Blog Post

Jack White's Rolling Record Store and the Legacy of the Bookmobile

It’s a record-mobile!

From Drew Grant at Salon.com:

Jack White has spent the past 30 days in seclusion, but has emerged with a glorious (if bizarre) announcement: His record label Third Man Standing will be at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, next week, premiering the first ever “rolling record store.”

With the record industry at a standstill and MP3s making CDs, cassettes and vinyl look like quaint antiques, this mobile store concept is actually quite brilliant. It appeals to the super fans, the audiophiles who would buy a record because they want to own records, without having to deal with the hassle of going through a major label or watching your CDs flounder at a Virgin megastore. It’s low-cost and high-concept, and by using Twitter, manages to merge analogue and modern technology to create the music version of a five-star food truck. We can’t wait.

I am charmed by the enterprise, but as you might imagine, I think the closer analogue is the bookmobile, not the food truck. Especially given the emphasis this video puts on remediating young people’s limited access to a particular form of culture-“97% of all high school aged kids have never been to a stand alone record store”—this fits intriguingly into the bookmobile’s legacy.

Promotions for bookmobiles running back to their emergence in the early 20th century similarly used statistics to dramatize the plight of children (and adults) without access to what promoters understood to be a central experience of public culture: browsing books in a space devoted to that very purpose. Indeed, it is really striking just how similar elegies of libraries and of record stores, as institutions offering a particular cultural collectivity (not just access to things), sound. And with financial restrictions being what they are in both public librarianship (since forever) and in the record industry (in recent years), the propagation of buildings all over the place remains not entirely feasible. And so the van/truck emerged as a handy solution, making that particular collective, cultural experience mobile and thus more widely available.

There is often such an emphasis on the novelty of efforts like this, when I find it more useful—and more powerful—to locate them in a long, if conflicted and sometimes problematic, lineage of attempts to make forms of culture accessible to a wider variety of people in a wider variety of spaces.

(This is, by the way, not the first time a bookmobile will find its way to a music festival. As I promise to discuss in a future post, in the early 1990s, Green Day toured with Lollapalooza in a re-purposed bookmobile.)

[re-posted from my other blog, bookmobility, which looks at information on the move.]

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3 comments

A very interesting post, Derek

I'm interested in your final summation:

"There is often such an emphasis on the novelty of efforts like this,   when I find it more useful land more powerful to locate them in a long,  if  conflicted and sometimes problematic, lineage of attempts to make   forms of culture accessible to a wider variety of people in a wider variety of spaces." 

In watching the video, can't help but think it's somewhat ironic that Jack White/his label are debuting the "rolling record store" at SXSW in Austin. The recent report "finding" from the video is certainly startling:

report finding

but it’s definitely not accurate for Austin Texas.  I wonder if the record store on wheels will actually “make forms of culture accessible to a wider variety of people.”  Perhaps I’m being somewhat cynical, but it seems like the main function of the record store on wheels is to promote Jack White.  I don’t see his label shelling out the bucks for a fleet of these to crisscross rural America.  I also wonder what specific records are contained inside, and does that archive reflect a particular cultural cache that White wishes to reflect upon himself or distribute to the masses?

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A very interesting post, Derek

I'm interested in your final summation:

"There is often such an emphasis on the novelty of efforts like this,   when I find it more useful land more powerful to locate them in a long,  if  conflicted and sometimes problematic, lineage of attempts to make   forms of culture accessible to a wider variety of people in a wider variety of spaces." 

In watching the video, can't help but think it's somewhat ironic that Jack White/his label are debuting the "rolling record store" at SXSW in Austin. The recent report "finding" from the video is certainly startling:

report finding

but it’s definitely not accurate for Austin Texas.  I wonder if the record store on wheels will actually “make forms of culture accessible to a wider variety of people.”  Perhaps I’m being somewhat cynical, but it seems like the main function of the record store on wheels is to promote Jack White.  I don’t see his label shelling out the bucks for a fleet of these to crisscross rural America.  I also wonder what specific records are contained inside, and does that archive reflect a particular cultural cache that White wishes to reflect upon himself or distribute to the masses?

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I definitely agree. Indeed, a lot of what I find when it comes to bookmobiles is that not only are librarians' efforts usually freighted with really powerful, and deeply contradictory, politics (books for all! but only the right type of books! and, really, only the right type of people!)--they also aren't always very effective. As Sally Wyatt argues, "non-users" matter, too, and in this case for their refusal as well as their exclusion.

So White's recordmobile fits into the legacy of the bookmobile in these ways, too: in its attempt to reproduce a particular sort of person (I imagine the shelf list for White's enterprise does not include any Celine Dion, and probably doesn't include a lot of people of color), and along those lines in its profound limitations.

Thanks for your thoughts!

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