Sally White was my savior.
From her perch behind the record counter at Klein's -- and then, roaming the crowded aisles at her own store, Sally's Place, a few yards north -- the irrepressible, encyclopedic, ever-smiling Sally made a major impact on my musical tastes.
The artists and albums she recommended have stayed with me for decades. I mean that literally. I still have much of the music I bought from Sally. I no longer have a turntable, but I've got the vinyl.
I've also downloaded most of my favorites, so my music now travels with me wherever I go. I have it every time I walk, drive and board a plane.
That says a lot about Sally. It also says a lot about why -- after 27 years in her own place, following her great career at Klein's (the Main Street department store that is now Banana Republic) -- she is closing shop. The times they are a-changin', and the days when I eagerly waited for the next Bob Dylan album, went down to a record store, bought it, brought it home, unwrapped the cellophane, put it on a record player, read the liner notes, and listened to it over and over again -- well, the order is rapidly fadin'.
Klein's was where I bought 45s like Dylan's "Positively 4th Street," the Byrd's "Turn! Turn! Turn!" and the Animals' "We Gotta Get Out of This Place." How do I remember such minutiae, more than four decades later? Music had that much of an impact on me -- and I couldn't strum a guitar chord if world peace depended on it.
Later, in Sally's second-floor store, she recommended more obscure artists. Her forte was jazz, supposedly, but she still knew every folk artist, torch singer and Southern bluesman who ever stepped into a recording studio.
That's why musicians like Keith Richards and Mary Travers loved to shop there. They didn't go to Sally's as artists; they went looking for recommendations of good music -- personalized, of course. Sally did not tell everyone the same thing, or try to sell something she'd bought a few too many copies of. She knew every customer's taste -- if not when they walked in, for sure by the time they left.
Sally was the hardiest of our local record store owners, but she was not the only one who influenced generations of Westporters. Concurrently with Klein's, and just up the road and across the street, Jay Flaxman played a hugely influential role at the Record Hunter. An outpost of the New York shop, located next to the Remarkable Book Shop (now the shuttered Talbots), it was a dedicated record store -- not a section in the back, like Klein's.
Jay was a low-key, affable man who, like Sally, knew his music -- and his customers. He had no problem having kids hang around, listening to music, only occasionally buying it (the auditory equivalent to the literary scene at Remarkable next door). Jay opened my young teenage ears to artists like Phil Ochs and Richie Havens. In turn they, and others like them, opened my mind and heart at an impressionable time in my life. They formed a world view I am grateful to still have. And I have been grateful to Jay for that ever since.
Later, Jean Rabin's clunkily named Record and Tape of Westport was another important shop. Like Sally and Jay, she crammed plenty of music into not a lot of space. She too knew exactly what each customer was looking for, long before those customers knew themselves.
I did not limit myself to mom-and-pop shops. Barker's -- the discount (and dingy) department store on the site of the current Super Stop & Shop -- was my spot for $1.69 albums (I know, because the sticker is still on a Beach Boys album). And Sam Goody's had not one but two Westport locations, within a few yards of each other. One was at the foot of Playhouse Square; the other was where Patriot Bank now sits, in Compo Acres Shopping Center. Sam Goody's was where I discovered how to create my own cassette tape of favorite songs. It was a 1980s version of the current iTunes "playlist." If cassettes had survived, maybe Sam Goody's would have, too.
I love iTunes. I love having portable music. Because of that I am responsible, in part, for the demise of Sally's Place.
But I would not have the music I love today ---- on my iPhone, iPad and computer -- without Sally White.
I guess that puts me in a strange, and eventually fading-oldtimer, position. Not long from now, I'll mention a "record store" to a young whippersnapper. He'll look at me as blankly as if I'd talked about a CB radio, Studebaker or chamber pot.
I hope I'll be able to explain what he missed. And what -- with the end of Sally's Place -- all of Westport will miss too.