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A sad day in the life: Classical Millennium, farewell

By Bob Hicks
July 28, 2012
Featured, Music

I read the news, today, oh, boy.

Of course, it’s 2012 and not 1967 anymore, when the Beatles picked up their daily rag, and so I read it first on Facebook: After 35 years, Classical Millennium, Portland’s quirky, exhaustive, and downright wonderful classical CD store, will shut its doors in September. Oregon Music News has the story here.

All across town people are mourning (since corporations are now people, we can legitimately mourn the passing of one, especially a “corporation” as human-sized and distinctive and personable as CM), and I’m one of them.

What! No more wandering up and down those creaky-floorboard aisles tucked below the high-octane din of Music Millennium’s bigger, brassier boom of sound next door? Entering Classical Millennium was – is – like tumbling into a particularly inviting rabbit hole, with rarefied attractions so exotic and alluring that you might not reemerge for hours. And when eventually you do, you’re likely to be ever so slightly, and fortuitously, changed.

Inside the small door dividing the big windows off the busy blast of East Burnside Street. Past shelf after shelf of used CDs, with ridiculously good prices on ridiculously good recordings that someone for some reason decided he or she didn’t want or need anymore. Past the sales counter, where a burly bearded fellow seems  perpetually in the midst of an erudite conversation, in person or on the telephone, with another music lover. To the back wall with the new and featured recordings. A requisite duck inside the cramped cubby lined floor to ceiling with complete recordings of just about every opera known to woman or man. Up the short stair to the stacks of curios, from marching music to accordion or harpsichord or sackbut or Finnish American church-choir favorites. If you have the time and patience, a sift through the long shelves of mismatched CDs at color-coded sale prices, many of them oddities, a few of them genuine gems. Stumbling across a recording of Telemann cantatas and overtures with the intoxicating title O woe! O woe! My canary is dead!

I don’t mind saying, I love this place. And like John Lennon, I’d love to turn you on.

Trouble is, it’s apparently too late. The numbers just don’t hold up.

From a business perspective it’s tough to argue with the decision of Musical Millennium, CM’s pop/rock/blues/jazz/worldbeat/indie/everything-else corporate daddy, which has been carrying Classical Millennium for some time. The music retailing business is brutal, and Music Millennium – a great Portland indie success story in its own right – has been going through its own hard times, retreating from its once-booming Northwest Portland location to its remaining storefront on East Burnside.

Retailers could survive and even thrive on the technological march from 78s to 45s to LPs to eight-tracks to cassettes to CDs. But the current switch to music downloads (often “free,” without regard for the labor and intellectual capital of the people who created it), coupled with the rise of online retailing giants like Amazon, is strangling independent music shops as surely as market forces are killing off your cozy neighborhood indie book shop, and seem destined to turn America’s once-mighty daily newspapers into advertising quarter-sheets for mattress merchandisers and purveyors of miracle hearing aids.

For a classical music store, the forces of economic social Darwinism are even sterner. In addition to the technological and distribution revolutions that have rocked the music industry as a whole, the classical market’s drying up because classical music itself has become so marginalized: untaught and unhonored in our schools, unrecognized (with a few bright exceptions, including Portland’s All Classical 89.9) on our airwaves.

But understanding doesn’t ease the pain. Classical Millennium’s demise is still a major bummer. Because from its beginning in 1977, CM has been more than just a shop. It’s been a place of discovery, a crucible of learning, a home away from home. Like Pioneer Courthouse Square and Powell’s City of Books, it’s helped define the sort of place we’d like to think we want Portland to be. People grow up in a place like this, and expand their capacities, and reinvent themselves. People discover what the world feels and thinks and sounds like, and where they want to be inside that great globe of intellect and emotion.

My own relationship with Classical Millennium has been up and down. Never down in the sense that I was upset with it – how could I be? – but in the sense that for stretches of time I was otherwise engaged and just ignored it. Multiply that by a few thousand people and you begin to understand why the business was fragile. On the other hand, there’ve been stretches when I’ve visited weekly and dropped a fair amount of cash on my way out the door: I tend to build my collection in bursts of enthusiasm, followed by stretches of listening and reflecting. And even when I was ignoring it, I was comfortable in the belief that Classical Millennium was there, waiting patiently and understandingly for my inevitable return. Turns out, the Tooth Fairy isn’t real.

Looking through my CD collection (yes, I still prefer CDs; I’m an old dog, and I don’t listen to music through telephones or earplugs) I’m astonished by the high percentage that came from Classical Millennium. I can remember where most of my recordings came from, because most of them arrived with little stories. Something I read on the liner notes that struck a chord. A recommendation from a friend, or one I overheard in the aisles. Something quirky or fascinating that I stumbled across while thumbing aimlessly through the stacks. Happenstance, as often as not, but happenstance that seemed somehow destined.

Classical Millennium’s staff, led by longtime manager Michael Parsons, know their stuff. They’re happy to let you wander and make your own choices. But ask them for something specific and they’ll either know exactly where it is or recommend an alternative: a better recording, maybe, of the same material. They’re music junkies: They know this stuff.

In recent months I’ve been spending a lot of time at Classical Millennium because my 14-year-old son is starting to build his own collection. His newly found enthusiasm has resparked my own, and I have to say, in terms of musical acuity he’s rapidly leaving me in the dust. A little Borodin leads to Balakirev and Ippolitov-Ivanov. Peer Gynt leads to Svendsen and Halvorsen and Trygvason and Grieg’s songs. We search for the ultimate Candide and settle on the one that Bernstein himself conducted, the year before he died. We discover a lovely six-CD set of French music, Berlioz to Massenet to Chabrier, conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham. It develops into a little ritualistic joke. “Have you noticed,” my son snickers, “how many composers’ and conductors’ first names are ‘Sir’?”

Classical Milennium, like All Classical 89.9, has been central to this generational pursuit. It’s been the physical location of our mutual exploration, of a rite of passage in our relationship, of the emerging shift from father and son to adult and adult. It’s been quite special. And for all their attractions, neither Amazon nor iTunes can offer anything like that.

Music Millennium, which will expand into the Classical Millennium space, says it’ll carry a selection of classical CDs and have a classical-specialist clerk on duty some of the time. I expect it intends just that. But I have my reservations. I once worked for an afternoon daily that was swallowed by the morning newspaper, and the publishers announced that all of the features of the paper that was being laid to rest would be retained in the bigger, better morning daily. After a while all that really remained from the old paper was an extra page of comics. That’s just business.

This afternoon I poked around Facebook and found this eloquent expression from a fellow mourner.

“I hate this,” she wrote. “Classical Millennium was the place where a nerdy kid who played the cello and liked to sing could commune quietly with other nerds, where the counter staff would talk with you at length about the best recordings of Brahms symphonies, and where Michael Parsons would keep an ample supply of In Mulieribus CDs ready for holiday purchase. Very sad day for Portland.”

Well, it’s a day in the life. But it’s a day I wish had never come.



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