When asked to relive what the early days were like when he opened Atlanta’s Criminal Records in the summer of 1991, Eric Levin doesn’t skip a beat. “Man, I failed so much during those first few years,” he says. “I was living in the back of the store, we were getting broken into. There were so many times when I was constantly on the edge of throwing in the towel.”
Levin has spent much of his life in record stores. He landed his first job in junior high at the age of 13, working as the “store rat” at Atlantic Sounds in Daytona Beach, Florida. Later, he started his own record store in Ormond Beach called Secret Service Records. There is a law, though, buried deep in the books, that makes it illegal for businesses to use the name “Secret Service.” … Something about avoiding confusion if there is an actual homeland security issue.
One day, a pair of actual secret service agents paid Levin a visit and took him to jail over the name. “They were ultimately nice, if even a little embarrassed to have to serve such a dumb task,” Levin says.
Later, while watching the story being reported on the news, he heard a reporter laugh and say, “What’s he going to call his new business, Criminal Records?”
That sealed the deal on the name. At just 19 years old, he moved to Atlanta and set up Criminal Records in Little Five Points to build a career selling CDs, cassettes, vinyl records, comic books, toys, and more.
If there was a discernible tipping point when things shifted, or gave him any indication that he might one day be doing interviews about celebrating the store’s 30th anniversary, he hesitates at first, but then tells a story.
Fast forward a few years after opening to the summer of 1994. Psychedelic country punk band the Meat Puppets were on the rise, as their song “Backwater” was turning out to be an honest-to-goodness alternative rock hit. The group was passing through town as a daytime act on the H.O.R.D.E. Tour. After their set, they made their way to Little Five Points for an in-store performance at Criminal.
The shop was much smaller back then, located in the storefront that’s now home to Java Lords Coffee. The band set up in front to play on the sidewalk as the hillside across the street filled up with people who’d come to watch. “For real, hundreds of people were there,” Levin says. “It wasn’t that the Meat Puppets were a big draw, it was just a beautiful sunshiny, breezy day, the band sounded amazing, and the crowd just grew and grew.”
The band had played just a few songs when a police cruiser slowed to a halt in the middle of Euclid Avenue, between the band and everyone who’d flocked there to hear the music.
“I thought, ‘this sucks, they’re going to shut us down, and I’m going to have to deal with this.’”
The cops lingered for a few moments; he surveyed the crowd, looked at the band, nodded his head and slowly drove away. The people who’d gathered on the hillside roared with applause and the band took it as their cue to rock out even harder.
“Somehow, I knew then and there, that everything was going to be alright,” Levin says.
Over the years, the shop has moved three times, always remaining in L5P. In 1994, Criminal moved to Moreland Avenue, into the space that is now Stratosphere Skateboards. In April 2008, Levin moved the operation to the much larger location at 1154 Euclid, where it currently remains.
In-store appearances, like the Meat Puppets show he remembers so fondly, have long been a part of the store’s repertoire over the last 30 years. The list of acts who’ve played or just hung out in the store signing records and chatting with customers includes Spiritualized, Mick Jones of the Clash, Pearl Jam, Danzig, Bill Callahan of Smog, Tori Amos, Killer Mike, Sleater-Kinney, Frank Black of the Pixies, Against me! Mastodon, Janelle Monáe, Indigo Girls, John Lewis, Dr. Octagon, and too many others to name.
Party-starter Andrew W.K. once worked a shift behind the counter there as part of a promotional appearance before an Atlanta show in the early aughts.
Over the years, Levin has endured career highs and lows: As an independent businessman, he managed to keep the store alive as the rise of online streaming took a bite of music sales. He co-founded Record Store Day which launched in 2008, and is the president of the Alliance of Independent Media Stores (A.I.M.S.), which is a consortium of independently owned record stores and other media-related retailers that support each other, and help level the playing field with media titans such as Amazon.com and Wal-Mart.
He also suffered a devastating heart attack. Still, he soldiers on.
On Saturday, Aug. 14, Criminal Records is throwing a day-long 30th anniversary party with 30 classic LPs selling for just $9.99 apiece, ’cause that’s how much most records would’ve cost in 1991. The list includes such staples Nine Inch Nails’ “Pretty Hate Machine,” “Childish Gambino’s “Awaken, My Love,” John Coltrane’s “Blue Train,” and more.
To commemorate the event, Criminal tapped Atlanta artist R. Land to create the flaming phoenix logo, which will appear on 1,000 DJ bags that will be given away at the counter.
Andy Hull and Robert McDowell from indie rock outfit Manchester Orchestra will close out the evening with an intimate acoustic in-store performance.
Space is limited to 200 people.
For Levin, keeping Criminal Records going through thick and thin has been a labor love, and he have it no other way. “I don’t know what else I would do,” he says. “I always knew that I would be my own boss, I don’t have the personality to work for someone else. My father was an audiophile who’s best friend owned a record store. This all speaks to who I am.”