The Sunday following National Record Store Day 2011, I parked my old station wagon on the corner of Western and 116th Street and walked into Beverly Records.
As I opened the cast-iron door, the faint smell of dust, decade-old paper and, oddly enough, rubber masks from the neighboring costume store, brought out the Rob Gordon in me, an audiophile made famous by John Cusack in High Fidelity.
“When Michael Jackson died, there was a line out that door,” cashier Mike Schaller recalled, “and that happened when Elvis died too.”
Joe Lemus, another cashier working that day, paced around the store, checked off inventory and dished about the business.
"What's the secret to selling records?" Lemus said, reiterating my question. "That's a hard one. I couldn't tell you."
Record stores operate at their own speed: cool, friendly, a refuge for people who love great music. They're small and independent at best, big box at worst.
Ray Charles, Madonna, Muddy Waters and Fleetwood Mac sung from the store shelves. The pristine dust covers on original pressings of Abbey Road, London Calling and Beggars Banquet gleamed behind the counter like prizes in a carnival game.
Across the Chicago area, over 30 record stores booked bands, discounted albums and gave out promotional merchandise from Warner Bros, Atlantic Records and other big labels to celebrate the holiday, now in its fourth year.
Owners and cashiers from 700 stores nationwide stood proudly behind their counters as customers flipped through shelves of newly pressed vinyl, strapped on store headphones and engaged in a music medium many thought died in the early 80s.
“People are in awe,” said cashier Mike Schaller, “that there's a store like ours left.”
Locale of personalities
Beverly Records claims a collection in the tens of thousands. Follow narrow passage ways lined with records, bins stacked atop bins, backrooms and front rooms packed to shelf's edge, and it's not hard to believe.
In 1967, owners John and Christine Dreznes opened a costume shop, but after constant record donations from family, friends and neighbors, they decided to convert the space into a record store, “and that's how it began,” Schaller said.
“We're probably one of the few that survived,” he added. “We go out of our way to find the 'hard to find' music, and those people that come in refer us to [their] friends and relatives.”
The store also boasts a classic collection of 45s, many from the "golden era" of rock and roll, which brings in the occasional soul legend or music royal.
“This fella' in his late 30s came in 15 years ago,” Schaller recalled, “asking for Ral Donner records. [Donner] was a local Chicago singer.”
The staff was curious. Why was this guy so interested in someone Elvis blew out of the water?
“Dick Biondi thought he sounded better than Elvis!” Schaller exclaimed. “It turns out he was Donner's son, so we checked our back shelves, and we found all the original material his father did.”
The store is no stranger to celebrities from later generations, either. House of Pain – yep, that rambunctious group of frat-rappers who hit the charts with “Jump Around” – came in.
Matt Dillon, who played grunge singer Cliff Poncier in the movie Singles, also made an appearance.
"He was a nice guy," Schaller said. "That was about seven years ago."
It's the mash-up of old and new, cassettes and LPs, local soul singers and celebs, that keeps Beverly Records going. And their good luck charm? His pictures sit on a shrine-like shelf affixed to half the store.
“We proclaim ourselves," Schaller said, "the Buddy Holly headquarters of the U.S. Every year we go out to where he died in the plane crashed, for his tribute."
So what is it about records, today?
“You're not going to hear much of a difference from CDs,” said owner Jack Dreznes, son of John and Christine, “unless you spend $350 to $400 in equipment.”
Regardless of expense, he added, no CD can reproduce the deepest bass or highest vocals on a record, because they're simply taken out when music is compressed into a digital format.
A finished record, however, is like a finished painting, where the artist uses a brush, not a computer mouse, to paint.
“It's nice to see what records can feel and smell like,” Dresden continued, “much like they did 40 years ago.”
It's an adventure in sound that begins when musicians first record a track directly onto a spindle of metal tape, called a reel to reel. The strip is then put through a machine that uses a heated sapphire tip to engrave music onto the record, much like a Spirograph. Once the studio process or master tracking is complete, the record is sent to a pressing factory where it's reproduced, packaged and shipped.
“Just to have them in your hand,” Dreznes continued, “and enjoy the physicality – I'd rather do that than press a button [on a CD player].”
Records might not be for you, he added, but for a lot people listening to music, it doesn't get much better.
“There are so many different styles people want,” he said. “To each his own. If you don't like them, don't buy them.”