Oct 182009
Authors: Erik Myers

It’s liquidation month over at The Finest. After 37 years of service to the Northern Colorado community, everything at the record store must go.

Including artifacts. A large-scale plaster replica of Nipper, the fox terrier of the RCA Corporation’s logo, went for $100 last week. Still for sale is the “Buffalo Soldier” promo poster made of burlap and a 1992 Beastie Boys poster, signed “Hey Jim, what’s up with ‘dat.'”

Everything else is on discount: 60 percent off this week, 75 percent off next.

The exception is the burnt orange members-only jacket, bearing the store mascot, a downtrodden cowboy clutching a vinyl disc. It’s destined to end up in the closet of owner Jim Risser, a reminder of the people and the music.

His passion was incubated in the Budget Tapes & Records store down the street from his Lakewood home. The real coming-of-age didn’t occur until his family relocated to Greeley in 1976, when Risser stumbled across The Finest, home to a vast selection of cheap used records.

His patronage ended in 1981, when he was hired on as a clerk. Two years later, Risser dropped out of the University of Northern Colorado and took on a full-time manager position.

“I figured I’d much rather work in a record store than pursue my career as an accountant,” Risser says with a laugh.

Back then it was the guy behind the counter — not an algorithm — providing careful suggestions to the customer, acting as guide through the promise land of new releases. Should the store somehow lack the desired item, it was usually just a mail order away. Creating comfort was key.

“It was not only a retail store, it was kind of a social hangout,” Risser says.

Up north, Mark Cheatham was settling down in Fort Collins. He’d followed his girlfriend, a student at CSU. While she took classes, he sought out the record stores. A veteran of the retailing business, his resumé including time at a Peaches (considered the first major chain record outlet) and a Denver independent shop called Play It Again. Back in 1982, The Finest was one of many.

“There were 14 places that had a record department, places where you could buy records and/or CDs,” he says.

The Finest was a respectable choice for Cheatham, who was able to keep steady work there for years, eventually moving into a manager role. It also turned out to be a smart choice, judging by the struggles of competitors around town.

“(Chain stores) tended to expand too fast and go into debt, and that always got them into trouble,” Cheatham says. “And a lot of stores didn’t sell used product either, which has a higher markup. That’s one of the things that helped stores like us survive.”

But there was little adjustment that could be made when the new millennium rolled around, bringing with it the peer-to-peer networks that made file sharing easy. Robbery never seemed so inconsequential, and the music industry was getting the worst of it.

Cheatham could only watch from the sidelines as the record labels went to war with a faceless enemy.

“For years, the record merchants have said ‘Lower your prices, you’re competing against free or very cheap,'” he said, adding that only now have they complied: “That should’ve come five or six years ago, at least.”

While the labels took out lawsuits against stay-at-home moms, The Finest prepped for survival.

In 2003, former owners Glenn and Betsy Cobarr sold both stores to Risser and disappeared into Arizona. Under Risser, the store focused on cultivating its vinyl inventory for DJs and collectors. Digital kiosks were installed in both stores and stocked with thousands of tunes, offering customers the option of making their own mix CDs for cheap. He even experimented by opening a short-lived Windsor location.

But these attempts did not curb the sales decline. The original Greeley location closed its doors last year. The lease is up for Fort Collins location, which barely broke even last month. Risser decided it was close shop.

On the tail end of The Finest’s story is Ben Thompson, who became an employee about four years ago, at first earning store credit instead of wages. The sophomore history education major doesn’t dote upon the job; there are things about it he likes and doesn’t like. It is, after all, a job.

But he still sees his experience as a privilege. The Finest was where he met his girlfriend, a former coworker. He also crossed paths with a couple of albums he’d never have experienced otherwise. The best acquirement for the clerk was two records commissioned by the University of Illinois’ Folksong Club. He can only guess on the number of copies in existence, somewhere between 300 and 1,000.

Risser and Cheatham say there’ll be something lost in music’s transition from physical to digital.

“I like having the physical product with the artwork and the linear notes and everything,” says Cheatham. “Somebody could download ‘Street Fighting Man’ by the Rolling Stones, but if you don’t get ‘Beggars Banquet,’ you’re missing the best Stones album there is.”

Thompson, too, is unhappy that the Internet has brought the store to an end, but much less bothered by the devastated corporation side of things.

“There are some things about the way it’s distributed now that allows people to hear music they otherwise wouldn’t have been able to,” Thompson says.

Nobody really knows what’s next. Cheatham figures he won’t have trouble finding work in retail. Thompson has a couple of things lined up.

Risser plans to spend more time with his two daughters and wife until he figures out what’s next. The jacket won’t be far from reach.

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