Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Record collectors keep Valley's passion for vinyl alive

Special thanks to author Crystal Olvera of The Monitor (www.themonitor.com) for the exclusive rights and permission to reprint this interesting article.

As CD sales continue to fall and music giants like Tower Records are all but a memory, there’s an unexpected medium that is slowly rising from the dead: vinyl.

According to Nielsen Soundscan, vinyl sales sky-rocketed, surpassing sales of the previous year by a whopping 89 percent in. Although the pace slowed in 2009, Vinyl sales were still up 33 percent from the previous year.

Whether it’s people feeling a little nostalgic, or just a trend, vinyl’s return to popularity has brought longtime collectors out of the woodworks and into the business market.

Independent music shops are popping up in the Rio Grande Valley to help baby boomers rediscover their love for the old school and introduce a new generation to a music medium that’s been brought back to life.

123 E. Jackson St., Harlingen | (956) 245-9777

Tony Ramirez sits at a wooden table on the third floor of what used to be the Palm Hotel in Downtown Harlingen, overlooking Jackson Street. The third floor is equipped with a pool table, a bar and a smorgasbord of pop culture memorabilia. With a cigarette in one hand and a bottle of Shiner Bock in the other, Ramirez talks about the significance of Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction,” how The Beatles’ mop tops changed rock ‘n’ roll and why he prefers the sound of a classic vinyl record over a CD any day.

“A CD is perfection,” said Ramirez as he takes a swig of his beer. “A record is used, scratched, and it takes you back to the club, back to the concert — because bands, musicians, they don’t play perfectly. A CD is pristine, but there’s nothing pristine in music.”

Having spent the past 50 years collecting records, Ramirez is a rock ‘n’ roll relic with expertise in classic rock that could arguably rival any modern music historian. He spent much of his life as an English instructor at the University of Texas at Brownsville, Texas A&I Kingsville and South Texas College, but also dabbled in disc jockeying and record collecting, finally retiring to open Frank’s Record Shop with his daughter Shannon.

“He’s the beauty, and I’m the brains,” Shannon jokes.

Ramirez and his wife June purchased the Palm Hotel nearly 20 years ago and converted the first floor into an antique shop and record store. They made the second and third floors their home.

Shannon recalls the slow metamorphosis of her father’s collection from merely a fun project into something out of control.

“He just wanted to sit around, listen to music and drink beer,” Shannon said. “It started off as just a hobby, but it turned into a monster.”

Tony’s shop is currently the largest vinyl shop in the Valley. He offers every popular musical genre you can think of along with CDs, cassettes, antique knives and coins. He began collecting records as a 12-year-old paperboy in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s.

“My first album was Big John,” said Ramirez. “I bought it for 39 cents because I couldn’t afford the full-length albums.”

With the advent of CD players and cassettes, he said he spent much of the ‘80s in flea markets buying up the vinyl albums many people were abandoning. But he doesn’t blame vinyl’s demise on new technology.

“Vinyl died because no one was selling record players,” said Ramirez. “They stopped selling them and stopped selling the parts to fix them.”

But Shannon begs to differ.

“The ‘80s was about keeping up with the Joneses,” said Shannon about people’s obsession with new technology. “But vinyl never died. People kept their vinyls and stuck them in closets or hid them under their beds.”

The father and daughter team have partnered with Victor Cantu of Valley Vinyls in McAllen. Both stores work together to help customers find whatever they’re looking for, be it Kitty Wells or Iron Maiden.

Ramirez said he takes pride in owning a “mom-and-pop” store. He invites shoppers to bring in their own vinyl records to sell or spin on the shop’s record player. He spends much of his time chatting about music with customers and telling stories — like the one about how his copy of Marvin Gaye’s Soulful Mood met an untimely death on the floor of his house. The record was worth $800.

“I can’t compete with volume,” says Ramirez of the large corporate-owned music outlets. “But I can compete with personality.”

Ramirez is also happy a new generation is discovering music through vinyl. He equates vinyl records with the stories and lessons passed on from generation to generation.

“Vinyl records are memories. They were meant to last forever,” Ramirez explains.

2201 N. 10th St. Suite I, McAllen (Inside the Petite Mall) | (956) 928-1005

Twenty-one-year-old Bianca Cantu sifts through a crate of records labeled “P” at Valley Vinyls, inside The Petite Mall on 10th Street in McAllen. She pulls out Prince and The Revolution’s Purple Rain album.

“It’s only worth something if you get the double set, which is a regular black vinyl and a purple vinyl,” she said. She goes on to explain the importance of an orange label on a Jimi Hendrix album, and that anything by the Beatles is a good buy.

Bianca has slowly become a connoisseur of vinyl and she’s learned from the best. Her father, Victor Cantu, raised his kids on Kiss, The Beatles, Janis Joplin and most classic rock from the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s. Victor said it was always a dream of his to open a record store, and after partnering up with Tony Ramirez of Frank’s Record Shop in Harlingen, he decided to take the leap last October.

Since then, he’s never looked back. His store, which began with only a handful of crates, is now overflowing with music. Cardboard sleeves filled with classical music lie behind the counter and a sea of 45s hides underneath tables covered with rock, jazz, Spanish language, hip-hop and pop records.

Winter Texan shoppers in search of older fare by the likes of Trini Lopez, Frank Sinatra and Liberace are Victor’s usual clientĂ©lè but he’s seeing a larger number of young people who have become interested in record collecting.

“We see 16-year-olds in here buying Janis Joplin and Grand Funk Railroad,” Victor said. “I’m standing there thinking, ‘Do you know who this is?’”

Victor said he doesn’t know the exact number of records in his home collection anymore, but he estimates it’s about 10,000.

“The first record I got was Kiss Alive!” said Victor, wearing a pair of John Lennon-style sunglasses and an AC/DC shirt as he sits on a mall bench just outside the shop. He was just a preteen in the seventh grade. “Ever since then I was hooked.”

Why has he stuck with vinyl all this time?

“There’s nothing like a vinyl record – opening the sleeve up and looking inside,” Victor said. “With a CD, it’s not the same. Digital has a quieter sound. You don’t hear the Rice Krispies you hear on a vinyl when you pick up the volume,” Ramirez said referring to the common crackling sound on a vinyl record. “Vinyl makes you feel like you’re in the room with the band.”

Victor’s love for vinyl and classic musical formats has prevailed over decades of technological developments. He says vinyl can stand the test of time and blames convenience for the downfall of CDs, cassettes and eight-tracks.

“CDs are disposable, and they’re easily damaged because you’re always taking them everywhere. Vinyls you can’t take anywhere,” Victor said. Portable devices allow for more carelessness, like leaving cassettes in hot cars, he added.

“Vinyls are more like keepsakes that you can pass down to your children.”

But he isn’t completely against new technology. He still has an eight-track player in his truck, which he uses regularly.

“I’m old school,” he confesses.

416 N. 10th St. Suite 4 (Next to The Gallery) | (956) 627-2742

What do Radiohead’s OK Computer, Lady Gaga’s The Fame and the Twilight Soundtrack have in common? Besides being some of the most popular albums on the planet, they can also be found in vinyl form at Havok Records on 10th Street in McAllen. Apart from a corner of crates with used records of yesteryear, hundreds of newly packaged 12-inch sleeves glisten on the stores’ shelves. Havok Records is filled with the latest punk, rock and even hip-hop and pop records of today.

Owner, Orlie Ozuna, hails from a new generation of record collectors. Unlike most vinyl addicts, The 31-year-old wasn’t around for the first pressing of The Beatles’ Abby Road or Jimi Hendrix’s Are You Experienced. He was, however, born a music lover and his interest in vinyl grew from his love of punk rock. He bought his first album, a seven-inch NOFX record, in his early 20s.

After finding success as a licensed contractor, he saved enough money to open up his own record store with the help of his friend Abel Herrera. The shop sells record players and accessories, T-shirts, skate decks and other novelties. He said business has picked up since the store opened in February.

Punk-wise, the most popular artists customers look for are NOFX, 7 Seconds, Propagandi and Fugazi, while rock lovers seek classic records by The Beach Boys or contemporary artists like Depeche Mode and Radiohead, Ozuna said.

He believes that collecting vinyl is simply more fun than collecting CDs because the LPs offer larger album art and lyric sheets. Ozuna’s home collection is now made up of nearly 600 albums. But Ozuna said they weren’t easy to find. Much of his own catalog was attained from scouring bigger cities like Austin and San Antonio and winning auctions on eBay.

“One man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” Ozuna said. “Many people go giving their records away not knowing what they have. The search in itself is quite exciting.”

The vinyl industry has also evolved to accommodate today’s techno-savvy buyers by offering ways for purchasers to place digital copies of albums on their iPods or CDs. Many newly released LPs offer coupons or download cards to allow buyers to download albums in Mp3 format for free.

“There are (new) record players with USB cables, which are universal that can connect to any desktop or laptop (computer),” Ozuna said. “Software is usually included, and it’s a matter of installing software and having your laptop recognize the record player. You can pretty much convert all your vinyl to mp3s.”


The value of vinyl records will change over time and vary according to what region of the world you’re in, but these three albums are commonly listed as the most valuable.

John Lennon & Yoko Ono – Double Fantasy (Geffen US Album, 1980) - This copy of the album was autographed by Lennon five hours before he was assassinated by Mark David Chapman. It’s valued at $525,000.

The Quarrymen – “That’ll Be the Day”/”In Spite Of All The Danger” (UK 78 RPM, Acetate in plain sleeve, 1958) - There was only one copy pressed of this album by The Quarrymen, a band which would later become The Beatles, and Paul McCartney owns it. Value: $180,000

The Beatles – Yesterday and Today (Capitol, U.S. Album in ‘butcher’ sleeve, 1966) Value: $38,500. The album, which features the Fab Four posing with pieces of meat, fake blood and baby doll parts, was pulled after an outcry from retailers.

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