Outside the lines

Anyone who pops her head through the musty portals of a record store these days cannot fail to appreciate the renewed interest in old vinyl. Although the collecting scene has been around, in some form or another, ever since that famous pup posed in front of a gramophone a gazillion years ago, vinyl has witnessed an astounding resurgence in recent times.

Of course, before the first CD ever became the wet dream of some digital architect, vinyl and its forebears ruled the musical landscape for 85 years. But the advent of those now-omnipresent, indestructible miniplatters caused vinyl’s value to come into serious question.

Yet vinyl stores are thriving. Around here, enough shops exist to satisfy even the most obsessed audiophile’s relentless cravings. And store owners, if they want to survive, must accommodate their clientele’s desires for exotica by keeping an enormous selection of records readily available — and, of course, be utterly familiar with almost 100 years’ worth of this memorabilia — a stiff order for retail.

Self-proclaimed vinylphile Whitney Shroyer — co-owner, with Letitia Walker, of Whizz Records on Biltmore Avenue –stocks an impressive 20,000 albums at all times. Having more than done his homework on the subject, he’s predisposed to comment on this alleged vinyl controversy.

“Vinyl has never died,” he begins. “There will always be people interested in it. A day does not go by that I don’t get someone in the store who says, ‘I didn’t even know these things existed anymore.'”

As your eyes dart around Whizz, the past roars to life. A pristine copy of Little Feat’s Waiting for Columbus poster here, a seldom-seen Casino Royale soundtrack there. And though he’s shrewd enough to understand vinyl’s position in the musical food chain, Shroyer practically hisses when asked about CDs.

“I don’t think there’s anything more horrible in the world than the sound of a CD skipping,” he growls. “‘Blump, blump, blump, blump’ … you’ve heard that sound, right? Ah, God. They skip all the time and are easily as friggin’ fragile as a record.

“CDs are cold, sterile, convenient. … There’s nothing to them. There’s nothing about them,” he charges. Shroyer has been a vinyl vendor for eight years, and his analysis nails current vinyl trends.

“The cult of vinyl solidified in the early ’80s, crystallizing around Goldmine Magazine, when dealers could localize their record lists in one place. And then there are the collectors,” he says, warming to the topic: “The first tier of hard-core collectors looks for ’50s jazz records or all the doo-wops on a particular 45 label, for example. You know, people who, in their own minds, think, ‘I am a record collector and this is what I do and I pursue my hobby.’ The next strata are the real anti-trend people — the punk-rock kids. They reject the system by buying vinyl. I myself got into this business because I happen to fall into this group,” he reveals.

“And finally, you have the beat thieves, the DJ kids,” he adds. “They are the most directly involved, the most enthusiastic about buying records right now.”

Collectors, says Shroyer, approach music differently than your average mall rat, but he does at least attempt to be gracious about the opposition. “Everyone who is exclusively a CD buyer is not a musical idiot,” he concedes. “Many vastly intelligent people find the entire vinyl culture absolutely baffling. Vinyl is a terribly inconvenient way to retrieve musical satisfaction. It’s hard to get a turntable; you can’t take a turntable with you; it’s hard to get one serviced; [and] some people can’t stand the slightest amount of surface noise.”

Fortunately for local collectors, Shroyer’s counterpart up in Waynesville, 60-year-old Jim Beaston (who owns A Matter of Record), specializes in stereo-equipment repair. A retired electronic-design engineer, Beaston does a brisk trade in oldies as his second career, working in a little of his dexterity from the former biz.

“I was a big-time pack rat starting out with a booth at a flea market. When I opened a store, the electronic repair work just fit in,” he explains, pointing to turntables in various stages of disrepair.

Conspicuous consumption — as embodied in the practically disposable stereo equipment of the last 20 or so years — highly offends Beaston’s technical aesthetic. “In most cases, the older stuff was built better. When I take apart new equipment, you can see that it’s engineered to throw away. That’s how they designed it, whereas the old equipment keeps a-goin’.”

He’s managed to stockpile 250,000 albums; 80,000 45s; 78s dating back to the 1920s; and even a couple-hundred kitschy 8-tracks. And he proudly exhibits the weirdest of the weird: Protected in plastic, amid the profusion of Elvis albums crammed on the walls, hangs a copy of the Beatles’ original butcher album, Yesterday & Today. You know, the one that Capitol pulled after a two-day shelf life due to the grisly content of the cover art — the boys in lab coats, cradling bloody, dead babies in their laps. Could it get any more obscure?

Oh, yes.

Somehow, Beaston got his hands on a priceless cardboard-dressed 45, titled Nixon’s the One, that plays excerpts of his Aug. 8, 1968, nomination-acceptance speech — truly a collector’s dream. Haphazardly scattered throughout the store — sparkling like crown jewels in this sea of vinyl — are magnificent vintage jukeboxes, lovingly restored and slapped with hefty price tags to reward Beaston’s effort — to the tune of $10,000, in some cases.

But as staunchly as both men defend vinyl’s value, they also kowtow to the motherlode of technological advantages when it comes to working the nostalgia trade.

“I am an eBay seller. Definitely,” admits Shroyer. And Beaston launched a full-blown Web site last week. The irony that they feel utterly compelled to ply their niche in a world market is not lost on either of them. But there’s at least one hard-core purist left — in a manner of speaking, anyway. Just over the state line in Dillard, Ga., is a stuffed-to-the-ceiling shop called The Record Shack, whose owner posts no regular hours (or even a phone number, for that matter).

Beaston, ever a forward-thinking retroman, has great news about vinyl’s ultimate fate: “I’ve heard this technology rumor that there is a company working on a laser that will read records without a needle. If that’s the case, and they develop the process, all albums will be usable. Hope is on the horizon that will be a boon to the old vinyl — because everybody knows that vinyl does sound better.”

So is vinyl fever just a fleeting blip on the musical time line — or the warm, fuzzy underbelly of the cold digital beast, happily dwelling side by side in a parallel universe?

Blasphemous or dead-on, it’s your call.

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