Robert St. John column

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Combo record/coffee shop appeals to ‘longest-running loves of my life’

The two longest-running loves of my life have been food and music. Fads, trends, and people have come and gone, but my love for food and music are constants that have never changed.

I spent countless hours of my youth in record stores looking at albums and listening to music. We didn’t have much money so I wasn’t able to buy as much music as I wanted, but I loved looking at album covers and I could always listen to the music inside the record store for free.

The album shop that was closest to my home was called Sounds Unlimited. It was located in the same strip mall where, strangely enough, my restaurant and office are today. I rode my bike to the album shop almost every day. It was located behind a Baskin Robbins ice cream store and next to an Eckerd Drug Store with a lunch counter. After school I would get an order of French fries and a soft drink at the drug store, or a scoop of Pralines ‘n Cream, and then spend the next several hours listening to music in the record shop.

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As a kid, there was no place more magical than a record store. It was a large part of my connection to the bigger world outside of Mississippi. In those days album covers were our connection to the music. There was no MTV, YouTube, or iTunes. If you wanted to see a band, you had to catch them on a television variety show, or see them on the album cover. Actually, album covers were my first exposure to art— another of my lifelong loves.

I have written often about the importance of independent restaurants to a community. I have also written about the significance of independent bookstores to towns throughout the south. What I have never written about is the value that independent record stores give to a community and its quality of life.

In my hometown of Hattiesburg, Miss., the local record store is T-Bone Records. I love that place.

In my opinion, to be a well-rounded and comprehensive community of any merit, there has to be a strong independent restaurant scene, there has to be at least one independent bookstore, and— for me— there must be a local, independent record shop. Of course it’s nice to have live music venues, too. The beautiful thing is that T-Bone records covers three of the four under one roof. It’s a record store, there is often live music, and they make one of the best sandwiches in town.

I eat the Havana Ham sandwich— ham, cheese, pickles, onions, and a cilantro-lime dressing, good stuff. It’s a Panini-style pressed sandwich. Panini’s migrated here from Italy in the 1980s, but are more akin to the pressed po-boys I ate as a child in and around Biloxi on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

I go to T-Bones, eat a first-rate sandwich, a balsamic-dressed side salad, chips and iced tea and listen to excellent music while I am there. It’s an added bonus that I get to visit with the folks who run the record store. I love talking to people about music; if I get to do it while I’m eating it’s all that much better. If I were a coffee drinker, I’d probably stay longer and drink coffee. By the way, T-Bone Records is a coffee shop, too.

It’s hard for independent record shops today. With online shopping and MP3s, they are constantly getting squeezed out. It’s a shame to see an institution that I spent so much time in as a child die on the vine.

Though T-Bone records is thriving— it’s the people and the passion. Success follows passion, and T-Bone Records is full of people who are passionate about music, and they are obviously passionate about food.

And albums are back. Who knew? Things have come full circle. The twentysomethings who are into music today are buying albums— not CDs or MP3s, but albums. Something substantial that can be picked up and held.

The pressed po-boys of my youth in a record store with the albums of my childhood— food and music, two of life’s greatest pleasures, at T-Bone Records they’re all in one place.