The Last Dance

Wresch Dawidjan and the end of 12 Inch Dance Records

For a man whose record shop is going out of business, Wresch Dawidjan is buying an awful lot of CDs.

On the floor next to the register, two shopping bags brim with albums. Against the wall stands a shipment from UPS. The amount of consignment suggests a grand opening rather than a fast-approaching closing. Dawidjan sifts through the stock as if it were just another order.

Truth is, it’s the last he’ll receive.

Even if you’ve never been inside 12 Inch Dance Records, there’s a pretty good chance you’ve heard its music. While the store’s second-story awning and nondescript entrance are easy to miss, its sound system is not: Since 1985, 12 Inch Dance has been piping out beats to the 2000 block of P Street. If you didn’t know better, you might think that the music was coming from the Subway sandwich shop located downstairs. But those sounds just might be the store’s biggest sales pitch; 12 Inch has made its name through community presence.

So it seems appropriate that the store should be more recognized by its music than its appearance. Today’s consumers may be used to a shopping “experience, ” but 12 Inch resonates of a previous era. Wooden racks of vinyl pressings and unframed snapshots taped to the walls give the place a decidedly do-it-yourself feel. The shop smacks of pre-Nineties, with its non-digitized logo, pink lighting and tangerine walls. It’s clear that it was established before dance record stores began to resemble actual nightclubs. Dawidjan, who opened the store seventeen years ago with his partner Gary McCowen, talks of friendly customer service. This once-staple ideal suddenly sounds oddly quaint.

Today, Dawidjan is wearing his signature floral-print shirt with the top several buttons unfastened. A quick glance at the photographs on the walls shows this isn’t a new style for him. With his curly, gray hair and matching mustache, his large prescription glasses and his ’70s “club king ” sense of style, he doesn’t resemble the new generation of scenesters that now rule over a heavily-commercialized club scene. He points out a few things around the store: a rack of vinyl classics on sale that were mixed by a friend of his, some autographed press photos of days-gone-by artists, and the spot where he used to display CDs before the record companies cut their production of CD singles.

“At one time, CDs were about 45 percent of my business, ” he says. “Now they don’t want to release CD singles if it’s going to hurt album sales. But there’s still a demand for them, so it’s frustrating. ”

Rewind to 1985. New Coke is on the market. Back to the Future is in theaters. Hi-8 Camcorders are state of the art. Everything’s punk rock and bubblegum and glam and even Whitney Houston’s wearing lycra and Disco Sucks but it’s okay because now we’ve got Hi-NRG.

Depending on who you ask, the mid-Eighties were either the best or the worst time to open up a store that exclusively stocked dance music. FM radio had all but abandoned the dance music format, and there wasn’t much market for diva-driven anthems of Donna Summer quality. The flip side, of course, was that those who did want to hear that type of music were basically driven from the airwaves, and so were forced to buy their own albums in record stores — a veritable niche market.

“My whole concern was to make sure that I supplied the underground music that Washington needed, ” explains Dawidjan.

Long before founding 12 Inch Dance, Dawidjan had been immersed in the D.C. club scene, first as a promoter for record companies and later as a buyer for Record and Tape Limited, a general music store on the corner of 19th and L downtown, now the site of Kemp Mill Music.

“The problem I had with Record and Tape was that it was full-line, so I couldn’t play the music I wanted, ” he says. “My idea had always been to let customers hear the music before they decide to buy it. ”

Frustrated, he began entertaining thoughts of opening up his own store. D.C.’s gay scene was mostly confined to P Street at the time, and available real estate on that strip was virtually nonexistent. After six months of searching for a space turned up nothing, Dawidjan’s luck changed when he noticed a building being vacated. He immediately contacted the landlord and arranged to rent the available space. Pooling their savings and borrowing the rest, he and McCowen acquired the second floor of 2010 P Street. In May of ’85, 12 Inch Dance opened for business, raking in four thousand dollars its first day.

“A lot of people in the industry thought I was going out on a limb by opening a store that primarily sells singles, ” he says, “but business here was just fabulous. There was an outpouring of support. Things really started off with a bang. ”

By the late 1980s, 12 Inch was in its heyday.

“One of the things that made this store so successful was that I’d always tried to broaden the base of music that I sell here, ” he says, a sales strategy that worked well for the era, since the same songs were being played in most all of the clubs.

Today’s scene looks much different. Most clubs have at least a vague format to which they remain fairly loyal. Hip-hop used to be relatively widespread; now it’s a genre that restricts itself mainly to U Street. Downtown’s Eighteenth Street and Connecticut Avenue intersection has spawned an unlikely cluster of upper-crust deep house and international clubs, and Adams Morgan’s blues scene has become inundated with too-cool-for-thou chill out lounges like Blue Room. Add to that some random outposts of rave clubs and Dupont South’s unfortunate mishmash of collegiate meat markets. To survive in an increasingly divided club scene, record stores that sell dance music are streamlining themselves into specialty categories, and stores like 12 Inch are finding themselves spread too thin.

“The thing about specialty stores is that they’re very genre specific, but right from the beginning I’ve wanted to carry everything, ” recalls Dawidjan. “I wanted to carry the disco dance, I wanted to carry some hip-hop, I wanted to carry some house and garage. Even today, there are other stores in the city but none of them have the broad range of music that I have.”

While other record shops were cutting dead weight as the club scene broke up into sub-cliques, 12 Inch remained undeterred, persisting with its original structure in hopes of maintaining a sanctum of unity.

“Music is becoming more segregated,” says Dawidjan. “In my opinion, I don’t think it’s healthy for the dance community.”

“12 Inch is definitely an icon in the DJ community,” says Darryl Strickland, a local DJ and former manager of the store. “I don’t know of any DJ in the D.C. area who isn’t familiar with 12 Inch Dance.”

It’s a true enough statement, but one that downplays the store’s symbiotic relationship with local talent. Ask a Washington DJ what they think of 12 Inch, and they’re liable to tell you they’ve worked there. Through most of its history, the shop’s list of employees has included a host of well-recognized names.

“I remember when Sam ‘The Man’ Burns used to work there,” says Kostas, resident DJ at Sunday night’s Lizard Lounge party. “I was just a little white boy, so he’d help me pick music,” he laughs.

John Bata, who spins Friday nights at the Green Lantern, has been shopping at 12 Inch for seven years.

“Wresch was always very friendly and courteous,” he says. “It was one of the first record stores I went to on a regular basis, and it helped fuel my desire to be a DJ.”

Bata concedes, however, that the store’s failure to change with the times may have led to its closing.

“I suppose the store could have stayed open if they had just tried harder to keep up with what was going on in the clubs,” he says. “The store just seemed to lose interest in the scene.”

Dawidjan is in his mid fifties and, by his own admittance, at the point where spending all night bounding from club to throbbing club has little appeal. But he’s also discouraged by the current state of the scene as compared to when he opened 12 Inch.

“The whole club scene has really changed a lot in the last ten or fifteen years. I think people go to the clubs now not so much for the music, but to socialize,” he says.

For Dawidjan, the closing of Tracks in 1999 was a defining moment that crystallized the scene’s dramatic shift. Tracks was a formidable entity, old and cumbersome but still popular, a mainstay of gay Washington and seemingly indestructible. Unlike the 17th Street clubs, it was its own destination, and for fifteen years people flocked to it.

Of the new clubs, Dawidjan believes one reason people are no longer going for the music is because of the music itself.

“You can’t connect with the music like you used to be able to. When you heard a woman singing out ‘I Will Survive,’ you had some vocals and you had something to ask about. It’s just not the same with a track or a dub.”

One mile west and a couple blocks south of 12 Inch, just off the coveted corner of Wisconsin and M Streets, is the Yoshitoshi record store. From above its glass door, a hidden sound system pumps progressive trance into the street.

The stairwell leading up to the shop is mirror-lined and plastered with rave flyers of vibrant graphic design wizardry. Behind a sales counter adorned with twin iMacs sits a young employee. The interior lighting is polarized and crisp.

Ali Shirazinia and Sharam Tayebi, the D.C.-based DJ team better known as Deep Dish, opened the Yoshitoshi shop in 1999. The store is a product of the era of “lifestyle shopping,” with every aspect fine-tuned to reflect the world of club culture. CDs and vinyl are only one part of what’s sold here — the store stocks rave-style clothing by Buzzlife and Stussy, stylish backpacks by Freshjive, record cases, DJ gear and Red Bull energy drinks.

The atmosphere of Yoshitoshi is a world away from 12 Inch Dance. It has all the markings of a space created by children of a digital age. Fresh white particle board covers the walls. Steel CD listening stations stand like NASA-designed obelisks. The store feels post-industrial, post-modern, post-everything. Its diversified product line and cross marketing savvy point to owners with a mind for the new economy. Quite simply, it gives one the sensation that they’re shopping somewhere that’s one step ahead of tomorrow.

But an even more crucial difference between Yoshitoshi and 12 Inch Dance Records than appearance is selection, or more accurately, modes of selection. While 12 Inch boasts a greater range of genres, Yoshitoshi is of the new school of thought: specialization. The store’s web site bills the music as “strictly underground,” and the shop has become a mecca for DJs and the rave scene’s burgeoning devotees. By establishing itself as the supplier for DC’s rave and underground club contingent, Yoshitoshi has made its name synonymous with a specific culture, and in turn, its store a household name for members of that culture everywhere.

“I’ve been to the Yoshitoshi store, ” says Dawidjan. “It’s very attractive, very pretty. The problem is that the types of music they have are very narrow compared to what I carry. It’s all trance or techno or deep house, and almost all imports.”

The people who will be taking over the space that 12 Inch Dance currently occupies plan to open a record store there that is more similar in style to Yoshitoshi, says Dawidjan.

“They want to change everything,” he says. “To me, you know, that’s cool, but it’s not so much what the store looks like. It’s what you carry. It’s the staff you have. That’s so much more important than the appearance.”

“So the whole thing’s changed and I’ve done my share,” says Dawidjan. “I don’t want a high pressure job anymore.”

Tired of the headaches of running an independent business, he and his partner Gary plan to sell their house and move to Los Angeles. Although he hopes to eventually retire in San Diego, Dawidjan says, for now he wants to stay involved in the music scene.

“I don’t know exactly what I’m going to do. I may work A&R for a label. I may start my own label. I’m not all that concerned.”

If it seems like a late start for someone to be moving to L.A. with an A&R job in their sights, Wresch Dawidjan doesn’t seem to be put off at all. After decades of networking, he’s not starting off cold.

Once the music has been silenced at 12 Inch, however, he’ll no longer be working in a self-designed vessel. The present trends — specialization and segregation of the scene, cryptic music and a focus on image — are all facets of today’s industry, and a degree of conformity may be a necessary element for anyone hoping to gain access.

On the other hand, 12 Inch Dance Records launched during a period of relative uncertainty in the dance community. The music scene was in flux, and yet Dawidjan’s venture hit the mark, annexing an entire genre that had been left up for grabs. In fact, the store’s dance music format made 12 Inch a specialty store itself, much like the ones now encroaching on its market. The niche that Dawidjan originally carved is now being re-spliced, as more stores snag ever smaller, hyper-demarcated sub-genres.

In 1985, the decision to open a dance-oriented shop was a great leap of faith. Dawidjan leapt, and to the surprise of many, landed on his feet. It’s a trick he hopes to repeat.

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