The passe magic of Evanston's Dr. Wax

    Photo by Jenny An / North by Northwestern

    I’ve been to Manhattan, Vatican City and the Eiffel Tower, yet none of those experiences match the wave of excitement that gripped my 16-year-old self when I first entered Dr. Wax. While My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless played over the speakers, I wandered through aisles loaded with CDs I’d only read about online. For a kid who had bought all his music at Best Buy, this place was a dream come true. During the summer of 2004, while I got my first taste of NU as a Cherub (insert groans), I also became a music nerd. I spent more money at Dr. Wax than I did anywhere else; I discovered Talking Heads, The Fiery Furnaces, The Wrens, Bob Dylan… Dr. Wax didn’t become my motivation for applying early decision to NU, but the thought of being five minutes away from the place excited me even more.

    Four years and hundreds of dollars spent later, Dr. Wax plans to call it quits due to decreasing sales. Part of me (the part that still remembers that rush of sonic excitement when I first saw the “underground music” aisle while My Bloody Valentine’s “When You Sleep” played) will miss it. Without Dr. Wax, Evanston has no contemporary independent CD stores left.

    For the most part, I’m not shocked Dr. Wax can’t go on. Part of Dr. Wax’s charm was nostalgia for an era long gone, and that was also its downfall.

    I went to Dr. Wax a lot freshman year. Not weekly, but close enough to call it my favorite haunt in Evanston. I bought a lot of new music there, but the true fun of the store was exploring the rows of old CDs. Every trip led to a new discovery; the Dismemberment Plan’s debut album or a Mountain Goats compilation I’d never seen before. Most of the bands I saw were alien to me -– sometimes I’d recognize album artwork and take a risk. Then there were times I’d just buy something randomly. Regardless of how I went about making purchases, every trip to Dr. Wax felt like an archaeological dig; I never knew what I’d find or what I’d walk away with.

    Regardless of how much work/study money I gave them, it became clear Dr. Wax wasn’t booming. Signs declaring “Sale!” went up frequently. Prices dropped, a plus for when I wanted to buy an old Constantine’s album, but not a good sign for the store itself. A thousand articles have already speculated on why record stores continue to vanish (downloading, iTunes, nobody cares about albums anymore), so no need to bore you. I kept coming to Dr. Wax, even as the bargain bin creeped closer to the entrance.

    Soon, those once intimidating aisles full of question marks became albums I’d thumbed through a thousand times before. The only lingering mystery became “should I buy the Sufjan Stevens Christmas album now?” I’d grown out of Dr. Wax’s usual offerings. I wanted new sounds.

    This made me realize Dr. Wax wasn’t a good record store anymore, at least not for me.

    The amount of new releases coming into Dr. Wax dried up. Their specialty was used music, but they always had current releases as well. Borders started out-pacing Dr. Wax by simply stocking new albums by Beck and M83. With a car junior year, I made constant trips to Reckless Records in Chicago, because they actually had the new Cut Copy.

    An independent record store has the unique opportunity of not just stocking old albums, but also helping customers discover new artists often overlooked by chain stores. Dr. Wax stuck to the prior and never made an effort to try and change. The store stuck to a failing nostalgia and hoped for the best.

    Dr. Wax stopped meaning much to me a while ago, but that doesn’t mean I won’t feel bad when it finally closes for good. It never was a viable record store, but I can’t shake the feeling I had when I first set foot in the store in 2004. I even feel a little sad, because no new student will ever get a chance to feel that joy I had upon opening the door and seeing aural opportunity all around you.

    It may not have been a great contemporary record store, but it was a magnificent place to explore for awhile.


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