Bionic Records in Buena Park is bustling on New Year's Eve. Owner Mike Desisto, better known as 'Mike D' to longtime patrons, stays busy answering phones and ringing up costumers buying the gifts they really wanted for Christmas but didn't get under the tree. Punk rock blares through the store while people sift through vinyl and CD record racks. As an Orange County icon, Bionic Records is alive and well ready to ring in the new year 25 years after originally opening in late November 1989.
The first store set up shop in Cypress just down the street from its current location. Dennis Smith, the original owner, worked at Peer Records but left to start something with his brother Mike Freed that was geared more towards their punk sensibilities. (See Rich Kane's, "Who the Hell Is Dennis Smith?") Bionic Records was born and it didn't take long to branch out. By 1991 a storefront popped up in Huntington Beach with another opening two years later in Fullerton attracting youth, including a teenaged Desisto, to its offerings.
"I've been an avid collector of music since I was a kid," says Mike D, who is now 40-years-old. "When Bionic Records opened the Huntington Beach store in 1991, I started shopping there right away." After a number of years, he shifted from buying music and merchandise at Bionic to buying them for the store.
"They hired me in 1997," he recalls. Mike D started with just 2 days a week. The Huntington Beach record store later moved off Bolsa Chica and Edinger in the city. Around that time, the manager transferred over to the Fullerton location, handing the reigns over to Desisto. Bionic Records reached its peak with all three locations thriving and connecting with musicians making noise in OC.
"I met Bill Ward from Black Sabbath while working in Huntington Beach, but everyone came through that store from AFI to Social Distortion," Mike D says. "We did in-stores with Korn and a signing with the Specials. The Fullerton and Cypress stores had everyone from No Doubt to Sublime to the Offspring." When Tragic Kingdom came out in 1995, No Doubt got through six songs of their over capacity in-store set before Fullerton police pulled the plug.
Bionic Record's classic skull and bones store shirt started being sported in prominent places like when The Offspring's lead guitarist Noodles proudly wore it for the band's "Self-Esteem" music video.
The store worked with all the heavy hitter labels in metal and punk from Epitaph to Nuclear Blast, from Century Media to Relapse. Throughout its tenure, Bionic Records rode the peaks and valleys of Orange County's third wave ska scene to the multiple subgenres spawned by underground metal.
But changes in the way people bought music brought forth a crossroads. The prominence of digital downloads loomed when the leases came up for both the Huntington Beach and Fullerton locations by the end of 2006. "That was the beginning of the dark ages for record stores," recalls Mike D. Both spots were in good financial shape, but the future of music seemed too unpredictable for five-year lease agreements. Only the original Cypress store remained in the aftermath.
"It was just a matter of weathering the storm and seeing where it would go," Mike D says. It wasn't just changes in how people bought music that factored in. A tanking economy took its hit on retail sales as well. The Great Recession ran roughshod over the latter half of the 2000s. "There was no plan," Mike D says laughing. "The only plan was to ride it out."
Bionic Records eventually shared floor space with Furnace Skate Shop in Cypress to help keep it afloat. During that time Smith decided he wanted out of the retail game and Mike D became owner. The Great Recession swept through the shopping center that housed Bionic Records leaving it barren but not before the store wisely relocated to Buena Park in March 2011.
With tougher times behind it, Bionic Records still stands–a fact that surprises some OC music lovers who thought its days over with the Fullerton and Huntington Beach store closures. While digital downloads sparked worries a decade ago, an old way of listening to music made a comeback in the last four years helping to keep Bionic Records alive.
"Right now because of the vinyl resurgence and people being bored with technology, we're selling all decades of music," Mike D says. "It's pretty crazy." He rings up Nirvana's Bleach and Dr. Dre's The Chronic at the counter to a customer underscoring the point. A Chicano punk follows up asking about vinyl from English doom metal band Electric Wizard. "We're all sold out for now," Mike D tells him.
The 25th anniversary of Bionic Records came and passed quietly on the heels of Thanksgiving, Black Friday and a particularly busy Christmas shopping season for the store. But a commemorative event is in the beginning stages of planning. The Observatory in Santa Ana might be fitting given how their concert calendar helps stores like Bionic Records.
"Amongst all the venues in LA or Orange County, it seems like the Observatory has been really solidly booking metal and punk for quite some time now," Mike D adds. That's awesome! I hope they keep doing it obviously."
In the meantime, Bionic Records continues to do its thing 25 years after opening. A young Chicana punk with green highlights in her hair and a septum nose piercing picks Mike D's brain about music. Aside from vinyl and CDs, Bionic Records' walls are lined with mostly black band t-shirts from The Adicts to the Dead Kennedys. Patches, stickers, posters and show flyers make the long, rectangular-shaped store a hub for music culture–especially for those who're younger than Bionic Records itself.
The store's longevity places it as an OC indie icon. "I don't think we would consider ourselves in that level of success if we didn't have bands that were successful either coming out or growing in our store," says Mike D.
"I think it's finding a niche that you respect, love and care about," he concludes. "It's about staying the path."
Bionic Records is located at 6012 Ball Road, Buena Park. For more info call (714) 828-4225 or visit bionicrecords.tumblr.com!