Bill Eginton is 61 years old, wears blue jeans and gray New Balance sneakers and has a cobalt silver horseshoe moustache, which he slowly rubs while listening to records or considering how to answer a personal question. On a recent Thursday afternoon, I found him at his store, Arkansas Record-CD Exchange, working his way through a stack of 45s he'd bought the day before at an estate sale, most of them by obscure regional garage rock bands with names like Kinetic Energy and Soul Searchers. "My house is different from most people's houses," he said distractedly, as he took one record off the turntable and slipped it into a new sleeve he had set aside for it. He rubbed his moustache. "No dirty dishes, no litter, no piles of clothes, no dusting that needs to be done. It's all neat and organized."
His store, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, is another story. It resembles both a research library and a very strange child's bedroom, with racks, crates and shelves of records (over 80,000 LPs alone) running in all directions, filled out with countless, seemingly random pop artifacts: NASCAR jackets, surfboards, signed headshots of Reba McEntire, glass display cases filled with golf balls and political campaign buttons. The Pam Grier film "Foxy Brown" played on a muted television set in the corner of the room, on top of which was perched a (for sale) model of a British Airways jet. The store does have its own sense of organization, but it's wild and indiscernible. Everything is in its place, but only Eginton has the map.
Since opening in 1984, the store has been located in a strip mall on MacArthur Drive in North Little Rock. Its neighbors today include the We Are One Ministry, led by the Revs. Wayne and Nancy McHughes, and the Let Go and Let God Deliverance Center, led by Pastor Renae Brown. Reade Mitchell was hired as the store's first manager earlier this year, Eginton's only regular co-worker. Reade is his name, but Eginton calls him Woody, a reference to an '80s radio personality, or Rabbit, which was Pete Townshend's nickname for The Who's keyboard player John Bundrick. Eginton is generous with nicknames — the only other customer in the store that Thursday was a regular who Eginton has named Crawfish.
I asked Crawfish why he came so often, and he responded, "To be abused." He explained that other record stores exude an aura of exclusivity, like you have to belong to a club to be treated well, but at the Exchange, he said, Eginton treats everyone equally, for better or worse. One of the store's most distinctive features is the purple velvet rope blocking off the entrance, just past the counter. It was installed 19 years ago as a reminder that jackets are not allowed in the store proper. This rule applies to everyone. Several years ago Glenn Danzig, the surly former front man of The Misfits, threw a fit when Eginton wouldn't allow him to wear his leather jacket inside. He left in a huff, and later wrote of the incident online, "I should have punched that motherfucker in the mouth." When Mitchell told me that story, Eginton just shrugged. "Even my mother hangs her jacket up when she comes in," he said. "It's all or nothing." Mitchell remembers the day proudly. "I saw a tear in his eye," he said. "I think Bill made Glenn Danzig cry."
The first record Bill Eginton ever purchased was Eddie Hodges' "Girls Girls Girls (Made to Love)," in 1961. He rode his bike to the store. At the time, he also collected comic books, which he kept shelved in numerical and alphabetical order, and electric trains. (He still collects electric trains, although he no longer has room in his house to set up the tracks.) His father was always frustrated with his collecting, particularly when he got into records. "I'd come home one day with a bag," Eginton remembers, "and he'd say, 'You'd better not have any more records in that bag.' "
For him, a store of his own was always the goal. He opened his first record shop in the early '70s in Minnesota, where he grew up, but it only lasted a couple of years. "My priorities weren't straight then," he said cryptically. "I prayed if I ever got another store again, my priorities would be right." His prayers were answered in 1984, when his friend Hugh Harris helped him build the Exchange. For a while, he kept his full-time night job as a bar manager at Mexico Chiquito and worked at the store during the day. His daughter, who was born the week they opened and who now lives in Houston, went on to be his longest-running co-worker, manning the register for 20 years.
One day in 1987, a grease fire started at a Shipley's Donuts in the same shopping center and spread to the rest of the building. "Burned out the hobby shop, the barber shop, the shoe guy, the cleaners, the drug store," Eginton said. "It burned everybody out. I lost everything." He showed me an old newspaper clipping about the fire that he still keeps behind the counter. There was a photo of the wreckage and it looked grotesque, vinyl melted into muddy, black pools. He lost over 30,000 albums. He reopened the store, temporarily relocated, a short while later, with only 150 records and a telephone. "It was that or go back to bartending and whine the whole rest of my life about how my store burned down and 'Don't you feel bad for me?' " he said. "I mean you just got to pick up the pieces."
It's this attitude that has allowed the store to outlast the bulk of its competitors, not only independent ventures but major big-box outlets like Circuit City and CD Warehouse, which it was once taken for granted would put stores like the Exchange out of business. For him, the store is a job, a hobby and, more importantly, the major project of his life. "Nearly everything urgent and alive becomes doo-wop down the road," as Charles D'Ambrosio once wrote, but Eginton is a man with a healthy appreciation for doo-wop. "I don't know what else I could do," he said. "I come here every day because it's where I need to be. I can't just sit at home and watch 'Gunsmoke.' "