A sad day in the life: Classical Millennium, farewell

I read the news, today, oh, boy.

Of course, it’s 2012 and not 1967 anymore, when the Beatles picked up their daily rag, and so I read it first on Facebook: After 35 years, Classical Millennium, Portland’s quirky, exhaustive, and downright wonderful classical CD store, will shut its doors in September. Oregon Music News has the story here.

All across town people are mourning (since corporations are now people, we can legitimately mourn the passing of one, especially a “corporation” as human-sized and distinctive and personable as CM), and I’m one of them.

What! No more wandering up and down those creaky-floorboard aisles tucked below the high-octane din of Music Millennium’s bigger, brassier boom of sound next door? Entering Classical Millennium was – is – like tumbling into a particularly inviting rabbit hole, with rarefied attractions so exotic and alluring that you might not reemerge for hours. And when eventually you do, you’re likely to be ever so slightly, and fortuitously, changed.

Inside the small door dividing the big windows off the busy blast of East Burnside Street. Past shelf after shelf of used CDs, with ridiculously good prices on ridiculously good recordings that someone for some reason decided he or she didn’t want or need anymore. Past the sales counter, where a burly bearded fellow seems  perpetually in the midst of an erudite conversation, in person or on the telephone, with another music lover. To the back wall with the new and featured recordings. A requisite duck inside the cramped cubby lined floor to ceiling with complete recordings of just about every opera known to woman or man. Up the short stair to the stacks of curios, from marching music to accordion or harpsichord or sackbut or Finnish American church-choir favorites. If you have the time and patience, a sift through the long shelves of mismatched CDs at color-coded sale prices, many of them oddities, a few of them genuine gems. Stumbling across a recording of Telemann cantatas and overtures with the intoxicating title O woe! O woe! My canary is dead!

I don’t mind saying, I love this place. And like John Lennon, I’d love to turn you on.

Trouble is, it’s apparently too late. The numbers just don’t hold up.

From a business perspective it’s tough to argue with the decision of Musical Millennium, CM’s pop/rock/blues/jazz/worldbeat/indie/everything-else corporate daddy, which has been carrying Classical Millennium for some time. The music retailing business is brutal, and Music Millennium – a great Portland indie success story in its own right – has been going through its own hard times, retreating from its once-booming Northwest Portland location to its remaining storefront on East Burnside.

Retailers could survive and even thrive on the technological march from 78s to 45s to LPs to eight-tracks to cassettes to CDs. But the current switch to music downloads (often “free,” without regard for the labor and intellectual capital of the people who created it), coupled with the rise of online retailing giants like Amazon, is strangling independent music shops as surely as market forces are killing off your cozy neighborhood indie book shop, and seem destined to turn America’s once-mighty daily newspapers into advertising quarter-sheets for mattress merchandisers and purveyors of miracle hearing aids.

For a classical music store, the forces of economic social Darwinism are even sterner. In addition to the technological and distribution revolutions that have rocked the music industry as a whole, the classical market’s drying up because classical music itself has become so marginalized: untaught and unhonored in our schools, unrecognized (with a few bright exceptions, including Portland’s All Classical 89.9) on our airwaves.

But understanding doesn’t ease the pain. Classical Millennium’s demise is still a major bummer. Because from its beginning in 1977, CM has been more than just a shop. It’s been a place of discovery, a crucible of learning, a home away from home. Like Pioneer Courthouse Square and Powell’s City of Books, it’s helped define the sort of place we’d like to think we want Portland to be. People grow up in a place like this, and expand their capacities, and reinvent themselves. People discover what the world feels and thinks and sounds like, and where they want to be inside that great globe of intellect and emotion.

My own relationship with Classical Millennium has been up and down. Never down in the sense that I was upset with it – how could I be? – but in the sense that for stretches of time I was otherwise engaged and just ignored it. Multiply that by a few thousand people and you begin to understand why the business was fragile. On the other hand, there’ve been stretches when I’ve visited weekly and dropped a fair amount of cash on my way out the door: I tend to build my collection in bursts of enthusiasm, followed by stretches of listening and reflecting. And even when I was ignoring it, I was comfortable in the belief that Classical Millennium was there, waiting patiently and understandingly for my inevitable return. Turns out, the Tooth Fairy isn’t real.

Looking through my CD collection (yes, I still prefer CDs; I’m an old dog, and I don’t listen to music through telephones or earplugs) I’m astonished by the high percentage that came from Classical Millennium. I can remember where most of my recordings came from, because most of them arrived with little stories. Something I read on the liner notes that struck a chord. A recommendation from a friend, or one I overheard in the aisles. Something quirky or fascinating that I stumbled across while thumbing aimlessly through the stacks. Happenstance, as often as not, but happenstance that seemed somehow destined.

Classical Millennium’s staff, led by longtime manager Michael Parsons, know their stuff. They’re happy to let you wander and make your own choices. But ask them for something specific and they’ll either know exactly where it is or recommend an alternative: a better recording, maybe, of the same material. They’re music junkies: They know this stuff.

In recent months I’ve been spending a lot of time at Classical Millennium because my 14-year-old son is starting to build his own collection. His newly found enthusiasm has resparked my own, and I have to say, in terms of musical acuity he’s rapidly leaving me in the dust. A little Borodin leads to Balakirev and Ippolitov-Ivanov. Peer Gynt leads to Svendsen and Halvorsen and Trygvason and Grieg’s songs. We search for the ultimate Candide and settle on the one that Bernstein himself conducted, the year before he died. We discover a lovely six-CD set of French music, Berlioz to Massenet to Chabrier, conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham. It develops into a little ritualistic joke. “Have you noticed,” my son snickers, “how many composers’ and conductors’ first names are ‘Sir’?”

Classical Milennium, like All Classical 89.9, has been central to this generational pursuit. It’s been the physical location of our mutual exploration, of a rite of passage in our relationship, of the emerging shift from father and son to adult and adult. It’s been quite special. And for all their attractions, neither Amazon nor iTunes can offer anything like that.

Music Millennium, which will expand into the Classical Millennium space, says it’ll carry a selection of classical CDs and have a classical-specialist clerk on duty some of the time. I expect it intends just that. But I have my reservations. I once worked for an afternoon daily that was swallowed by the morning newspaper, and the publishers announced that all of the features of the paper that was being laid to rest would be retained in the bigger, better morning daily. After a while all that really remained from the old paper was an extra page of comics. That’s just business.

This afternoon I poked around Facebook and found this eloquent expression from a fellow mourner.

“I hate this,” she wrote. “Classical Millennium was the place where a nerdy kid who played the cello and liked to sing could commune quietly with other nerds, where the counter staff would talk with you at length about the best recordings of Brahms symphonies, and where Michael Parsons would keep an ample supply of In Mulieribus CDs ready for holiday purchase. Very sad day for Portland.”

Well, it’s a day in the life. But it’s a day I wish had never come.

 

 

10 Responses.

  1. bob priest says:

    omg, this is just awful news. two world-class cd/record stores going under in one year:

    1/ timbuktunes
    2/ classical millennium

    this sad reality is joined by the fact that Powell’s is also hurting – big time.

    well, at least voodoo donuts continues to provide the illusion that we are well-fed, right droogies?

  2. Andy Hosch says:

    I was owner of the late Timbuktunes World Music, referred to in the first posted comment, and I can really relate to the loss of Classical Millennium. I spent countless hours there in years past, both before and during the time that I spent working next door in the main Millennium store. The Classical store was an invaluable resource and will be sorely missed. Just the way the world is going… If one is resourceful and has the time, the internet can fill the vacuum in many regards, but not entirely. For those of our generation and that of our parents –the few who survive– the void created by the closure of stores such as these, staffed by people who really know and love the music they sell, will never really be filled. That record store experience will just become a special memory to file away along with all the rest. Classical Millennium not only covered the bases of the great historic mainstream of classical music, but always stocked hundreds (if not thousands) of titles from composers of the last century whose magnificent contributions are perpetually overlooked or under appreciated. Classical Millennium RIP.

    • John Shepherd says:

      Andy,

      Thanks for the post. I miss your store and get a sinking feeling every time I drive past. The on-line experience is void of any human interaction. The knowledge, insight and enthusiasm of the people in an independent record store is of great value. Here we have just another chip taken away from a balanced culture. It is a sad day.

  3. Bob Hicks says:

    Andy and Bob, thanks. Andy, I can only imagine how hard it was. Much as I appreciate the Internet, I don’t think it can replace that special experience of a real physical space run by people who know their subject intimately and are passionate about it. There’s something about physical proximity that makes mere possibilities real.

  4. This is extraordinarily sad news. I love this store…every time I’m in Portland, which is usually 3 times a year, I go there and browse the stacks. This loss is tremendous, and I know I’ll be grieving this for a long time. No place else to just browse through such a comprehensive selection. I have thousands of discs, and even though I live in Philadelphia, a huge portion of my collection is from Classical Millennium.

  5. Robert Moon says:

    Mourning the demise of classical CD stores won’t do anyone any good. There is an alternative: subscribe to the few classical music magazines remaining: American Record Guide, BBC Music, Grammophone, Fanfare. Their critics become the friendly, knowledgeable salespeople who knows what recordings are good and bad. It’s the only alternative. Embrace them!

  6. Mark Perlman says:

    This is so sad, but the writing has been on the wall. Every time I go into Classical Millennium I am afraid to ask “How’s business?” because I knew the answer wouldn’t be good. This is simply the best classical music store I have ever been in, and I have haunted many stores in many places. Tower is gone. Most other stores have cut back to bare minumum of classical CDs. Classical Millennium was the last bastion of civilization for classical music lovers. The store has so much esoteric stuff that you don’t find anywhere, and always a generous helping of used CDs. Where am I going to get my music buying fix?? Surfing websites just isn’t the same as thumbing through actual records and CDs – browsing always lets you find things you weren’t looking for. And the staff always has expert recommendations – that’s the real loss: Knowledge. There is no joy in Mudville – Classical Millennium has been struck down.

  7. Curtis Heikkinen says:

    This makes me very sad. I have a very extensive music library, the majority of which was purchased at Classical Millenium. I probably demonstrate some of the reasons for that store’s demise. I haven’t patronized the store much in recent years because I eventually collected so much music I could never listen to it all. Now, if I want a CD, it is much cheaper and easier to download from ITunes. The most important advantage to downloading is that I don’t have the storage issues. I also find myself listening to streaming services from classical sites from around the world. I have less desire to purchase music when I have so many listening options. Despite all that, I still hoped that Classical Millenium could hang on. I must confess to some guilt for being part of the reasons for that great store’s demise.

  8. Dan Ferguson says:

    This is perhaps the saddest news I have heard in years of collecting CDs. Classical Millennium was THE store that I went to get away from the cares and worries that accompanied me through down times financially and when things were going well. It will never be the same and Amazon, etc., may have given us more choice, but to do away with the book stores, cds stores, and other kinds of stores leads us to only shop via the web…which is a sad thing indeed.

  9. Bryan Johanson says:

    Everyone who has spent time in CM knows how well stocked, organized, and thorough they were. Big thanks go out to Michael Parsons for his life-long commitment to his store, the music, the musicians and his customers. Though it may be true that we march into the new on-line and down-load future, the loss of this important store is a loss to our community and our culture. Thank you so much to Michael and is staff for all the years of service. It was a wonderful store and it will be missed.

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