Thursday, April 21, 2005

Memorable Record Stores:
The Record Hole, Raleigh, NC

The Record Hole (R.I.P.)
2900 block of Hillsborough St.
Raleigh, NC 27607

In my hometown, The Record Hole is legendary. In fact, there might be a nationwide legend surrounding John Swain's old record store, at least among any obsessed record collectors who visited Raleigh in the 1980s.

First, what a great name: The Record Hole. It's simple, memorable, and descriptive on so many levels.

Second, the proprietor, the late John Swain, was a towering but tragic musical figure on the scene in Raleigh. There were few people anywhere that knew more about all kinds of music, but particularly, blues, R&B, rockabilly and rock and roll, than did John Swain. He could be the kindest, most helpful store-owner, particularly when he was sober, the weather was nice, and the store wasn't very busy. Once, I was looking for some Nervous Norvus singles as a gift for my dad (despite being in high school in the '50s and college in the '60s, the only rock and roll memories my dad has ever shared with me are Nervous Norvus on the jukebox - he's more of a Kingston Trio kind of guy). John Swain took the time to dig around for both 45s he had, plus shared all that he knew about Mr. Norvus. On the other hand, on a bad day you might question John as to why he was charging you $4 for a record you found in the dollar bin and he would snap back at you, "Well, some asshole must have stuck it in there! Do you still want it?!" My friend Malcolm was selling some of his own records there once, and as John was flipping through them he said under his breath, "John Lennon - dead, Janis Joplin - dead, Led Zeppelin - dead...". Malcolm asked, "What do you mean Led Zeppelin is dead?" And John fired back at top volume, "THEY DON'T SELL!"

Third, of course, was the music selection. The decor was simple, the record collection magnificent. I don't remember ever seeing a CD in there, but I could be misremembering. I only wish I was less into the Cure and Sonic Youth at the time and more into Fats Domino and Leadbelly so I could have taken full advantage of it. This place was a goldmine.

Others in Raleigh older than myself probably have far more stories and spent far more dollars in his store. I only managed 2-3 years of record shopping there before sadly, John died ultimately of complications from his alcoholism. The most fitting tribute anybody could have given was the clamor over his "estate" (an amazing record collection) after he died. His store is now some head shop, I think.


  • I just have to second this whole post. Record Hole is the store I measure any used record store against, and they are always found wanting in comparison.

    By Blogger stephen, at 5:16 AM  

  • Craig, let's get the story straight. I was not selling Led Zeppelin. I was selling a copy of Billy Joel's Storm Warning, which featured the great "We Didn't Start the Fire."

    By Blogger M.Shackelford, at 7:04 PM  

  • vinyl ink - silver spring, md. the only guy who ever gave fair trade-in values. they were at every record show in nc, and the dude really knew the music. one of the earlier indie stores to have some sort of web presence - even if it was just an email list. he'd send out updates like once a week and they were like 50,000 lines of plain text. i made it through all of one only once. i was always unlucky at the record hole - the dude that i rode with would be the one to find the good shit. i think i got a promo copy of some gang green record there once. i did make it into the back room once + saw box upon box of sealed boogie down productions promo cds though....

    By Blogger tenfoot, at 7:12 PM  

  • I started hanging out with John in 1976 when he sold at the fairgrounds flea market on the weekends. He opened his store in 77 or 78. He was one of the funniest guys I ever met. We would go on trips with a station wagon load of used records (all shit) to Carrboro or Fayetteville used record stores where he would send me in to sell to these suckers all this crap for $$$$ and take out the few valuable records they might have. He had done it enough that they knew him.I cant remember the names of those stores but I would walk out with lots of cash and those records are probably there today! Then he always knew the small town stores that had records in the 50's or 60's and would track down the owners who always had a pile of NOS records stashed away that he would buy.It was amazing. We smoked pot frequently but I do not ever remember him drinking. Before I lost touch with him in about '88 he had quit smoking cigarettes. I heard he died around '93?, I had moved from Raleigh and never saw an obit but some friends said it was suicide but others said no but would not say anything. What is the real story?

    By Blogger longbrdn, at 11:22 PM  

  • I can attest that John wasn't a drinker. I never saw his dark side either, even after hours of bs'ing. I left Raleigh late 78 for the SF Bay Area and he still had his Fairgrounds booth then. His parting gift to me was a NM Tashmen lp and a Nazz 45.

    - michael

    By Blogger Audities, at 12:23 AM  

  • I still remember the day John died vividly. I still think of the Record Hole everytime I drive by it's location on Hillsborough Street across from the Brewery. It is truely the record store that i still measure record stores up against, even after working in one myself for over 10 years.. I never was able to feel the same spirit that was the Record Hole. It's amazing the lasting impression that place made to everyone in the music community here and that is truely special. As much as I embrace the different formats like digital, that are embracing music today, I also feel sorry for the younger generation who will never know an experience like shopping in a store like The Record Hole. I was one of his younger customers at the time of his death and so I kind of consider my generation (37) the final frontier of real record collectors. There are some today of course but not at the level that this store allowed us to have at our fingertips. What amazed me was how different of an experience it was every time I went there. No two trips were ever the same, even the mega-stores like Amoeba in LA can't even boast that claim.

    My final CD (yes it was a CD) at the Record Hole is still something I cherish, all-be-it a strange choice. I dont remember what else I was buying at the time, but as I came up to the counter Jon said to me "hey you shoudl check out this CD too" and he hands me the debut CD from a LA Pop band called School of Fish. And I said "oh yeah I heard something about this the other day" and he said "yeah it's descent I think you will dig it, and they are playing the Brewery in a few weeks' and I said "yeah I saw that, cool I will check it out thanks man"

    I said goodbye and that was it. Two days later I went back up there and he was gone.

    I of course loved the record, dedicated it to his memory in my collection and also went to the show that following week. At the end of the show I stayed afterwards and met the band's lead singer, Josh Clayton-Felt and we talked for a few minutes. He asked me how I had heard of the band and I told him about Jon. He had seen the store front when he was doing load-in adn tried to go over there and noticed a black ribbon on the door and I said "yeah he died a few days ago"
    i could tell that really freaked Josh out but also touched him he just said "wow that's too bad it looked like a cool place"
    and I said "yeah it was the best"

    the irony in this, is that about 8 years later, Josh himself died suddenly from testical cancer, he was very young and had only found out a month prior to his death.

    I will always remember Josh and Jon in the same breathe and years later still thank them for what they brought to my life. I wish i had only had more time to learn more.

    By Blogger Stephen, at 8:20 PM  

  • by the way, I saw the other posts here wondering what happened to John and how he died so suddenly.

    it was not alcohol or suicide. I don't want to be disrespectful to his family becuase I honestly don't know but at the time from what I was told, it reminded me of Len Bias.

    By Blogger Stephen, at 8:31 PM  

  • John supposedly died from a heart attack. He was one of the nicest guys. One time I took my brother from Washington DC there when he was visiting me in Greenville, NC. We drove all the way to Raleigh so he could go the Record Hole and meet John. I picked out my records and handed them to John. Knowing me from past visits, he started pricing the records, and he'd put one down and say "25 cents," "50 cents, "a dollar," etc. I think I ended up paying maybe $10 for a lot of awesome records. My brother then handed John his records and John again laid one down and said, "four dollars," "two dollars," "five dollars." My brother said, "Hey, hey, I liked her prices better." I said, "John, this is my brother." He said, "Oh, okay, "25 cents," "50 cents," etc. My brother always stopped there to get records when he was in Raleigh and we laugh about it to this day. John was very funny, but the day he died, they said on the radio he'd had a massive heart attack.

    By Blogger page, at 8:16 AM  

  • I shopped at the record hole in the 80s, first when it was in the 3000 block of Hillsborough, across from Cup A Joe, and then at the 2900 location. Jon was always nice to me and I remember him demoing 45s for beach music collectors. He would never let one play all the way through. He always wore the same courderoy sport coat with patched elbows, blew his nose in a handkerchief, and used his wallet as a cash register. Fwiw he did drink beer in the store when it was next to College Beverage and sometimes he seemed drunk. Obits said that he had been an addict in Chicago before moving to Raleigh. I'll always remember the sign on the door whenever the shop was closed: "Gone to buy more rekkids."

    By Blogger Swimming with the fishes, at 9:11 AM  

  • This comment has been removed by the author.

    By Blogger Barry Tracy, at 8:15 PM  

  • I was one of those guys buying the Beach Music. I bought thousands of records from him until I moved to Florida in 1986.

    By Blogger Barry Tracy, at 8:18 PM  

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