It’s a warm spring afternoon in Northside as Steve Schmoll sits behind the counter at Black Plastic, the vinyl-only record store he opened on Hamilton Avenue in October 2012.
“It’s kind of all I know,” Schmoll says when asked why he wanted to open a place of his own.
The modest space is dominated, front to back, with wooden record bins demarcated by genre. Several boxes of records sit below the bins, as if their contents are not worthy of inclusion with those that hover above them. T-shirts, many created by local artisans, line the minty green walls. A white, seemingly makeshift cardboard sign hangs on the back wall with “Black Plastic” handwritten in plain black magic marker. (It’s a far cry from the establishment’s sweet, black-and-yellow storefront sign, designed by local artist Tim McMichael.)
The no-frills approach doesn’t necessarily seem like an overt aesthetic choice; it’s more a matter of practicality. Schmoll is a man of simple pleasures, the type of guy who’d rather listen to records — while holding a slice of pizza in one hand, a can of beer in the other — than do just about anything else.
Music has been his passion for more than three decades — from a childhood spent listening to it by way of his older brother’s record collection to his various forays in making, supporting or selling it as an adult.
“I went to UC, but I didn’t last very long,” Schmoll says in a deep, perpetually subdued voice that brings to mind Lou Reed if he were born and bred on Cincinnati’s West Side rather than Long Island, N.Y. “I was a terrible student. When I got my own apartment I was like, ‘I just want to see bands all the time.’ And then you just deliver pizzas and buy records and pay rent. That is like the perfect life.”
Schmoll, his black bangs falling into his eyes, pauses for a second to contemplate what he’s just said, then laughs in recognition.
Now in his mid-forties, Schmoll began his playing days in the late 1980s as a guitarist with a number of local outfits, including a stretch with scene mainstays The Tigerlilies. Eager to do his own thing as a frontman, he formed Lazy in the early 1990s, recording a pair of hook-laden Garage Pop records — 1994’s Some Assembly Required and 1996’s The Lazy Music Group — before calling it quits amid lineup changes and label issues.
Lazy’s demise led to myriad behind-the-scenes gigs for other touring bands over the last 20 years, including stints as a sound man for Brainiac, Quasi, The Greenhornes, The Von Bondies and The Heartless Bastards; as a guitar tech for Interpol and The Raveonettes; and as a tour manager for The Kills.
His off-tour downtime has long been supplemented by work behind the counter at various local record stores, and he can currently be seen manning the soundboard at Northside Tavern, MOTR, the CAC, Mayday and the Mason, Ohio, version of the School of Rock. He also put in time at two other local institutions — John Curley’s recording studio Ultrasuede and Bogart’s.
Schmoll’s wealth of musical experience — the guy is an encyclopedia of knowledge when it comes to the local music scene over the last 25 years — obviously came in handy when deciding to open his own place. After two years on the road doing sound for Cults — a New York City-based outfit of ’60s girl-group fetishists — he was ready for a change.
“When that tour ended (in 2012), I was like, ‘What am I going to do?’ I didn’t know if I wanted to put another year or so of my life with another band or another record,” he says.
Enter Black Plastic, which specializes in used Rock & Roll records of all stripes — from vintage copies of Captain Beefheart’s Lick My Decals Off, Baby to the far less discerning remnants of ’70s and ’80s album-oriented Rock (has everyone sold back their Alan Parsons Project records?) — but also carries a nice selection of Blues, R&B, Pop, Classical and even a few hard-to-find Rap records (Kool Moe Dee!). Schmoll has also phased in a healthy dose of new vinyl, which, of course, includes several copies of local Garage Pop outfit Tweens’ recent full-length debut. (Bridget Battle, the band’s frontlady, is a Black Plastic employee.)
“I’ve always had like 1,500 records, but I was never much of a collector,” Schmoll says when asked about his own collection. “I just wanted to buy the records I liked. I wasn’t like, ‘I got to seek out that first pressing of whatever.’ You hear something that’s good and you want to have it. I’m not like a lot of collectors. Some people who come in here have to have all the different pressings of each record.”
That’s not to say he doesn’t have a soft spot for the singular pleasures of vinyl.
“A record is kind of like a living thing,” he says. “It just has a great, warm sound. Just having a record and playing it — there’s something about it.
“If you have a used record that’s 30 or 40 years old, you can think of those people listening to that record in, like, 1975,” he continues. “Maybe some teenager would listen to this record, and then it passes hands and now you have it. It’s a weird thing. You can’t really do that with a (computer) file that’s 10 years old. It’s like, ‘Somebody might have rolled a joint on this record 30 years ago.’”
He laughs at the thought, then returns to his initial, matter-of-fact confession about why he wanted to open Black Plastic: “It’s one of the only things I know how to do that I wanted to do.”
BLACK PLASTIC will host multiple live acts on Record Store Day. Find more info on the store’s Facebook page.