Monthly Archives: December 2015

Beware, and Celebrate, The Big Brush

Huron, SD is a mid-sized community (by South Dakota standards anyway) in east central SD.  It sits at the intersection of US Highway 14 and SD State Highway 37.  Before the advent of Interstate Highways 90 and 29 in SD, Huron was host to two of the major east-west routes across the state. Huron can trace its origins to the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad’s decision to make this town on the west bank o the James River as its Divisional Headquarters.  Years later when auto and truck traffic became central to economic growth, US Highway 14 was built going through Huron.   The giant Armour Meats had a packing plant in Huron, which also supported a significant stockyards and markets.  If you lived in the region, Huron was the retail center.  It’s where you went to the doctor and dentist.  It was (and is) the home to the South Dakota State Fair.  It was home to Huron College.  Add it all up, and it’s easy to see why Huron was a h0ppin’ place.  However, progress in the form of those interstate highways some 50+ miles to the south and east, the closing of the Armour plant and 550 jobs, the heavy hits doled out with the farm crisis in the early 80’s and a number of other circumstances hit Huron hard.

Since the Ancestral Manse in Forestburg in just 30 miles south, I venture up to Huron a handful of times every year. I have an addiction to farm and home stores and hunting for old junk, and those itches can get scratched a little there.  Beyond that, I’ll admit lately I’ve had few words of compliment for Huron.  Nothing personal, but every time I drive through Huron I sense its best days are in their rear view mirror.  The main street is wide, and there are buildings of a scale you don’t see in many other SD towns of similar size.  However, there’s emptiness everywhere.  Empty store fronts. A little dumpy in places.  An almost palpable absence of hope.  The sense isthat important things USED to happen here.  Mitchell, its neighbor some 50 miles to the south, bustling with new construction and vitality and straddling one of those interstate highways, has a big heartbeat you can feel as you drive through.   Huron feels like it needs a pacemaker, and would be wise to have the portable defib unit nearby and fired up in case today’s the day.  It’s unfair to compare the SD State Fair to the State Fair in Minnesota, but having worked around 60 days at  the Great Minnesota Get Together during my 6 years at KSTP it’s hard not to.  Not only doesn’t the Fair compare to Minnesota’s, it doesn’t compare favorably to the SD Fair 20, 50 even 100 years ago.  Ooo that smell.

I’m not the type to kick someone when they’re down.  I feel terribly guilty talking negatively about Huron or any town in South Dakota.  However, for better or worse, 38 years of trying to be a worthy member of the Fourth Estate means trying to stay honest with both criticism and praise, even when its been detrimental to my career and life. And honestly, the vibe isn’t great.

I was in Huron a couple of weeks ago.  I was downtown and as usual lamenting the general state of things.  I made my usual two stops, and as usual was wishing I didn’t feel like I was driving through a cemetery…  However, for some reason, instead of leaving town as quickly as possible, I turned west onto a downtown street (3rd Street SW). I normally don’t travel, and ran smack into things of immense beauty, hope, pride and energy. I stopped so quickly I would have caused a rear-ender…had there been another car on the block.

There before me was an immense and incredible hand-painted mural, full of antique race cars and their drivers. I had neither seen nor even heard of this huge work, nearly half a block long.  It’s not like it was a recent addition (1999) and is probably common knowledge to many reading this post. But it was new to me, and it was incredible.

The mural is on the side of the building housing Huron’s Sportsman’s Bar. (Note #1: The Sportsman’s is next to one of Huron’s gems, Manolis Grocery, maker of arguably the best deli sandwiches in SD.)  The half-block mural is full of antiquated open-wheel race cars from early in the 20th Century (see wholly inadequate pictures below).  The plaque details an historical event I had never heard of before but now am excited to find our more about:  The Great Race of 1913.  It featured 30 dangerous machines and determined pilots on a 110-mile race to De Smet and back, ending at that very spot.  Who knew???  The mural is painted in the sepia tones common to photos of the era.  Early photography always makes me feel like life was black-and-white up until after WWII.  What color were these cars, and what colors were the drivers wearing?

As I turned around, headed back to the GMC I looked up, and there across the parking lot was ANOTHER half-block long mural!  This one depicted the era of the Land Rush in 1882 when what is now Huron was first opened up for white settlement.  (Note #2: One man’s land rush is another native man’s loss of his entire world, and I understand and respect the conflict.  We’ll talk about that in future posts).  This 2001 rendering uses more color than its neighbor down the street, but is limited to muted and coolish blues, grays and browns.  The descriptive plaque notes a restoration of this mural in 2007.  Where the Great Race mural down the street references speed, danger and adrenaline, the Land Rush mural features moods from the very intimate between the couple with the pioneer-style wagon to the chaotic rush outside the land office (see more wholly inadequate photos below).  Both murals are first-rate, full of flare, evident of talent and moving…and uniquely Huron.

As I drove back south to the ‘Burg, I thought a lot about those murals.   I also thought a lot about my current attitude towards Huron.  Yes, the negative evidence suggesting Huron’s best days are behind her is still there.  And yes, Huron is still not on my personal list of Top 10 Places to Live in SD.  However, it revived in me something significant and important.  It reminded me there is beauty in nearly anything IF you take the time to look for it and are open to it when you find it.  As the ride home continued, I was also reminded the same sentiment holds for situations and events, and most importantly for people.  Yes there are places, feelings, opinions and people who have buried what little good is in them so deep it may never surface no matter how hard you look for it.  Those are (thankfully) the exception rather than the rule.  It also reminds me there are different kinds of beauty, and just because something doesn’t fit my idea of beauty doesn’t mean it isn’t beautiful.

There will always be ignorance and closed minds. There will always be those who are quick to judge anything or anyone who is different.  There will always be those who see someone else’s open mind as a weakness to exploit.  There are significant times in my life (some recent) where people have used  my open-mindedness and trust against me at significant cost.  Maybe that makes me naive, or foolish, or even stupid.  Yes, an open mind can come back to hurt you.  However, it can also foster innovation, growth and greater good.   As the New Year arrives, I’m still going to keep the Big Stick within reach, but try to more often look for the beauty in places and people first.  If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, we needs as many quality beholders as we can round up.

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There Must Be a Pony In There Somewhere…

I spent last weekend at the Ancestral Manse in Forestburg, SD.   As the house is directly behind the only year-round storefront in town, I can report that business was about average for a December Friday at Doren’s Bar.  I drove into Forestburg in the dark (sunset this time of year occurring shortly after lunch), but was buoyed by a very respectable display of holiday lights. There was just enough snow to make everything white but not enough to get easily stuck. Temps were in the single digits, but tolerable due to the absence of the usually stiff prevailing northwest winds.  Skies were clear enough to see the stars.  A sliver of moon made it possible to hear but not see a flock of geese coming in remarkably low.  I usually refer to Canada geese as “sky carp” for what I consider to be obvious reasons, but for a moment even I could muster up enough romance to think maybe they were coming in low to check out the colorful lights, too.

Like a sockeye salmon, it’s not unusual for me to feel the pull to return to my spawning ground when it gets close to Christmas.  We moved to Minnesota when I was about two years old, but we always returned to my grandparents’ farms for Christmas.  And I mean always.  For 26 of my first 27 years we made the 300+ mile trip to do Christmas with both sides of the family. In fact the first 21 were in a row, stopped only in 1983 by a monster blizzard which left 10 foot snow drifts on the highways between Rochester, MN (where I worked) and Plainview (where I lived).

Each of those visits had both  traditional ritual (oyster stew, the annual photo of my Grandma Linda, my mother and my bothers and me washing and drying dishes before opening presents) and unique memories (the hand-made Batman and Robin costumes sewn by Grandma for brother Bruce and me. I was Batman).  However, there was one year that stands out for its unpredictability and sheer wonderfulness.  And it had nothing in particular to do with me.  It was when I was around 9 years old.  After dinner and presents on my dad’s side we made the 15 mile trip through a generous but gentle snow to my Aunt Shirley and Uncle Robert Cope’s ranch. It was also home to my cousin Laurel, who is one year older than me.  The Copes were unique among my extremely small extended family.  They were Horse People. I couldn’t say for sure, but I’d make the bet that there were always more horses on the ranch than there were people. This, considering the combined number of horses on all of the farms of all of my relatives was zero, most definitely made them the Horse People in our little group.

Horses have always scared the heck out of me.  In fact, I’m not terrible fond of any big animals.  Frankly, the little ones don’t do much for me either.  My total time on a horse amounts to less than five minutes of sheer terror.  I’m not usually a control freak, but for me five minutes on a horse had all the allure and romance of a bungee jump, a car wreck and a plane crash all rolled into one.  But I know Laurel loved horses.  Much later in life when I returned to South Dakota, I caught a glimpse of the 2006 South Dakota State Park Permit on the windshield of a car.  It’s a photo of a couple riding horses through one of South Dakota’s State Parks.  Yep, that’s my cousin Laurel and her husband Manley.

Anyway, back to Christmas 1970 or so.  The Cope’s house had a big rectangular picture window on the east side.  There was a grass lawn extending out the gravel road that ran by the ranch, covered this Christmas with snow. As presents were distributed to four generations of family seated throughout the living room, the drapes on the picture window were closed.  Presents were opened and thank-you’s exchanged.  As everyone was basking the post-present afterglow, there was a rustling of sorts outside. Santa making a delivery, perhaps?  Someone peeked behind the drawn drapes, and then turned around with a look of astonishment.  Slowly the drapes were drawn, parting like drapes on a theater stage.  The front lawn was brightly lit with two big spotlights. There was no wind, and the huge snowflakes falling against the black night sky made the 3D view through the picture window better than IMAX.  There, tied to a post as big as life was a real, live PONY.  SANTA BROUGHT LAUREL A PONY!  It was simply the most amazing Christmas gift I had ever seen. Everyone in the room was mesmerized by this living, breathing, moving life-size shadow box.  It was breathtaking.

Looking back, what made it all so memorable is that while the pony was a gift from Santa to Laurel, the moment was a gift to all of us.  There was no jealousy, no “Laurel got a pony and I didn’t”.  It was simply a magical moment, whether you were the one getting pony or not.  Too often we judge our happiness against the happiness of others.  We’re jealous of what they have, and mad about what we don’t, missing the point that the shared moment was the real gift.

Age and time may have embellished this Christmas memory, as age and time will do.  No matter.  I know where Santa comes down on the deal.  And I always go with Santa.

 

Dim Lights, Thick Smoke and Loud, Loud Music

john denver

I was 14 years old the year I bought my first vinyl LP and first vinyl 45.  The album was John Denver’s “Poems, Prayers and Promises”.  The 45 A-side was Carole King’s “The Right Thing to Do”, with the B-side “Corazon”.  Buying my own records with my own money and playing them on my first stereo system that I paid for with my own money was a big deal.  The stereo was a Harmon-Kardon receiver/speaker turntable package (The Magnum 100!) from Schaak Electronics cost $249.00 plus tax.  Funny what particulars one remembers from 1975, while at the same time forgetting what I went to retrieve from the garage 25 seconds ago.

Anyway…those purchases started me down some serious life paths.  Vinyl Collection #1 brought home rock, funk, soul and, yes, disco records, mostly purchased at places like chain store Musicland, and department stores like Dayton’s and J.C. Penny. My Dad had a substantial number of Bohemian/Czech polka and waltz LP’s around the house, along with a handful of country records including George Jones, Johnny Paycheck and Willie Nelson (Night Life and Me and Paul era).  That eclectic background gave me a better than average knowledge of recorded music (for a teenager, anyway), enough to get me a part-time radio job at age 17 at KWMB-AM 1190, “The Voice of the Valley” in Wabasha, MN.  Rather than dump one kind of music when discovering something hipper, I’ve always simply added the new stuff to the mix.  Later came jazz, punk/new wave (college), classic country (radio job), reggae/world (no comment), and on and on.  However, if I had to pinpoint the core influences on my music, and therefore my life and careers up to now, they would clearly be my friends, and the quirky, amazing universe of the Independent Record Store.  Which, actually, when I think back are really two elements of a single source.  You went to the record store most of the time with your friends.  You also met new friends at the record store.  And you certainly learned new things.  LOTS of new things.

I’d almost forgotten how much I loved record stores.  I’ve mourned them as one by one they disappeared, victims of the Mp3 and the stupidity, decadence and avarice of the major record labels.  You forget because it hurts too much to remember.  But then two cool things happened over a stretch of only four days which brought it all back, and in a really good way.

Tower Records

 

 

First, Joan and I attended a screening of the new documentary, “All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records” (www.towerrecordsmovie.com), directed by Colin Hanks, the 38-year-old son of Tom Hanks. (Note:  If Tom Hanks is old enough to have a 38 year-old son, we are all officially getting on in years).  The film was the last of the fall season of independent films brought together by “Cinema Falls”, of which Joan and I have been members the past couple of years. (www.cinemafalls.com). The movie does what most good docs do…tells a story and teaches (Quick Fact:  In three years, Tower went from $1 Billion in sales to bankruptcy).  I’d been to any number of Tower locations across the US (Hollywood, Chicago and Philadelphia stand out in memory), and they never disappointed.  But what I realized while watching the film is that Tower Records in many ways was the template for the thousands of local, independent record stores that followed.

 

While each great independent record store was unique, there were common components.  There was always something new playing on the in-house sound system.  There were at least a couple of people working at the store who were the “Keepers of Knowledge”.  They seemed to know everything worth knowing about past classics, hot releases, new bands, news kinds of music, etc. They had long hair and dressed cool.  Some wore sun glasses inside during the day.  The best record stores had huge promotional posters everywhere, row after row of bins overflowing with records, each categorized and alphabetized.  They had the coolest t-shirts and posters, cool hand-made flyers of bands playing in clubs and theaters in town, and tickets to all the hot shows. The more adventurous had a scent about them…incense, patchouli oil and who-knows-what-else…and sometimes, off to the side in a glass case a wide and exotic assortment of gift items sporting signs clearly stating they weren’t what they looked like but you knew they were EXACTLY what they looked like wink wink nod nod.  Each record store was filled with interesting people.  Some were your friends, some would become friends, some looked a little dangerous, and some looked even weirder than you.  The best of these stores could keep you entertained for hours.  These stores used to be everywhere, until one day you looked up and they were nearly all gone.

 

While akin in some ways to Moses wandering alone in the desert for 20 years, record stores nearly all disappeared, but records never really went away.  Just ask a collector who moves to a new house or apartment and had to move a collection of thousands of lp’s.  As some point you wish they would simply go away.  Collecting hot rod cars is probably a heavier obsession, but records can come in a close second.  Props most definitely have to go to Hip Hop DJ’s and their descendants whose use of vinyl samples mandated the continued manufacturing of vinyl, turntables, etc.

I had mentioned above my Vinyl Collection #1.  It was impressive.  A good many were pieces I purchased.  I also worked in several radio stations that were literally throwing away vinyl while converting first to CD’s and then to Mp3 files, and as a second-generation dumpster diver I had rescued countless titles, rarities, radio promos, etc. However, in between my years in Big Time Large Market Radio and my return to South Dakota, I needed to raise some cash.  Apart from keeping maybe 60 lp’s and a small box of 45’s, I sold everything else, and swore a promise to never purchase vinyl again.  Flash ahead, and in 8+ years in SD I have accumulated a collection 4 times as large as Collection #1 and in one-quarter the time.  I also began buying up old receivers, turntables and speakers, all of which were plentiful at garage sales and thrift stores.  I’ve even begun buying and selling the stuff, which leads us to last week’s Event #2.

Total Drag Records

Like many other 20th century consumer goods like old cars, books, movies  and anything baby boomers would have purchased over the decades, lp records are hip again.  Some of the partisans are boomers reliving their past, but many are those too young to have ever seen a record or turntable.  The resurgence has lead to new vinyl records being produced and released.  In fact, the demand for new vinyl has been so great that the six or so remaining pressing plants left over from the onset of the CD era cannot keep up. And with this resurgence of interest in vinyl comes the return of the Independent Record Store.  I have visited several, but last week I ran into a real treat.  It’s called Total Drag Records (www.totaldragrecords.com).  It has so much in common with the great record stores of my youth:  A bit off the main drag of downtown, about halfway between trendy eateries and the river.  Not huge, but big enough to house a wonderful collection of new and used and local releases (btw, their used inventory is as clean as any I’ve seen.  Ever.).   There are groovy sounds coming off a vintage turntable next to a small performance area where local and touring musicians play for a minimal cost and to all ages.  Heck, it even SMELLS like a cool record store should smell.  And the night I am there, while a couple of bands hustle in their equipment for the evening’s show in a couple of hours, is Liz.  Liz and her husband opened Total Drag Records, and tonight she’s there with what’s new, what’s cool and answers to whatever questions I might come up with.  Best of all, she’s genuine…authentic in her friendly approach to life, happy to show me around, and just glad I stopped by.  Liz is good people, and Total Drag is a great place.

 

OK, time for a little Reader Interaction.  If you share the passion, please respond with the names and a few details of your favorite record stores in the past, and names and details of some favorites you visit today.  Provide links and photos if you like.  If you own a shop, please share details.  As for me:

 

Favorites in the past:  Face the Music, Headquarters (Rochester), The Lost Chord (Mankato), Positively 4th Street, Roadrunner Records, Platters, Let it Be, Garage D’or, Oar Folkjokeopus (sp?) Electric Fetus, Wax Museum (Mpls), Northern Lights (Mpls and St. Paul), Eclipse (St. Paul)

Electric Fetus

Favorites today:  Total Drag, Last Stop (FSD), Electric Fetus (Mpls), Amoeba Records (Hollywood and San Francisco), Gift and Thrift, E. 10th and Bahnson Ave Sioux Falls (shameless plug: I have a few hundred there at any given time:  https://www.facebook.com/GiftThriftVintage2/).  No junk, all genres,priced to sell)…

 

Your favorites from the past?  Where do you go now?  And do they have any Jazz Butcher lp’s?

jazz butcher

Go Small or Go Home: All Hail The Kiosk!

Kiosk Thursday Charlie Brown tree

 

We live in the Age of Big.  Venture out nearly anywhere and Big is up in your grill.  Nowhere is this more evident than in the retailing world.  Big is so big it’s developed its own vocabulary.  Superstore.  Super Center.  Super Market.  Big Box.  Doorbuster. Outlet Mall.  Warehouse.  The first modern strip mall in the US was built in 1951 in St. Louis Park, MN.  It’s name?  The MIRACLE MILE.  Mystical and huge.

There was a time when bigger meant more variety.  Today, however, it’s just as likely to mean more of the same.  The vocabulary of Big has a word for that stuff:  Product. Indistinguishable one from another. For example: “The trucks come every Tuesday with fresh product direct from the factory.”  It conjures up visions of boxes full of this off-white, uniform “stuff” made of who-knows-what that is molded or stamped or processed into blenders or socks or Little Debbie Snack Cakes or brake pads. It’s all Product, all the same, and all available at any Superstore near you.

Around this time of year, someone somewhere attached a name to an already established mass shopping action following Thanksgiving on the fourth Friday of November.  They called it “Black Friday”, which, depending on whose doing the talking, got it’s name because it’s the day retail business sales finally exceed costs for the year, putting the  retailer in a profitable state, or “in the black”.  Others say it compares the shopping madness to a trip to Hades, or maybe the annual Dark Side of the Force Holiday Party at Vader’s place.  Just for kicks one year my wife and I got up at 3am and drove to a Big Box electronics store in the Twin Cities to be there when the doors opened to buy a Doorbuster laptop.  When we arrived it was only 5 above zero, and a line of shivering people wrapped all the way around the Big Box which still wouldn’t open for two more hours.  Applying some basic math we determined our odds of buying one of the five “Doorbuster” laptops were not in our favor, so we turned around, drove home and hopped back into bed

“Black Friday” has grown from a single day to a week, and this year even longer with the first mention before Halloween…which, by the way, began with Halloween candy for sale before Labor Day.  But that’s another story for another day.  In 2005, a reporter coined the phrase “Cyber Monday” to describe the niche but quickly growing trend of avoiding crowds and wait to make their purchases online on Monday when they were back in the office and had access to high-speed broadband. In between Black Friday and Cyber Monday came the retort from local retailers, and “Small Business Saturday” was born.

Certainly there are exceptions, but for the most part Big Business, Small Local Business and Online Business sell similar “Product”.  Therefore, “Black Friday”, “Small Business Saturday” and “Cyber Monday” are primarily campaigns designed to convince the consumer WHERE to shop and secondarily WHAT to shop for.  But what if you don’t want the same old Product?  What if you want something different? Unique?  Crafted? Something NOT just like everything else.  Where do you go?

kiosk thursday 03

Back in the 13th century, Turkish and Persian artisans came up with a different way to sell.  The neighboring Persians called it a “kusshk” (Note: Maybe the Persians should pick up a few extra vowels the next time they’re at market), described as a summer house, or a garden with three walls and an open front where seasonal foods and artisan goods were sold.  In April of 1717  Lady Wortley Montegu, the wife of the British Ambassador to Istanbul, wrote a friend in England of the “chiosk”, described as a structure up 9 or 10 steps from its surroundings enclosed with gilded lattices.  I can’t speak for everyone, but “gilded lattices” sure sounds more fun than “Look in Plumbing, Aisle 36, between Appliances and  Automotive.” Later, “chiosk” was shorted to “kiosk” (pronounced KEE-ahhsk).  The kiosk sells the unique and hand-crafted… what you generally cannot get anywhere else.

In “The Wizard of Oz”, the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion already had the brains, heart and courage they were looking for.  What they received were a diploma, a heart-shaped watch and a medal, respectively.  The artists and artisans of the Kiosk have their unique creations.  What they didn’t have was a DAY…until Sioux Falls’ award-winning ad agency Fresh Produce made it so.  FP Creative Director Ted Heeren says, “It’s a great way to spotlight a lot of interesting and industrious local vendors.  We call it “Shopping Without Walls”.  FP’s Brian Bieber adds The vendors generally don’t have traditional retail storefronts.  “Kiosk Thursday gives them and their potential customers the opportunity to meet in a friendly, face to face venue.”  This year’s vendors will include locally-produced vinyl records, tapes and other merch, Sioux Falls photographer Abby Bischoff’s  2016 “Abandoned South Dakota” calendar, Darling Vintage, featuring hand-made clothing from found vintage fabrics, hand-made Christmas ornaments, and the full-line of merch from “Rock Garden Tour”, the South Dakota-produced public radio and TV show and podcast.  Gifted Sioux Falls musician Dalton Coffey and some special guests will perform live at noon, while Dan and Liz from vendor Total Drag Records will spin vinyl both before and after. providing the appropriate aural backdrop.  All customers will be favored with refreshments.

Don’t get me wrong.  The Big Box, the local small business and online commerce are all important to the economic health of every city and state in the U.S., and they all have their moments when they are the right place with the right thing at the right price at the right time.   I guess the point of Kiosk Thursday is to make sure the artist, craftsperson and budding entrepreneur have their place in the game, too.  Bieber says, “The people who set up kiosks at Fresh Produce for Kiosk Thursday are some of the hardest working, talented salespeople around. I think a lot of us here share a fascination with the transitory nature of kiosks. Here one day, gone the next. It makes the experience of buying feel exclusive and special, and just a little bit dangerous.”

Well, I like to shop the unusual and experimental.  And, Danger IS my middle name.  I’ll be checking out 2015’s “Kiosk Thursday”, and I encourage you to do the same if you’re in range.

For up to the minute info on additional vendors, sales specials and other surprises, follow @pickfresh on Twitter, and @pickfreshsd on Instagram.

 

charlie brown xmas sing