I was at old City Stadium in Green Bay watching high school students compete in the 800 meter dash in weather more suitable for ice fishing when I got the news: The Exclusive Company to close all stores. It was a stomach punch moment. For those of you not in the know, The Exclusive Company is America’s Oldest Full-Line Independent Record Store with locations in Appleton, Greenfield, Janesville, Milwaukee, West Bend, Oshkosh, and yes, Green Bay, Wisconsin. I’m not sure what it means to be the oldest “full-line” independent record store but it sounds cool. For 66 years The Exclusive Company brought joy and music to the people of my home state in the form of vinyl records, cassette tapes, CDs, Kenwood audio components, music t-shirts, memorabilia, and so much more. It was also a place to hang out and be around music. A staple of my youth and young adulthood until I lost my way early in the streaming era. I found my way back in the last 15 years as I rediscovered my love of vinyl record collecting.
I’m sure I had been to The Exclusive Company several times before 1993, but the earliest memory that comes to mind happened in March of that year. I know I’ve told this story on the blog before so I’ll do my best to keep it brief. At that time my weekend activities usually consisted of a high school sporting event followed by Tecmo Super Bowl all-nighters at someone’s house. We didn’t have cable at my parents’ Pulaski home so the best way for me to see any music videos was to stay up until 12:30 AM for NBC’s Friday Night Videos. Yes, times were different. My brother was back from college that weekend and out with his friends. I would watch Letterman and FNV (no idea if anyone ever called it FNV but I’m going with it), then wait for him to get home so he could tell tales of his escapades and I could live it vicariously. FNV had a revolving door of weekly guest hosts and on this memorable Friday night the hosts were Alfonso Ribeiro, Karyn Parsons, and Tatyana Ali. That’s Carlton, Hillary, and Ashley from my beloved Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Jackpot. The videos were usually predictable – the biggest hits of the time. On this episode the hosts were each allowed to choose their own video. Ribeiro and Ali chose something forgettable. Then, as if I didn’t already have a mad crush on Karyn Parsons, she chose a video that changed my life. The song was called “Rebirth of Slick” by a hip hop trio called Digable Planets. I was mesmerized. The infectious bass line. The black and white footage of three cool cats rapping in a jazz club. It was (and maybe still is) the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. Their vibe was like A Tribe Called Quest but spacier and with dustier jazz samples. Also, their best rapper was a girl. It was fantastic. Regrettably I didn’t have the VCR going that night so there was no way for me to see it again.
My brother returned home from his night out and I played the Chester to his Spike. “Andy, I saw this video tonight and it was amazing. You won’t believe it when you hear it. Oh my God. Can take me to Green Bay so I can get the CD tomorrow? Can we? Can we?” That Saturday I woke with a one-track mind: Get me to The Exclusive Company. Sure, the mall had Sam Goody and Musicland but they were overpriced and they only carried top 40 shit. They wouldn’t have some weird shit like I just saw last night. The Exclusive Company was the only place north of Milwaukee that could come through with something like a Digable Planets CD. And they did. I got my longbox copy of Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space) that day and it was everything I hoped it would be and then some. It remains a top ten all time album for me. I still have that exact copy of Reachin’ in my possession.
In 1994 when I went to UW-Oshkosh my friends and I made weekly walks to the downtown Exclusive. In 1998 when I moved to Milwaukee The Exclusive Company remained my go-to place for music. Justin and I made countless trips to Exclusive on Farwell. In 2000 I moved back to Green Bay but times were definitely changing. I tried Napster. I had my dark days of burning CDs of music I downloaded from Limewire. iTunes and my first iPod changed everything. I ripped my massive CD collection to iTunes then sold 90% of them on eBay for $250. Having the ability to carry my life’s music collection in my pocket was incredible, but after a few years of it I had an itch. I missed having something to hold. I missed album artwork and liner notes. Instead of going back to CD collection I decided to go bigger.
What if I started collecting records again?
I swear I came up with that idea on my own but clearly I wasn’t alone. It seems everybody and their brother had the same idea I did. It started out innocently enough. There were maybe 10-20 records that I wanted to buy just so I could say I owned them. I didn’t even have a turntable at the time. I wanted D’Angelo’s records. Some Prince records. Erykah Badu. Digable. Tribe. Roots. Mos and Kweli. Some classic jazz like A Love Supreme and Kind of Blue. Where did I turn for that? The Exclusive Company, of course. I assumed all music enthusiasts became soulless downloaders like I had and that iTunes killed indie record stores. After nearly a decade away I was thrilled to find that my trusty old friend The Exclusive Company was still there at 423 Dousman Street and they were selling vinyl.
After a few years of incredible restraint and rare stops for the occasional record I saw Exclusive advertising something called Record Store Day. A celebration of indie record stores with some limited edition releases. Sounded interesting. I wandered into Exclusive at about 10:00 AM on Saturday, April 21, 2012, and it was another life-altering moment. The store was buzzing with people and loud music. I broke my rule and bought a pair of RSD releases that weren’t on my short list: Forever Miles by Miles Davis and the 12″ single of “Heartbeat” by Childish Gambino on red vinyl. They gave me a swag bag that included a dope Exclusive Company pint glass. I was now hooked. Vinyl collecting became an obsession.
Soon my rare trips to Exclusive increased in frequency. I won’t say I’m there weekly now, but it’s 3-4 times a month. Record Store Day is more like a holiday now that I have to plan well in advance. A few years ago when the Prince estate released a limited edition reissue of the 1999 EP for RSD I arrived at 3:10 AM for a 7:00 AM opening and I wasn’t first in line. I was second. Turns out there’s one person in Green Bay crazier than I am. I had a blast for the next four hours bullshitting and talking about music and life with the people in line. I’ve been there for all but one of the RSDs since. I’m smarter now. A couple years ago I realized that the sweet spot for RSD arrival is just before 5:00 AM. If you show up then you’re somewhere around fifth in line so you’ll still get what you want and you’ll beat the masses who seem to set their alarms for 5:00. You also get a few hours to talk to the people in line which has become my favorite RSD pastime. I wouldn’t normally give away that secret but apparently April 23 will be the last Record Store Day standing against the brick wall along the west side of The Exclusive Company on the corner of Chestnut Ave. and Dousman St. with my fellow Green Bay record enthusiasts. Last year the line was still at least 50 people deep at 7:15 when I walked out with my purchases.
I have one more story to share. On September 25, 2020, the Prince Estate released the Super Deluxe Edition of his epic Sign O’ the Times. The 13-LP collection was selling for $300 on Prince’s website. I purchased earlier Prince reissues from his website for fear that it would sell out or that I just wouldn’t be able to find it in a store when it was released. I would also have pay a hefty amount for shipping and it still wouldn’t arrive until several days after the release date. On more than one occasion I went to Exclusive and found that I could’ve gotten the album there for less than the website and walked out with it on the day it was released. I asked trusted Green Bay Exclusive Company legend Tom if they’d be getting the super deluxe edition and, if so, how much. He said they’d have it for $250. On September 25 I took the day off so I could arrive at Exclusive at exactly 10:00 AM when they opened, buy a copy of SOTT, and spend the day listening to dozens of never before heard prime-era Prince tracks while reading the extensive liner notes. In other words, heaven.
I walked into the store and was stunned to find the set for $205. It’s rare to see anyone behind the counter but Tom but on that day it was someone else. Not wanting to rip off my favorite local record store I said to the guy, “Are you sure about this price? I was told it’d be $250.” He simply said, “The price tag says $205. It’s $205.” I gleefully handed over my $205 and drove home. The following day my daughter wanted to look for a record so she asked me to take her to Exclusive. Yes, my 15-year-old daughter has a turntable. That day Tom was back behind the counter. He knows I like Prince and I assume he remembered me asking about that box set. Tom said, “Hey, were you the one who got the Prince box set for $205 yesterday?” “Yeah.” He said, “It was supposed to be $250. We screwed up.” I said, “I told the guy I thought it was supposed to be $250. I’ll gladly pay you the rest.” Without hesitation he said, “Nah. You come in here all the time. I’m glad it was you.” Where the hell else am I gonna find that now?
Seriously, where will me and my fellow Green Bay area vinyl enthusiasts line up for Record Store Day at 3, 4, or 5 AM now? Where will we have someone like Tom who knows everything about music and knows all of his frequent customers by name and the kind of music they like? The obvious answer is Rock N Roll Land. The guys there have always been cool to me. I just don’t have the history with them that I do at Exclusive. It’s also nice to have multiple options. Another place to check if one doesn’t have the record I want. I guess the guys at Rock N Roll Land are about to get to know me a lot better. I hope they won’t mind my requests for more soul, hip hop, and jazz records. I’m hanging onto hope that maybe Tom has something up his sleeve and can buy the Green Bay Exclusive Company and keep it going right where it is but I’ve been given no indication that it’s a possibility.
My heart is heavy tonight. Some other store will soon be able to claim the title of “America’s oldest full-line independent record store” and I don’t like it. As silly as it sounds, when I got the news today it felt like an old friend had died because that’s what Exclusive is to me. That place has been a hangout for me since I was a kid. I’ve spent countless hours digging there. 30 years ago it was CDs. For the last 15 it’s been vinyl. A part of Green Bay and Wisconsin’s soul is dying. Aziz Ansari recently observed that everything in the world is a little bit shittier now and he’s right. Add this to the list. Without The Exclusive Company Green Bay will be a little bit shittier. Say it with me: Damn, I’m gonna miss that place.