Look closely to the left of Vidiots and you’ll find Benway Records, a record store at 306 Pico that preserves the look and feel of all the great record stores that have been disappearing from LA. Owner Kelly Benway had a cup of coffee with the Mirror’s Steve Stajich to discuss her move from Venice to Santa Monica and the future of small, independent record stores.
Tell me about starting a record store… you started in Venice, right?
No, in Las Vegas. In 1991. Las Vegas is a really odd place. It’s very small, and it had one college radio station, and then they cut out their rock program there. And when you’re just one single little record store in the middle of the desert it’s really hard to get the new releases and get the new music. It was kind of going down in Las Vegas.
Then you came to Venice…?
I was from Venice and worked at Penny Lane records. I started there, then went to Vegas. Then Steve [from Penny Lane] called me and said he was going out of Venice and said, “Hey, you want to come home?” And I wanted to come home.
How long were you in Venice?
And what changed?
The music industry changed, downloading and things like that. That changed things drastically. Then the rent kept going up, so I had to find something more in my price range. I looked around Venice, but everything was very steep and everything was taken!
Of course Venice is gentrifying, but… is Venice getting so “cool” that it can’t support a great, funky little record store?
Yeah. The problem is, and I still live in Venice and can afford a little bit to live in Venice, but… they’re Third Street “Promenade-ing” Venice. The Coffee Bean is there now, Campos Tacos, Quiznos. I mean, Subway was there and everybody accepted it. “Okay, Subway.” But there were no corporations. And now it’s hurting [a small Venice café], well I don’t know if it is, but tourist season comes and a tourist is going to go “bam, I’m going to go to Coffee Bean.” Because they know the name. And that’s the way it seems to be going. It’s hurting the smaller businesses there a lot and the rents aren’t getting any cheaper.
So you moved here.
Yeah. And everybody said, “So Santa Monica’s cheaper?” and it is. And I couldn’t have a better neighbor. Vidiots, we just kind of go hand in hand.
Tell me more about what you are trying to do here.
Well, right now I’m doing a lot of in-stores… performances. My daughter [a student at nearby Samohi] is doing what she calls “After School Specials” on the last Friday of the month. And she has one of the bands from school come over and perform. We move these bins [points to the back of the shop] and they play right there.
Then Izzy Cox, she’s a local singer-songwriter; she has two Monday nights a month. And she’s getting bands from all over the place to come in and perform from 7 to 9. I’m starting workshops too. With silk screening and button making and starting fanzines. Stuff like that. Getting that rolling.
And on the first Sunday of the month we’re having, in the back, we’re having a swap meet. It’s a record swap meet, but also related items… posters and old collectibles and toys.
People now seem less tied to the physical media itself… discs, LP’s, tapes… and in that way at least seem a little less involved.
See, that’s the whole thing. We’re a hands-on environment and it’s tangible and, you know, you have something. If you go online, and my daughter has an iPod, but…. she takes a CD home and then puts it on her computer and then puts it on her iPod. Then she trades in the CD. And that’s what I’m pretty much doing. I give a good trade value back, like 80% back. So it’s almost like a library with a small charge. If the CD is in good condition and back within a week. But it’s more of a lifestyle. People come in and hang out and talk about music and talk about the new stuff and talk about an entire record instead of downloading. I find that people are just downloading a hit, like a song. And they’re not getting full – well, like concept records.
I’m a hundred years old, but… for example, the White Album. How can you know what the Beatles were up to at that time from one song?
Right. Exactly. Or Pink Floyd The Wall. How can you just grab one song off of that?
Downloading pulls a song out of context and lessens it…
The new Killers. I’ve listened to that and I think it’s a concept record. I don’t know, that’s just my take on it, but I think it is. And the new Foo Fighters acoustic live record. I went to the show and it was fantastic! How could you pull just one song off that?
You have a lot of cassettes. I love cassettes. It’s all my car will play.
Mine too. I have a pink ’73 VW. And a lot of people will buy cassette tapes. Tapes sell well, vinyl…it flies out of here! So I’m getting some turntables in here.
I personally don’t like what happens to the music with digital files.
A lot of people say that. I agree. I cannot listen to an iPod. Regardless of how great they might be, it just doesn’t do it for me. It’s maybe the transfer, the download… it loses something for me. It’s so tinny. Sometimes it sounds like you’re listening to music through broken headphones. Something is so far in the back that I can’t hear it.
Isn’t something important lost if we lose record stores?
Oh, yes. To me, it’s the culture. In here, people swap ideas. And next door [Vidiots] the same thing. Talking to them and being neighbors is fantastic, because we have the same concept. I just don’t see that record stores are going away, completely, even with what happened to Tower.
I think people want to get out of the house and have some… texture in their lives.
And talk. Talk about music, mainly in here, but all kinds of stuff. And I do a lot of special orders because people want to give me their business. They don’t want to go all the way to some other [big retail] place and stand in line. But basically I have to try and stay at their pricing.
Is there something kind of political about a store with this much individuality and taste? Kind of anti-whatever…?
My first job was at Tower in ‘78. I did big shops, little shops on Melrose. And it just seems like it’s kind of going back to what it was before. When you see Tower going down, Aron’s, Rhino… we’re losing so many great record stores. And so many avenues for local bands. I have a 10-CD listening station for CD’s from local bands. Local bands aren’t going to get picked up right away by a major or get distribution. How are these people going to get their music heard?