Remembering Rena Rent-a-Record

As Record Store Day (April 17) approaches, my thoughts turn to an experience I had when I was a high school senior. I was looking for a summer job to keep me occupied in the months before heading away to college, and I figured such a job would provide some cash for the essentials (records, pizza, records). I had heard about a soon-to-open place not far from my home (well, not far by metro Atlanta standards: about a fifteen minute drive). The place was called Rena Rent-a-Record, and it was putting forth a novel concept (one that you can probably figure out by the name of the outfit, I’d guess).

Being even then a fairly well-informed music consumer, I of course fancied myself as the Perfect Record Store Employee. If an uninformed customer ambled in looking for something new to check out, well, certainly there would be no one better than myself to elucidate them as to the virtues of, say, the Psychedelic Furs. Or Squeeze. And so on.

So I went to the place to fill out an application. The store was all set up and ready to go, but not yet open; this particular day was sort of a “job fair” day where the owner met with potential employees. There weren’t all that many. I don’t recall what the pay was advertised to be; President Carter had recently signed legislation raising the minimum wage to $3.35. I’m sure it wasn’t much more than that.

Some dopey girl was being interviewed when I arrived. I skulked around, perusing the records on display, and listened as best I could to their conversation. (My hearing in those days was such that I could still do that, though my 14th-row attendance at the Who concert of the previous summer had begun the irreparable damage). This girl didn’t know a fraction of what I knew about music!

Really? Well, in the end, she got the job, and I didn’t. But between the time of my interview and word that I hadn’t been hired, I did hear a lot more about Rena Rent-a-Record. I seem to recall that they actually made the local news. Their approach was radical for 1981 — listen to an LP, make a cassette copy, and return it, all for $2.50, well less than the purchase price of a record — and the major record companies were Not Amused. A news article of the day quoted a record industry trade group as claiming the Rena approach wasn’t “in the best interest of the artist.” Yeah, buddy, like your policies are.

That day when I was waiting for my turn with the owner, I noticed something a bit unusual about all the records in the shop. At first, I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but they all looked somehow…different. Then it hit me: they were Canadian imports. Once I heard the news report, I quickly put two and two together: the American distributors had essentially refused to provide product to the new chain of rental stores, so Rena ended up having to import all of their merchandise.

Doing so was a more expensive option, and in some cases the resulting products looked different enough to cause some potential customers to mumble, “Hmm, what’s this? This doesn’t look right.” The business venture failed rather quickly, and within months the store was shuttered.

As it turned out, the man who started Rena, David Nancoff, was himself a Canadian, so maybe the Canadian sourcing was the plan all along. Early reports had been promising, and a number of other chains made tentative forays into the LP-renting world.

Though their approach was flawed — shouldn’t they have sorted out product sourcing before they opened their doors? — the Rena Rent-a-Record concept can now be seen as something of a forerunner of what took place two decades later. While the industry shrieked “Home taping is killing music,” it didn’t. File sharing didn’t (and doesn’t) kill music either. Now, does it kill the music industry? Well, probably so, but only in the way that shark bites kill someone lost at sea. They were probably gonna die one way or the other.

But record stores still exist. True, many of the big chains are gone, but almost certainly your locality has a mom-n-pop independent record shop. There are many reasons that you should shop there. True, it’s easy to argue that you can get some product cheaper at Best Buy or online through Amazon, but the local shop has some distinct and clear advantages over those mega-outlets. Ever try asking a Best Buy employee for details about some or other recording artist? Did you ever hear some great new song while wandering the aisles of Amazon?

Record Store Day is April 17. Go show the independent record (and/or CD) retailer some love. But don’t ask to rent the discs.