By Josef Siebert
The Jazz Record Mart was full of activity on Tuesday, the day after the iconic Chicago record store closed its doors forever. With its bright neon window sign and overhead lights inside the store blazing at 27 E. Illinois St., it was easy to imagine JRM was still in business. Until, that is, you noticed that the people milling about weren’t paying for the CDs, tapes and vinyl they plucked from the racks. And they were taking EVERYTHING.
A downtown gathering place for jazz and blues aficionados since 1963, the Mart later became a mecca for devotees and artists. Musicians, fans and future label and club owners worked the counter and haunted the aisles, often crashing on owner Bob Koester’s couch. Koester also runs Delmark Records, billed as “the oldest independent American jazz and blues label”, which he founded in 1953. He was a driving force in the blues revival of the 1960s and would take groups to blues clubs on Chicago’s South and West sides before the blues became popular on the North Side. The store’s website includes an extensive history drawn from a Chicago Tribune article published on May 16, 1993.
“It was more than a record store—it was a valuable part of the culture,” said Lauren Deutsch, executive director of the Jazz Institute of Chicago. “It was this sort of incubator for many aspects of the jazz scene.”
Store Manager Kent Richmond, 62, said the store would likely be empty by the weekend. “Everyone’s disappointed it’s closing,” he said. “This has been great the last week-and-a-half. We’re just wondering where all these people have been, because lack of business has forced our hand, [along with] the raising rents.”
The building that houses JRM was sold two years ago, and Richmond said the rent has been increasing incrementally ever since the new landlord took over. That, he said, was the final straw.
According to Deutsch, the store’s employees were careful stewards of the music and very careful about how it was passed on. They were like personal advisors, and the customers would often lead one another other down avenues of exploration they wouldn’t get to on their own. Despite the rise of the Internet, Deutsch maintains that people still need to create places where they can gather to discuss music.
“There’s a real value in person-to-person engagement,” she said.
The deal for “The World’s Largest Jazz and Blues Record Store” and its contents was completed Monday morning. Wolfgang’s Vault, based in Nevada, which sells and archives music memorabilia and live recordings, purchased the business, the stock and the contents of the store. On Tuesday, employees of JRM and Koester’s Delmark Records were packing everything up for shipment to Nevada.
“We were the last store in town that specialized in new product,” Richmond said. “Everyone else sells used. This is a major cultural loss for the city.”