Which is sad, because who doesn't have a few good memories associated with a mall somewhere? Way before I discovered girls, my friends and I used to beg our parents to drive us across town to the local mall and leave us there all day to blow our $5-a-week allowances and lawn-mowing money and whatever else we could scrape together so that we could plug quarters into sweet games like the Golden Axe and Street Fighter. Santa Claus lived in the mall, too, as did Orange Julius and B. Dalton, with its rows upon rows of science-fiction paperbacks. In its day, the mall was a retail utopia, a greenhouse of consumerism.
There's something eerie and unnatural about a mostly empty shopping mall. It's like a planet on Star Trek where the population has killed itself off through war and disaster, leaving only a quasi-evil hermit and his robot servants, who, instead of being programmed to destroy intruders, just keep the place clean and sell shoes and sunglasses to the odd visitor.
But all of that is the reason why Bannister Mall is the most unlikely yet perfect place for a best-kept-secret record store.
So when I offered to furnish DJ Oz McGuire with $30 to teach me a lesson in record shopping last Thursday, Hobley's Music and Books is where he insisted on going.
"You hit me at just the right time," Oz said as we got into his car. "I haven't been excited about a record store in ages."
I'd never met Oz before, but I had a hunch he'd be a great guide. With his brother-in-arms, the slender Fat Sal (real name Pat "I'm only fat in my mind" Alexander), Oz has turned Thursday night at Jilly's into one of the most beloved dance parties in the city. It's a favorite among hipsters, art students, ex-hippies, preps, jocks and just about anybody who enjoys grooving to mixes of obscure soul and disco stuff that was never on the radio but has survived as a fetish of '70s-worshipping DJs and vinyl collectors.
"I grew up as a jazzhead," Oz said, "I really dug soul-jazz stuff like Coltrane and Bitches Brew. Once I finally heard the sampling of jazz in hip-hop, like with Digable Planets and Tribe Called Quest, a light bulb flickered."
These very genres are what Hobley's specializes in, along with blues, reggae and rock, plus vintage stereo equipment, old copies of Jet and Ebony, posters, videos, Beatles and Elvis memorabilia, books, CDs (though not many) and all kinds of wonderful African-Americana. Example: a February 1969 issue of Chicago's black newspaper, the Daily Defender, sits on the counter in a protective sleeve. "Noted Newsman Predicts: U.S. to Destroy Black Panthers," reads the dire headline.
Oz knows the place because its owner, Dolores Hobley, now 64, used to have a booth called Collector's World in the Waldo Antique Center. She moved to the mall a year ago and plunged into online retail. Recently, Hobley put her entire stock up for auction on eBay, but it didn't sell. (When Oz and I visited, though, she was preparing to ship 10,000 records to two different out-of-town buyers.)
By far the nicest record collector I've ever met, Hobley launched into a spontaneous history lesson in wax. She led me over to what she called a school player, a portable record player with built-in speakers that looked like a suitcase. She removed the top, and the player began to dance, jiggling on its four, spring-loaded, shock-absorbing feet. It was a Newcomb EDT12, capable of playing 33s, 45s and 78s. Hobley laid a Bloodstone 45 on the small, white turntable and adjusted a lever; the soulful strains of "Never Let You Go" burst, crackly and gloriously (and surprisingly loudly), out of the speaker. "You get one of these players here, you don't need nothing else," Hobley said lovingly.
"HE-EY!" a voice behind us hollered on cue with the music. A chubby guy in yellow glasses and a hat walked up and asked to buy the Bloodstone. He introduced himself as Brother Kenny. There were now three certified eccentrics in the store, which was pretty good for a rainy Thursday afternoon: Kenny, Oz and Hobley's nephew John Hobley, a young guy with multiple piercings wearing green sunglasses and a knit cap. He had been playing an exotic-sounding Pharaoh Sanders record on the store's stereo when we walked in.
John and Oz traded notes while Dolores loaded a Sarah Vaughn 78 of "Summertime" onto the wobbly Newcomb. She explained that 78s were the first form of vinyl, but they were extremely fragile and were eventually replaced by more durable, portable 45s. Highly collectible 10-inch records came next (the first full-length albums, pressed for only a few years), then 12-inch albums (two or three songs to a side popular with DJs) and 33 1/3 LPs.
Not surprisingly, my $30 didn't go very far. Oz went over the limit and had to write up an IOU for Dolores. His take included a dancehall 12-inch of Beenie Man featuring Lil' Kim; a Fugees 12-inch of "Killing Me Softly," which he picked up for its B-side, "Cowboys"; an obscure album by a rap-funk group called the West Street Mob; Stakes Is High by De La Soul; a Donny Hathaway album (which he insisted that I keep); and a clean copy of Stevie Wonder's Innervisions to replace his scratched-up disc at home.
"'Living for the City' I have that cut in my head all the time," Oz said of the Wonder album as we pulled out of the empty parking lot. "I do think it's quite hilarious," he continued, "that, to find good records in this town, you've got to go out to a fuckin' abandoned mall."
Later that night, at Jilly's, Oz and Fat Sal swapped slabs of vinyl on and off their decks, dropping the needle on just the right groove, mixing, chopping and rotating records in and out from their endless supply. The dance floor was full of beautiful, unself-conscious women who danced like children to the relentlessly pounding, funky old music. Once in a while, they exchanged smiles with Oz and Sal, just two of many DJs in this town who have spun Dolores Hobley's vinyl into gold.