Features & Columns

Silicon Alleys: Music Mile

Revisiting the ghosts of a record shop-studded Blossom Hill and its Denny's
HAPPY MEAL: Denny's on Blossom Hill has changed with the rest of San Jose, but its Super Bird meal, it seems, is forever. Photo by Gary Singh

Last week, at the Denny's on Blossom Hill, I contemplated the transitory nature of all San Jose phenomena while summoning the ghosts of Record Factory, Rainbow Records and Musicland.

Contrary to what I expected, Denny's looked different than it did 32 years ago when I'd regularly show up with a friend or two, post-midnight, after a long spell of drinking in various secret teenage spots in the hilly landscape just south of there—most of which were not even that secret.

The 2021 version of Denny's featured clean wooden flooring, semi-contemporary décor and plexiglass separators between the booths. I could remember exactly where we sat decades earlier, often with those little airplane bottles of booze hidden in our pockets so we could pour them into the coffee.

Admittedly, I arrived a little early for lunch during a pandemic. Indoor dining had also just recently opened back up, so the restaurant was nearly empty. The whole place resembled a modern-day Edward Hopper painting. The desolation was inspiring. I sat in a corner booth and ordered that timeless blasé staple of American chain-restaurant cuisine, the Super Bird.

Buried in something not too far from loneliness while I waited for the sandwich to show up, I texted a former employee to see if she had any memories of the Denny's on Blossom Hill.

"I miss the old shamrock green uniforms and carpet with food stains on it," she replied. "We would steal the mini bottles of mint schnapps from the bar in the back and put it in our hot chocolate while on shift."

All of that summoned the ghosts of Blossom Hill's past. Long before this particular stretch of San Jose became a wasteland of mattress retailers, several record stores ruled the landscape. In the '80s, LPs often went on sale for $5.88 at Record Factory, a place that also sold cassettes, magazines and just about everything else that doesn't exist anymore. How I still remember the $5.88 price tag I don't know, but Record Factory was on the south side of the street, in the same strip mall plaza as Toys 'R' Us, which is likewise dead in the water.

On the opposite side of the street was The Wherehouse, when it was still basically a record store. It later moved down the street near Kooser. This was back when the 27 bus was still useful and cheap and ran quite often, so if one didn't yet drive a beater Datsun, they could take the 27 from Los Gatos all the way eastward down Blossom Hill and then visit those two stores, along with Rainbow Records, in the strip mall across from Oakridge.

Rainbow was at the far western end of the mall, right across Winfield from Golfland. Everyone who grew up in that neighborhood has multiple "drunk at Golfland" stories, myself included.

At the time, Oakridge was not yet the colossal Westfield monstrosity one sees today; it was still a romantically crumbling ghetto for bored teenagers. At Musicland in Oakridge, I can remember buying the Slayer album Hell Awaits a few months after it came out, enthusiastically tearing off the plastic before I even got out of the mall.

Now, if records and cassettes don't provide adequate context for you, then I'll try something else: french fries with ranch were not even a thing at Denny's yet. That's how long ago this was.

Those four places—Record Factory, Rainbow Records, The Wherehouse and Musicland—were like lifeblood because if one grew up on the South Side, there was absolutely nowhere else to go. People often tell me there still isn't.

Despite these memories, I did not wither away into nostalgia as I devoured the Super Bird. No, I actually laughed at former versions of myself that would get depressed from remaining attached to impermanent phenomena. Especially in San Jose, everything is transitory. Everything that comes into being eventually dissolves.

Record shops, mom 'n' pop grocery stores, art house theaters, flea markets — everything is subject to decline and destruction. Even the always-empty bike lanes right outside the Denny's are transitory. Surely they will be eliminated or paved over in 20 years because nothing in San Jose ever lasts.

Nothing except for the Super Bird.