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The Portland Phoenix
August 1 - 8, 2002

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Keep on turning

The run-out groove of Portland's vinyl record stores

By Josh Rogers

August 8, 1987: Enterprise Records opens on High Street, right around the corner from its current 613 Congress Steet location, with only about 300 records scraped together, mostly cast-offs from friends’ collections. Owner Bob (we’ve used his last name before, but he’d rather we discontinue that practice), a long-time record collector, was basically just looking for a business that he could take a crack at. Three locations and 15 years in the business later, it’s pretty clear Bob chose the right profession.

Enterprise’s 15-Year Anniversary Party at the Skinny (625 Congress Street, Portland) should be, according to Bob, a “loose scene, just something to commemorate the event.” A band or two, a couple of DJs. Bob downplays his success, but 15 years in the business of vinyl is quite an achievement. Not only is Enterprise’s survival in the current CD-driven market admirable, but looking at the history of record shops in Portland, 15 years is a long time no matter how committed people were to the LP format.

On the occasion of Enterprise’s crystal-glass anniversary (we looked it up), it’s worth taking a look back at the days when vinyl was king. When, in the words of author Giles Smith, “Big, 12-inch square, cardboard-covered records: they were the law, they were what we had and they were what we stood by.”

Barb Moran, booker and bartender at Geno’s rock club on Brown Street, remembers walking down from her Munjoy Hill home as a kid, catching a flick at the Empire Theater on Oak Street, grabbing a burger and shake at Bentley’s on the corner, and then excitedly ducking into the 88 Cents Store across the street. It was 1968. The 10-year-old girl was wide-eyed with excitement for the new issue of teen-idol mag Tigerbeat (gotta get that new Paul Revere and the Raiders poster inside!), and seriously and dutifully buying 45s in accordance with the singles charts on the wall. For 88 cents, she could get 45s like 1910 Fruitgum Company’s “1, 2, 3 Redlight” and Ohio Express’s “Chewy, Chewy.” The 88 Cents Store might have introduced the young Moran to bubblegum pop singles, but the real place to get records in town was Ruth Baker’s Recordland.

“Recordland was like a dream shop to go in and shop for records,” gushes Moran, “because it was small, intimate, and you could shoot the shit with (owner) Ruthie (Baker). She was just an icon of music — I mean, she knew everyone and everything. You know: Who had the hot record? She knew the marketing of records and how to get them out to people. She was the master.” There may have been another reason why the then bubblegum-rock-obsessed Moran loved shopping there: “They had the best posters in this city, from Davy Jones to Paul Revere and the Raiders.”

The bubblegum fluff was the, er, icing on the cake; Ruthie Baker knew the record industry pretty darn well by the time she opened Recordland on Congress Street in 1957. “I loved jazz,” says Baker. “I had a cousin who used to take me down to Boston to hear Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis. When I was in high school, I used to stay up at night and listen to Symphony Sid — his radio show was the only place you could hear jazz, from one in the morning until five. I would practically fall asleep in class the next day, but I just loved music. I bought 78 rpms — jazz, big band, Stan Kenton — at Porteous and I’d sneak them into the house under a coat or something when I came home because my mom would get so mad.”

It’s a record shop phenomenon well documented: They attract a stray kid here and there. Every once in awhile, someone who might be a little geeky, a tad annoying — a kid — will just start hanging out. After a couple years, they know more about music than anybody in their class and customers tap them on the shoulder to ask them questions, thinking they work there. And then one day they do.

For the Porteous department store on Congress Street, that kid was Ruthie Baker. “I used to go in when I was a kid and buy records in Porteous all the time and my dream was to work there,” she says. “When I got the job it was funny because they didn’t even have to train me — I’d been in there so much that I knew where everything was, so I did really well there.”

The Porteous department store, which is now MECA’s main building, sold mainly clothes and home furnishings, but had a pretty nice record department near the Free Street entrance. It was immaculate, with big, mahogany record-listening booths and a pretty decent selection. Although, they didn’t necessarily have a finger on the pulse of the record industry.

“My first day on the job, the buyer said, ‘You’ve got to get rid of this clunker here,’ and gave me a form to fill out so we could send back hundreds of Elvis Presley singles — “Mystery Train,” and a couple others all on the Sun label. And this is when we’d never heard of him — he hadn’t been on Ed Sullivan, and I thought, ‘Gee, who’s this clunker, Elvis Presley?’ So we sent them back and, of course, right after that he got big and we got the RCA pressings but we never got those Suns back.”

It didn’t take Baker long to become the buyer herself, and by the mid-’50s, she’d taken Porteous about as far as it was going to go. So, in 1957, with her husband-to-be, she opened her own shop, Recordland, on Congress in the same space that Stitchez clothing store now occupies. Fittingly, the space (at the time it boasted a beautiful, black slate Art Deco front) was previously a clothing store, “Benoit’s, I think,” remembers Baker, “but it was set up perfectly for records because it had these sections for clothes and we just put in record shelves. Everything was just perfect and it was successful right from the start.” News teams came by to interview Baker about each week’s hot single.

There were days when people were lined up out the door. Recordland was a groundbreaking force in Portland’s musical past, the first to have live DJs on the premises. Baker recalls that “every Friday afternoon, Mike Norton and Ken Garland — they went on to be really big disc jockeys out of town — would play records and kids used to line up in the street!”

Of course, the Friday afternoon DJ sets were nothing compared to the fury of record-buying that the Beatles or the Stones induced. Or Elvis’ death. The king’s body was found late on a Tuesday and poor Ruthie Baker was working alone the following day. Customers “were lined up down the street and when I opened the door they pushed me in and were going crazy buying Elvis records. Then all the TV cameras came — what a day! I’ll never forget it.”

In between the Elvis furor, the Beatles uproar, and all the famous rock stars coming into the shop as they passed through town over the years, Recordland was a nice, relaxed place to hang out. “Ruthie was everybody’s den mother,” remembers local author and rock singer Bebe Buell. “You could hang out in the store all day and chit chat and discuss vinyl. It was really a fun time.”

Although Baker closed down the store in 1991, after almost 35 years in the music business, people still come up to her on the street today and say, “I remember when I bought my first 45 from you.”

By the ’70s, pop music had progressed to the point where people were becoming not just record consumers, but record collectors. And enough time had elapsed that the average person had scads of older records they didn’t listen to anymore. This was the perfect untapped opportunity for Richard Julio, one of the most avid record collectors in Portland, to open his Wax Museum in the old Mariners Church on Fore Street. The store, lasting from 1970 to 1979, existed back in the days when the “Old Port” tourist district had yet to be conceived. There were only a few stores in the area. The Wax Museum, as its name implies, attempted to treat vinyl with the reverence due museum artifacts.

“The concept of used records was new to this area,” explains Julio. “It was decidedly a record-collector-oriented store and it was definitely a new concept to many people. People would come in and say, ‘Whoa! A record for a dollar — what’s wrong with it?’ And the special records on the wall: ‘Twenty bucks for one record?!’ And it’s like, ‘Hey, that’s the Chocolate Watchband!’ and I would get to brag about these records and their significance.”

With the Wax Museum, Richard Julio was one of a group of people nation-wide who began rediscovering the underground records of the ’60s, records that would help launch styles like punk. Julio introduced Jeff Conolly of the Lyres to pioneers of garage and psych the 13th Floor Elevators. He played the Ramones when they debuted in 1976. He helped open Nuggets in Kenmore Square in Boston. And he stocked underground fanzines like Bomp!, which featured seminal articles by critics Lester Bangs and Greil Marcus, buying the magazines directly from founder Greg Shaw; he also was part of a network that spread all over the country.

“All these people were music enthusiasts, into underground and rare records, you know, seeking the Sacred Mushroom album. I was right there with them, happy to supply them with these records through the network of fanzines,” Julio says. “So when the New Wave exploded in ’77, I had been reading about CBGB’s and the Sex Pistols in fanzines before the records were even available. I used to go down to the Custom House just a few blocks down and I’d get my packages from Rough Trade. It was difficult to sell, but I did embrace the whole ’77 thing.”

Julio’s store was just as cluttered and eccentric as some of the obscure magazines that he stocked. When Julio won a huge cache of LPs at an auction for the defunct Franconia College radio station, his store was completely overrun. “There were boxes of records on the floor and my bins were stuffed,” he says. “So I acquired some fish boxes down at the pier which make beautiful record shelves if you stack them modular. I would get them for $3. But even with that, I still had boxes all over the floor.” Space considerations forced Julio to abandon traditional record-filing methods: “I never used index cards because I felt if you took them all out and stacked them next to each other, you could fill a record bin with them, so I thought, ‘Hey, that could be records!’ ”

Despite this somewhat idiosyncratic organizational system, Bob Dylan certainly never had any trouble navigating the bins at the Wax Museum when he visited the store before playing a gig at the Civic Center. “Some members of his entourage had come in and were excited by the store and thought they’d bring Him in — they never really said ‘Bob.’ I said, ‘Sure, we’ll have to stay open late.’ Sure enough, the bus pulls up and these exotic, Las Vegas-style showgirls get out. Bob immediately was able to gravitate to the table of out-of-print, collectable, and rare records. He started with the “A”s and looked at every one, checked for condition, and had a big stack going.”

Setting a big stack of records — the Barbarians, the Drifters, Mighty Sparrow — on the counter, Dylan browsed through the rack of underground comics and local poetry books. “He found a poetry mag and paid a couple bucks out of his pocket for it. I really didn’t know what to say; I was like a deer in headlights.”

“Hey, you psyched for the show?” he managed to get out.

“Yep,” replied Dylan.

Tales of records past

Dust off a box of your mom’s old records in the attic or wander into a wild-eyed record collector’s hi-fi room and you may be treated to the full history of each and every black disc they own. Record owners are generally more than happy to bend your ear about their record-buying history. Each record has a story to tell. That’s because albums, unlike CDs, are large enough to be considered works of art. And more importantly, the grooves soak up their owners’ personal history. John Cusack’s character in High Fidelity arranges his biographically, for instance. Author Giles Smith explains that “in a world where it often seems to be important to assert that you were in on things from the start,” any “blemishes — scratches, bits of old candle, staunched beer spillages — are a crucial history index.”

So we asked a few of those who were there at the start to think back on their best-ever Portland record finds. This is what they got:

 

Chris Brown: The New World of Leonard Nimoy LP, by Leonard Nimoy, at Enterprise Records, $10. “It has a great version of “Proud Mary.” In one chorus, he actually says “Big wheels keep on toinin’ Proud Mary keep on boinin.’ “ That song ended up on one of Rhino’s Golden Throats CDs, but this is the original release.”

 

Bebe Buell: Frampton Comes Alive pink vinyl 2LP, by Peter Frampton, at Recordland. “I collected colored vinyl in the late ’70s and early ’80s and used to decorate my walls with them. I had no idea it would be worth so much one day and I gave it away to someone I really liked. I forget who!”

 

Dice: Anonymous, unlabelled acetate, at Enterprise, $5. “The music is instrumental rock ‘n’ roll — Link Wray, Duane Eddy kind of guitar style. One song says “Motorcycle Theme,” the other one says “Teenage Theme.” It didn’t say who it was by — that’s the interesting part.”

 

Casey Keenan: In the Presence of Nothing LP, by the Lilys, at Enterprise Records, $4. “It was the limited edition silkscreened cover. It’s numbered 1 of 500 . . . but they were all numbered 1/500.”

 

Matt Little: Walk Among Us LP, by the Misfits, at Sound Alternatives, $10. “It was the original sleeve released on Ruby Records, not the re-release on Caroline. I’ve seen it in New York since then for $100.”

 

Barb Moran: Sun Goddess LP, by Ramsey Lewis, at Recordland, $2.99. “The first time I bought it — I’ve bought it four times over the years due to overplay and wear and tear.”

 

John Rolfe: Beatles’ Christmas Album (messages to fans, 1963-70) bootleg, at the Wax Museum, $6.

The late ’70s and ’80s witnessed a bunch of record stores roll into town, the last of them folding in the ’90s. If Julio’s Wax Museum had established a solid bedrock of connoisseurship in Portland, many of the later stores attempted to refine this, to develop a particular musical niche.

Located in the building that now houses Little Lad’s Bakery on Exchange Street, Opus One attempted to cultivate a literate jazz audience. The late owner, Glen Tracy, had a thorough knowledge of the genre, but also stocked some blues, folk, classical, and the occasional offbeat rock album (local record fanatic John Rolfe says, “If you wanted an Eno album, that was the place). Opus One seems to be one of those legends, a place whose value becomes more clear only in retrospect (the store lasted only a few years, from 1978 to the early ’80s). Jim Pinfold, currently the non-pop buyer for Bull Moose Music, says the store was “Brilliant!” Pinfold enthuses, “it was just a terrific jazz store with people who genuinely cared about music.” Although fairly small, Opus One stocked new and used records, and, Pinfold says, “got dragged into the CD world, as many of us did back then, kicking and screaming. But it was just gorgeous. They were comfortable just chatting and those were the days when you could still smoke in stores, so you could go down there and have a cigarette and talk about music.”

During Opus One’s short lifespan, Pinfold was working at a Brunswick record store called Manassas (he stresses that it was not named after the mediocre and short-lived Stephen Stills band). In 1981, owner Harvey Davis and Pinfold decided to go in together on a second store in Portland (sound familiar, Bull Moose?) and bought out Records Plus in the Strand building on Congress Street. Although they were situated almost directly across from queen-of-the-scene Baker and her Recordland, Manassas made a pretty good go of it, lasting until the mid-’80s by, according to Pinfold, “skittering around the edges of music.” Since Recordland had cornered the market on pop music in all its forms, Manassas made sure they were the ones stocking New Order 12-inches. They also sold their share of blues and jazz, as well as used records.

Shortly after opening, Manassas plastered their entire front window with a display for Bebe Buell’s just-released Covers Girl 12-inch EP. Released by Rhino, the sleeve was actually a fold-out poster of Buell tearing up a picture of herself in a fashion magazine; the EP itself featured contributions by the Cars on two tracks. Manassas “went to a lot of trouble,” Buell recalls. “They actually had a woodcutter make these woman’s hands, so there were all these prints of a woman’s hands with pink fingernails — all girly — holding the records in the window and they had a pink, satin Cramps-like backdrop. They really went all out.”

Of course, Manassas’s over-the-top promotion for Buell’s EP was back when, according to Buell, “records were saacred. There’s no faandom with a CD.” Sacred. Fandom. She pronounces these words with reverence and gravity. “With vinyl you could take the cover and prop it up and stare at your favorite rock star while you were listening to the record.”

Manassas closed up shop after only about five years in business, but the public’s “vinyl obsession” as Buell calls it, soldiered on. Shortly after the store’s demise, Pinfold got a call from Amadeus Records on Fore Street; they needed a manager. The store, which finally went out of business a year ago, used to carry a wealth of vinyl — mostly jazz, classical, and blues. Local record buff Matt Little remembers the store for expanding his musical knowledge outside of the rock realm. “They were great for reissues of older music that I was just discovering,” says Little. “They had these jazz reissues that were really cheap (they were kind of cheaply made, too). But they were selling them for $3.99 a piece — a cut-out deal or something — so that was a cool introduction for me because I was like, ‘I can afford to take a chance on this stuff.’ ”

Both Little and Dice, the Skinny’s doorman and an avid vinyl collector, also mined Amadeus for their solid rockabilly selection. “When they still had vinyl that was a good place to go,” says Dice. “They had a good rockabilly section, a good soundtrack section. You could pick up a copy of Blue Velvet there which was great — it was import only — that’s where I got mine.”

ün the late ’80s/early ’90s, a few more short-lived stores appeared. End of the Rainbow, located on Oak Street, just off Congress, was something of an acquired taste. Matt Little remembers “the guys who worked there were nice enough,” but the junk/music store “always seemed like a slightly shady place. It was down this little back street — a real cluttered store with grab bags of 45s — and it was dusty and you were picking through these weird records and I had no idea what most of them were. But it was a pretty cool place, they had lots of New Wave like Jane County and the Electric Chairs.”

Little and Dice also recall Plasma Records, a blink-once-and-it’ll-have-gone-under store run by Vampire Lezbos’ Dave Whiting. On the corner of Brown and Congress streets, Plasma catered to a very select crowd, selling only punk and metal. The store’s extremely limited selection, combined with the rapid phase-out of vinyl in the early ’90s, signaled the death of Plasma and heralded the full changeover to CDs by all the other record stores in town: Bad Habits, Amadeus, Sound Alternatives, and Record Exchange (they went so far as to change their name to CD Exchange).

At the same time that vinyl shops were either switching over to CD or shriveling on the vine like LPs left in the sun for too long, Enterprise Records, in business since 1987, was moving from its second location (now Moose County Music & Surf) across Congress to its current home. Somehow, Bob has managed to defy music-industry logic and survive on vinyl alone (his CD section is a ziplock bag of broken CD shards defiantly thumbtacked to the wall). Bob’s been around for 15 years and when asked whether Enterprise will be here in another 15, he laughs and says, “All I can tell you is that I think it’s kinda comical and amazing that I’m here now.”

Today, if you wander into Enterprise on one of those unauthorized extra-long lunchbreaks, you’ll find, below the lazily revolving ceiling fan, the racks packed with used (and some new) soundtracks, gospel, folk, soul, oldies, blues, jazz, tons of rock and pop, and specialty sections like punk, reggae, world music, progressive rock, psych and garage, electronic, and sound effects. Can’t find what you’re looking for on the shelves? Ask Bob and he might be able to pull it out of his massive overstock out back. Always be sure to check the four-for-a-$1 bin. Some days, boxes litter the store and loose records are piled in labyrinthine patterns on the floor, making sense only to Bob. There’s even a free box on the sidewalk sometimes.

But it wasn’t always this way. “The day I opened,” says Bob, “I only had about 300 records of stock. And that was mostly stuff from people I knew. I also bought a bunch of crap I had no business buying — I didn’t know what I was doing. I knew about music, but I didn’t know about selling records,” he admits.

“Now,” says Bob, “if you know records and you come in here and look around, you can see that I know what I’m doing. I have an idea what a lot of these records would cost somewhere else and sometimes I price stuff with that idea in mind, but not usually. I price stuff for what I can get for it at this location.”

Allen Lowe, author of such academic tomes as the recent That Devlin’ Tune: A Jazz History, 1900 - 1950, appreciates not only Bob’s pricing scheme, but his willingness to take risks on records. Lowe says that, “Bob not only knows a lot about music, but he’ll take a chance on something that he might only be able to sell to one customer or it might take him a year to sell.” While working on his first book, 1998’s American Pop From Minstrel to Mojo: On Record 1893 - 1956, Lowe moved to Portland. He’d been on the lookout for a recording essential to his book. “The Chuck Wagon Gang is one of my favorite country gospel bands from the ’30s and I’d been looking for it for years. Right after I moved to Portland I just stumbled in [to the store]. Some hidden hand guided me. Bob had it! So I knew I was okay about moving here and I knew that Enterprise was an okay place. It was maybe five or six bucks. Don’t tell Bob, but I would have spent double that,” he laughs.

Although life-long collectors like Lowe are an essential part of Bob’s clientele, there was a time when they were the only people buying records. “I was barely hanging on.” says Bob. “Most of my customers were men over 35 or 40, hardcore types. And hardcore collectors already have so many records it was hard to get stuff they needed. I had a small crowd and they were extremely selective so it was tough.” Although the average fan on the street was happy to have a place to buy used LPs when Enterprise opened its doors in 1987, by the mid-’90s all but the ultra-committed enthusiast thought it was “pathetic.”

The deus ex machina of the Enterprise story is that vinyl became hot stuff a few years ago. “All of a sudden, records became the new hip thing,” observes Bob. “I can’t even believe that one.” No longer a hangout reserved solely for the aging record geek, Enterprise bustles (as much as a used record store can) with shoppers. Balding punks rub elbows with DJs, the cognoscenti squeeze past high-school kids checking out American Beauty for the first time, looking for that limited-edition NuDisc.

“Now the market’s expanded to a lot of different older guys who are all of a sudden thinking records are hip again for whatever reason, and a lot of young people, even high-school kids. They come in and all this stuff looks good to them: They’ve never seen any of it.

“These young people come in and they’re looking around like they can’t even believe it — they’ve probably never been in a store that had only records. I had some college-aged kid come in a while ago and ask me if Herbie Hancock ever did anything on vinyl! I said, ‘Yeah . . . A few things.’ Like stuff’s been sitting in the can for 30 years waiting for this new invention, the CD, to come out!”

Although Portland’s halcyon days of 12-inch EPs, gatefold album sleeves, colored and etched vinyl, snaps, skips, cracks, and pops might be over, it’s nice to still have one store that deals in wax. Anyone with a turntable should count themselves lucky: Before redevoting his time and attention to the business, before the resurgence in vinyl’s popularity a few years ago, Bob says, “I was losing interest in the business and I almost went out. But I walked in here one night after hours, it was dark and quiet (it’s a different scene in here at night) and I looked around and I thought, ‘Wow. This is a cool place. And I did it myself.’ ”

Josh Rogers can be reached at jrogers@phx.com.


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