Reptilian Records Closes It Doors, But Chris X Continues On
Reptilian Records is calling it quits. On Jan. 18, the Baltimore retail institution, currently housed on Howard Street, closes its doors for good, ending a nearly two-decade stint as the city's go-to-shop for fans of the hard, the loud, and the fast.
"I was trying hard to make it 20 years," says Chris X, aka Christopher Xavier, on pulling the plug on his store's 19-year tenure. "But we had to cut the dead weight."
Before settling into its current Howard Street location two years ago, Reptilian Records had anchored the 400 block of South Broadway in Fells Point for 17 years. Its storefront, painted a nuclear shade of green, was a sign of the times. Xavier opened the shop, circa 1990, in that brief window before the eras that subculture historians will someday designate as "The Time Before You Could Buy Your Cool at the Mall" and "The Time When You Could Buy Everything Online."
Like shopping at other market-specific stores, a trip to Reptilian was an end in itself. For the better half of the '90s, those whose tastes strayed from the beaten path were happy to take the detour to seek out the CD and vinyl bins at Reptilian--just as many of those same patrons sought out the books and the music that could be found on the shelves at Atomic Books on Read Street in Mount Vernon. But times changed, and so did consumer habits.
"Fells Point used to be a destination where you could go and hang out," Xavier says of his store's old neighborhood and the type of customer it attracted. "People would come in and talk for a half an hour. But then [clothing store] Sticky Fingers was gone, [skate shop] Chat Street was gone, and business started going down hill fast."
With fewer stores in the area appealing to the same clientele that was keeping Reptilian in business, foot traffic into Xavier's shop slowed. In an attempt to follow the dollar, a satellite store, called Son of Reptilian, was opened in Hampden in the late 1990s. "We were about a year too early," Xavier says of the second store's doors opening. "Holy Frijoles was the first cool thing there, and Atomic Books is there now, but it was just too much of a strain for us to have two stores open in the same town." In an attempt to bring all of its business under one roof again, Reptilian closed the Hampden shop a year later, and concentrated on keeping the store on Broadway alive.
It worked for a while. "Closing Son of Reptilian rejuvenated the original store," Xavier says. "But the music business itself was closing." The withering economy coupled with the changing nature of the music business presented a challenge. Easy access to MP3 downloads and the entrenched attitude among a new generation of music fans that music should be available free made it harder for an independent record store to keep its doors open.
"I had one of my distributors tell me that he's seen over 500 independent record stores close since 2006 due to downloading and the ease of looking for music online," Xavier says, adding that the trend was one he'd noticed with his own operations. "Things dropped off at the store and our online sales started taking off."
With an estimated 75 percent of his revenue coming from the Reptilian web site, the future of Xavier's bricks-and mortar-venue looked bleak. "As sad as it is, and as much as I hate being just an online store, the actual store was costing more than it could make," Xavier says.
MP3s might have hurt the store proper, but Reptilian's vinyl sales have been strong. The comeback of vinyl and the buying activity of the fans that the form attracts have kept Xavier hopeful about his business's future. "People who care about aesthetics are buying LPs," he says. "You get a real feel for an artist through the jacket, the sleeve, the poster, the liner notes. People who download MP3s to their iPods aren't as interested in that aspect of the music-buying experience."
The vinyl experience is something Xavier's record label, Reptilian Records, has never abandoned, putting out a variety of singles from local, national, and international acts. Since the '90s, the Reptilian label has given a home to homegrown talent, such as Blank, the first band from Ryan Shelkett of Liar's Academy. as well as more renown acts, such as Seattle's Supersuckers.
The Reptilian label will continue to function out of the Howard Street building that currently houses the store. Xavier purchased the property two years ago and has set up a mail-order operation for sales from both the online store and the label on the premises. Scapegoat, a publishing imprint started by Xavier in the fall 2004 with graphic designer Kevin I. Slaughter, also shares the space.
Publishing was the next logical move in Xavier's career of championing musicians that were occasionally overlooked, often undervalued, and sometimes just too provocative for other outlets to consider. "The catalyst to do the publishing was the same as for my record label--I am friends with many artists and writers who couldn't find anyone to publish their work," he says. Scapegoat's publishing roster includes erstwhile City Paper contributor Carlos Batts, whose book American Gothic focuses on the photographer/artist/filmmaker's interpretations of the classic Grant Wood painting of the same name. American Gothic was the imprint's inaugural release and has since been followed by a bound edition of the controversial Answer Me! 'zine, a collection of writings by Satanic High Priest, Peter H. Gilmore entitled The Satanic Scriptures, and Androphilia, a manifesto on modern homosexual identity from writer Jack Malebranche. With a diverse and weighty catalog, Scapegoat is drawing comparisons to other independent publishing houses such as Feral House and Gates of Heck.
"Just as Tom Hazelmeyer [of Amphetamine Reptile Records] was an inspiration when I started my record label, Adam [Parfrey of Feral House] and Katharine Gates [of Gates of Heck] were influences when I started Scapegoat," Xavier says.
Like his publishing mentors and his record label, Xavier presents the work of artists who might have a difficult time not only finding a publisher, but also finding an audience. A major distribution deal assures that Scapegoat's books can be found not only online via outlets such as Amazon, but also in large bookstores such as Borders. Upcoming projects for Scapegoat include plans to release work by local photographer and City Paper contributor Sam Holden. And Xavier also has plans for a book of work by H.R. Giger, best known as the creator of the Alien xenomorph.
On a personal level, Xavier's life is also set to change--as is his name. "I'm getting married on 9/9/09 to a woman I met in LA on 6/6/06," he says. The event will result in his name officially becoming Christopher Xavier Donovan. ("Donovan's my middle name," he offers.)
As Xavier talks, there's a hint of wistfulness about the demise of the store that was for many a local institution, but he never lapses into self-pity or nostalgia. Asked about the Fells Point location where bands such as the Supersuckers, Man or Astroman?, the Melvins, and Candy Machine all played in-store sets, he simply laughs and says "It's now a check-cashing place, I think," he says. "One of many." Xavier used to hang signs behind the cash register at the old Reptiliann listing the products and services that the store did not offer customers, including no green peppers, no batteries, and, at one time, a note reading we do not cash checks.
"It's ironic that our logo is a dinosaur," he says with a laugh. "But I don't think we're facing extinction. We're going to evolve."
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