Committed to Vinyl: Hill & Dale’s Rob Norton
“Hill & Dale has air conditioning, a couch and Willie Nelson on the LP Wall.”
That’s what an Instagram on the relatively new Georgetown shop’s Facebook page offers, which is, if not a summation of what the store is, then a pretty good hint of some of the pleasures therein.
Oh, and Hill & Dale sells new vinyl records, many of them remastered rock and roll, blues and jazz masters, but also brand new things you can call actual albums by contemporary artists.
Hill & Dale is owner Rob Norton’s gamble on the belief that people will want to buy, touch, hold, play and listen to vinyl records again, not just for nostalgia’s sake, but for all the reasons that making really listening to music a one-of-a-kind experience in the iTunes and digital age. There are other stores around which do vinyl—old vinyl albums played on old turntables as well as new vinyl works—but Norton decided that he’d go all in on new vinyl.
“It’s a risk, I suppose,” he said. “But lots of artists and musicians do that now. It’s almost a hedge but also another way of marketing, selling, your music, a process that’s gotten very complicated, business-wise.”
Norton isn’t just a music-rock-jazz-o-phile with an obsession. In the store at 1054 31st St., NW, in what used be the Parrish Gallery, he’s created a kind of walk-in experience.
“One of the reasons I loved albums, always have, is the art work, the covers going back at least to the 1960s. That’s art to me, it’s very much a part of the store,” he said. That’s probably why the shop—with its clean, cool rows of albums categorized alphabetically—still retains the flavor of a gallery, with decorative concert and album posters. The LP Wall, with its changing offerings of current albums, is enough to make you swoon with delight. Another wall provides space for exhibitions and a sampling of the rock photography of Peter Simon, which includes the cover photo for Joni Mitchell’s classic “Blue” album. Another room houses East Coast Rock and Roll photography in a collaborate show with Govinda Gallery and Chris Murray.
If places like the Black Cat and the 9:30 Club are sweaty incarnations of the spirit of live performance music, Hill & Dale is more like a quiet church, where you can commune at the altar of album covers and talk with the owner. It’s a clean, quiet place for people who share an affinity for the power of all sorts of music.
“I think vinyl is coming back strong,” said Norton, who used to be a marketer for the pharmaceutical industry. I’m betting there are a lot of people like me out there who like to really listen to music. I happen to like Jazz a lot, but I like new music. I like Rush, Jack White Bruce, all sorts of thing and I really like Miles Davis.”
With Norton, there’s really two or three things going on in the store. It’s about intense listening—all those hours sitting with “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” from beginning to end, or Mitchell’s “Blue” or the Woodstock album.
“It’s a way of listening,” he said. “You can’t flit around on an album, you have to go from start to finish, you can’t do what you do on the Internet, buy single copies, or just run around YouTube from song to song, artist to artist. It’s a totally different way of listening, a different experience.” He says the big record stores of the past almost prevented customers from getting the full repertoire of music they had on hand. “I never got out of the rock section,” he said, before he finally managed to realize his passion for jazz.
Looking at the LP wall, you see and practically feel the restless scope of 20th-century pop, rock, blues and jazz music—a remastered Hank Williams collection, a collection of an Iranian rock star’s work, the burning Hindenberg album cover by Led Zeppellin, Aretha, Bruce, the list is endless.
“The thing about vinyl is it’s tactile, you have to have patience,” he said. “The turntable, you set the record in the groove, it’s not background music when you listen to an album like that. It’s important.”