much for Top 40 listeners. Last week, when I checked the shelf that functions as Permanent's de facto staff-recommendation rack, its contents included Heavy Chains, Purling Hiss, Sun Araw, Fungi Girls, Burning Itch, and King Blood.

Barresi feels like the mild snobbery baked into the store is a benefit. "Half-assed music customers have all gone online for the most part, and what you're left with are die-hard music fans, which has made it even more enjoyable to run a record store in the second decade of the 21st century," he says. "We don't deal with a lot of people who just heard something on the radio and want to stop in and get in and out with their thing."

He also thinks Permanent's emphasis on vinyl, combined with the resurgence of interest in the format, has benefited the store—and in fact some observers have suggested that this combo will be a key to music retail's survival. Others point out that vinyl sales still account for less than 1 percent of the market.

Barresi counters that selling vinyl is still enough to keep a small operation like Permanent in business. After all, new sales aren't all it has to go on. "I used to see Led Zeppelin records in dollar bins across America," he says. "And maybe you'll find that here and there for a real beater copy, but that's just not the case anymore because the demand has almost outweighed the supply on what used to be seen as supercommon stuff."

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