"Current favorites," begins Naomi Diamond, the now sole-owner of El Cerrito's Mod Lang records, as she proceeds to enthusiastically rattle off the names of newly released albums that she would recommend. Among her picks are the Black Keys, a Southern blues-punk duo who have started to receive airplay after years under the radar; Mono, a Japanese experimental instrumental group who recently released an album featuring their collaboration with a 24-piece orchestra; and Dum Dum Girls, a 'girl-group' whose raw minimalist sound blends simple melodies with a punk aesthetic. She picks one out by another group, called Best Coast, and puts it on the turntable.
Diamond's picks reflect a keen grasp of contemporary music. In describing each release, she compares it to several other groups or traces the lineage of the band to a past project. Diamond's knowledge tells you something about what makes Mod Lang unique. It is a store that has been, and still is, defined by a connoisseur's interest in music. The shop's origin — Diamond's importing of obscure singles from the U.K. beginning in the early 1980s — was actually a means to support her own record-buying habit, and her own interest in music. Consequently, Mod Lang could be said to serve as much as a repository of musical knowledge as it does a place to go buy albums.
This dual quality might explain, partly, how it has been able to sustain itself in an era in which album sales have declined significantly and during which the Bay Area has seen a marked decrease in the number of independent record stores. Some 'niche' stores, whose strength is a selection shaped not only by what's expected to sell but also by the owners' own particular taste, have remained standing alongside the obvious champions – Amoeba Records in Berkeley and San Francisco — while big retailers like Tower and the Wherehouse have fallen alongside numerous independent stores.
Mod Lang may have been able to survive, but it was not immune to the trend of decreasing album sales. From the mid-'80s until 2006, Mod Lang occupied a glass-paned storefront on University Avenue, just at the base of the Berkeley campus, familiar to any serious music fan. Tastefully adorned with select promotional posters, it carried many independent releases, which if they were available at other stores, weren't gathered so purposefully as in this store.
Diamond describes a time not so long ago when if one person had a release, everyone needed to have it, and so the store would sell multiple copies of a popular album. Now, Diamond notes, "you only need to carry one of any title," referring to the fact that students will almost without exception post an album in a file-sharing service upon acquisition. "Things just changed a lot," she says, not at all bitter, instead sounding as if she has made peace with the current realities of the industry.
Mod Lang functioned as a shop first, but also played host to in-store performances by overseas groups like Travis, the Charlatans UK, and Manic Street Preachers. The store's support of emerging acts is made more obvious by the presence of gold and silver records, which hang on the wall, inscribed to the store by groups such as Radiohead and the Strokes. Additionally, the store began operating a record label that has released fifteen or so titles thus far – one of these, a release by a group with El Cerrito ties, Savage Insurrection.
As for what happened in Berkeley, the story is familiar. Beset by skyrocketing rents, "hot water coming through my lights into the downstairs," and differences with a landlord, Diamond and her then partner, Paul Bradshaw, began to look for other options and landed in El Cerrito.
The store moved here four years ago. The new store is similar to the old one – full of rows and rows of records and CDs, and bearing various promotional posters on its chartreuse walls. The main reasons for moving here? Diamond cites the proximity to BART and ample parking, and seems content with the new location. It is nestled away on Fairmount Avenue, visible mainly due to a brightly colored "Mod Lang" board on the sidewalk out front advertising its presence. And the store is not alone in its transplant status; close by is another formerly Berkeley-based business, Ifshin Violins.
The store still sees many of its old loyal customers, along with tourists and collectors. And then there are the inhabitants of El Cerrito itself. While the town may not have quite as much foot traffic as Berkeley does, Diamond is pleased by the friendliness of El Cerritans, and suggests one advantage the store has now: "El Cerrito people really don't seem to like to go to Berkeley or Oakland."
This makes me ask if locals had brought in their collections to sell (about half of Mod Lang's stock seems to be used-LPs), never having bothered to make the trip to do so in Berkeley, where there is more of a used-record trade. Record collectors dream that in the garages of every outlying town (as El Cerrito might seem to those in larger cities who seldom venture there), there is unmined gold stashed away in dusty boxes. While Diamond's tone suggests, perhaps, a wariness about my question, which perhaps has cast me as something of a "collector," she acknowledges she has gotten some good finds through locals. "Some really cool stuff — some great mono pressings of early '60s and '70s rock stuff," she says, then asks me to wait while she flips the record.