by Cecilia LaFrance
Chain Reaction Records, a punk and heavy metal music shop claiming the corner of an old nondescript 4-unit building at Colfax and Glen Ayr, is easily missed by those not looking for it. With a lack of retail neighbors, walk-in shoppers aren’t likely, and the store’s odd sized sign and poster-plastered windows compete with hundreds of other distractions for traffics’ attention. But, it’s the fans of new and used punk and heavy metal that make Chain Reaction a destination that owner Josh Lent banks on to keep his dream alive.
“I could have opened on South Broadway and got the foot traffic,” Lent references a Denver district rich with independent specialty shops. “Ultimately, we thought with the shop, it’d be a destination. Most of the stuff we carry you can’t get in the region let alone the state.” Lent caters to the loyal and nostalgic fans, who, like him, seek out the scattered meccas of punk and metal music throughout the country; he rattles off shop names like Cash 4 Chaos in Las Vegas, Dr. Strange in Alta Loma, CA, or Amoeba Records in Los Angeles. “We’re kind of getting that way,” he says with a modest amount of pride in his voice. Some of his best customers are those who come from out of state seeking something rare and prepared to spend money.
Lent is one of those treasure hunters. His tattooed knuckles grip the store ledger listing the day’s sales so far. Just off work from his day job as a director of operations for a “very large locally-based company,” Lent, age 48, settles into his second home. “I wanted to have my own record store since I was a kid buying records.” Five years ago, Lent opened Chain Reaction in a smaller storefront of the same building, bankrolling the business with cash. He chose West Colfax for three main reasons: he’s not a South Broadway hipster; he lives on the west side, and lease costs are lower. When the chance came to take the larger corner shop, he expanded. Lent flips through a stack of recently acquired LP arrivals voicing his approval to Dean, his associate. Bay City Rollers and Alice Cooper are among the pile. Chain Reaction gets plenty of people bringing in boxes of their parents’ old albums. “Since vinyl is hip and cool again, prices have gone through the roof … but no one’s getting rich off of their old Beatles records.” The used vinyl industry has standardized, he explains, due to the Internet. And, what people ask online doesn’t necessarily represent worth.
“On the other hand, people bring in stuff and have no idea what they’re sitting on.” The rare finds, some that get added to his personal collection rather than the resale stock, are one of Lent’s motivations behind opening the store. “The store’s about what I thought it would be. A big headache, fun, and access to cool records.” Lent throws out his hands and says he’d be spending his free time hunting records anyway.
A cowbell clunks over the front door to announce an incoming group. They file along the concrete isles to sort through bins of albums, racks of specialty t-shirts, and skate gear. Chain Reaction specializes in punk and metal: thrash metal, heavy metal, black metal, death metal, power metal, thrash punk, hardcore punk, skate punk. Lent runs through a list and pauses to mentally check if he missed any. “New ones are popping up all the time.” But, the vinyl medium is a signature of metal and punk. Lent explains that producing a vinyl album was a less expensive alternative than CDs for punk and metal bands trying to release. Plus, Lent adds, “People always want to go retro. You can’t go more retro than vinyl.” Vinyl technology is better than it was in the past, he says, and has better packaging, too.
Lent checks in with a customer holding an album cover depicting an indecent relationship between a man and an animal; confirming their historical knowledge together, they agree the LP release of Heavy Petting Zoo does indeed have a different cover than the CD.
“The most rewarding parts (of the business) are the people we meet.” Regulars hang around the shop, take pride in the stock, and help sell when other shoppers come in. It’s a tribe of punk, metal, and skateboarders. Lent has Dean pose with a new skate deck that arrived in a shipment so he can post it on his social media accounts. He’s sure one of Chain Reaction’s followers will want it.
Another customer steps in, reinforcing the solidarity of black attire, and moves with familiarity to a row of bins. A back area of the shop is set up for a band, a legitimized space with a raised platform and banners streamed on the back walls, blacking out the barred windows.
“We’re all in bands,” Lent references others involved in the shop. Lent is “lead yeller” in Clusterfux, a crossover hard core punk band. “It’s hard, fast, and a lot of yelling.” While the goal for the store is to stay afloat, Lent uses the store as a spring board for other adventures. Chain Reaction Records Label has put out a couple of records, and Lent is exploring expansion with partnerships. He uses a common expression to explain why the shop and music is how he spends his free time: “If you do what you love, it’s not really work.”