“It actually just started out as a simple research project.”
When asked to explain the origins of his recently completed documentary, Walls of Sound: A Look Inside the House of Records, this is how David Gracon begins.
Commencing his doctoral program at the University of Oregon in Eugene, Dr. Gracon truly had no idea that six years later his project would spawn the film he’ll be screening Wednesday, Nov. 7, at 7 p.m. in the Doudna Fine Arts Center Lecture Hall.
In Walls of Sound, Gracon, now an assistant professor in the Department of Communication Studies, provides an in-depth look at House of Records, an iconic independent record store in Eugene with over 40 years of history.
“I chronicle the history of (the store), the stories behind it, the social meanings of the store, how it acts as a community gathering space for local music scenes,” said Gracon. “These kinds of places are for more than just buying and selling music, they’re form of community for many people — a place where subcultural scenes can flourish and have a place to meet each other.
“The store is also situated in an old house, and there are a lot of stories about people who used to live in this house and even some ghost stories. It’s sort of an amalgamation of all these topics under this umbrella of the record store.”
Places like House of Records are becoming more and more of a rarity with the advent of digital music, but they still hold a special meaning to Gracon. He tells stories about a childhood fondness for Home of the Hits, a record store in his hometown of Buffalo, N.Y. In fact, it was that store’s 2006 closing that inspired him to begin studying these types of businesses and their societal impact.
“There was a reaction when that store closed,” remembers Gracon. “It was kind of an outcry. People were reacting in this really interesting way, and I happened to live right across the street from this House of Records. I thought maybe I could go see what’s going on with this store; see if it is struggling to exist as well.”
At first, examining the House of Records was but one research point in a much larger-scale project. Fate — and the store’s employees — had other ideas, however.
“I was working on a dissertation, which was actually on the same topic but a much larger sample of stores,” remembers Gracon. “I was just going to interview people at the store for a research methods class.
"They actually convinced me to make a film. I didn’t want to make a film, but they convinced me to bring a camera in and film some footage. I did it, and thank God I did.”
Gracon did his filming between 2006 and 2008. After devoting most of the next few years to his written dissertation, he picked the project back up in 2011, after he'd arrived at EIU, and spent hundreds of hours turning the footage into the 63-minute piece he finished earlier this year. He put a three-minute trailer on YouTube and was soon contacted by an independent art theatre in Eugene interested in hosting a screening. Gracon was more than happy to take the film back to the Pacific Northwest for showings in Eugene, Portland, and Olympia, Wa.
“I thought it would be a great opportunity to go out there and screen it in person,” said Gracon. “The stores themselves are about physical space and being around people, and I felt the film tour should also be like that.”
In Eugene, where the local newspaper gave his work a excellent review, many of the film’s subjects were even on hand for their first look at the finished product.
“We had a discussion with the audience about the social significance of these stores, what local businesses mean to people, and how to preserve them and keep them going,” said Gracon. “They hadn’t seen it, so I was really nervous. They ended up really enjoying it, though, and it was a great, festive experience.”
While Gracon’s next step is to take his work on “a full-on blitz of film festivals” and hopefully secure a distribution deal along the way, he has already been able to incorporate his filmmaking experience into his teaching at EIU.
“I teach video production, so I tell my students about the trials and tribulations of making a film of this nature,” explains Gracon. “You have to be passionate about your topic. I always tell my students if you’re not passionate about the work you’re making, you’re not going to have good work. I was super invested in this project; if you’re going to spend years on a topic, you have to really love it.”
In his spring Documentary Production class, Gracon showed his students the first 20 minutes of Walls of Sound. It wasn’t just for teaching purposes, either; he was eager to get their feedback.
“That was really valuable,” said Gracon. “(The students) are developing as videomakers, but at the same time they may catch something I’m not seeing. I think they like the fact that this work is being presented publicly and getting out there. I want them to do the same thing; I want them to look up to a project and feel like they can do that too.”