Get To Know Your Local Independent Retailer Vol. 25 – Vintage Vinyl

I’ve only been to St. Louis once. And on that one trip I made one stop. And that one stop was Vintage Vinyl. First impression: “Holy shit this place is enormous.” Enormous but manageable. Like a less intimidating Amoeba (intimidating meaning, “How the fuck am I going to walk out of here without spending a few hundred bucks?”). I made out with all sorts of stuff. A Phil Collins CD, a Therapy? cassette, some used soul and r&b LPs, a George Jones record, shitloads of HC 7″es and some other things that didn’t really make any sense in the same bag (perhaps even a DVD movie starring Will Smith, but that I won’t confirm). Needless to say, this place has one of the most diverse selections I’ve ever thumbed through. But be forewarned; it’s not really a place you can just pop in. Browsing at Vintage Vinyl is a commitment. I spoke with VV co owner Tom “Papa” Ray about all sorts of stuff. Dig it.

(FYI that last photo is Tom with none other than Peter Tork.)

1. Tell us briefly about your store.
Vintage Vinyl has been operating in the Delmar Loop of St. Louis since 1980—we saw ourselves that year as the ‘alternative’ home-town urban record store.  Currently, we are a 7800 square foot mothership for the intelligent music lover. We made a point of opening on the ONLY ‘racial neutral zone’ of our city, with an eye to pleasing both a mainstream/independent rock clientele, as well as the deep-dish urban market for soul/jazz/blues/gospel, as well as reggae & hiphop. In other words, we ended up selling more Bobby Womack than Cat Stevens.

2. What got you into the independent record store business?
In the middle/late 70s, my partner Lew Prince was running the Finest Record Chain in Colorado. I was doing work in the retail/wholesale/indie side of things, promotion and club-work in Manhattan at that time. We both wanted to return to St. Louis; we saw it as justly-fabled and half-forgotten foundation music city, and we could use the contacts and knowledge both of us had acquired working in the industry towards doing our own store.

3. Who are some of your favorite contemporary stores?
In our own town, we have several. Euclid Records & Apop Records comes to mind here. Love my musical compadres in the AIMS Coalition, to which we belong.  There are GREAT stores around the country, to say the least. Last time I was New Orleans, Domino Sounds Record Shack was proper!  Jason with Sonic Boom in Seattle, Boo Boo Records in Cali, Shake It in Cincinnati, Waterloo in Austin. Music Millennium in Portland seem to have inspired a nest of indie stores in that town. These are just a few of my favorite stores.

4. How have things been going from a business perspective?
In 2000 we recognized that although our city had the most square footage per capita given over to retail music of ANY city in the USA, those chain and mall stores were not our future or really or then present-day competition. The internet and digital download okey-doke was seen as a sobering reality. Since then, we have continued in business by being a destination store in St. Louis, and evolving to where now, I can smile and say, “NO! CDs are not ‘going away’ anymore than vinyl ever did” We’ve always done both, and wish to be the alternative to on-line shopping in ways that option can never connect to the customer. As far as business now, 2012?? Better than selling jet-skis in rural areas, I’d say.

5. What do you think spells the survival for an independent record store today?
Beyond knowing your market, be adept at both new and used sales in all physical formats. Try and be the garden of earthly musical delights wherever you pitch your tent, and being able to work magic helps also.

6. What are some of the coolest thing labels have done with you? Instores? Promotions? Sales?
We’ve released world-quality music on a number of labels over the past 33 years; Charlie Parker Live In D.C. 1953, crucial blues & hip hop releases in the 80s; currently our label Sound System Records has quite fine reggae releases by U-Roy, a great dub set by The Roots Radics, 2 LPs by Nicodemus.  We partnered with SONY in the 90s to do a 1,000 piece edition, double LP giveaway of a live Pearl Jam set as part of promotion with local corporate radio; in-stores/live appearances with everyone from Tommy Lee To Willie Dixon, Queens Of The Stone Age to Ike Turner, Marilyn Manson to Charlie Louvin. 100s of in-stores, Eddie Levert of the O’Jays, George Clinton, Black Angels, Peter Tork, the great Rudy Ray Moore, AKA the Dolemite, etc etc. Two in-stores that were a gas with the Insane Clown Posse. Eazy E, Jason Mraz. All styles served here, y’know??  Our 20th anniversary party was with the legendary Jamaican band The Skatalites.  Oh, we’ve had our fun.

7. Why do we need record stores?
Bootsy Collins answered this one day, a few years ago in Cincinnati: he stood at a table where the owners of indie stores around the nation sat, and quietly with great conviction said, “I know things are tough sometimes, but your communities NEED you to do what you do, because you-carry-the-music-culture in your towns.  BEST BUY don’t know a damn thing about Bootsy Collins, but you do!  SO PLEASE. I know it’s hard, but keep goin’ on. When it seems it’s not worth it, PLEASE, keep just goin’ on. So, as the man say, Who Feels It Know It, true??” There are continual moments at my store where the collective sense of musical community amounts to a mystic beating heart that is part of this River City called St. Louis: where Chuck Berry still walks and plays, where Miles Davis started, where Ike Turner walked the bar playing guitar, where the original Stooges played their final show. I recall once, during the Rodney King business, there was a sense of dread and tenseness in people. I remember seeing a customer walk in, visibly agitated, and he said to me,  I just HAD to come in here and cool off, and check out some music.  Sometimes, I’ll recommend taking a Thelonious Monk record: now call me in the morning if it’s not better.

8. What kind of taco is your favorite?
I like some grilled snapper in mine.

9. Who are your top 3 favorite bands right now?
It depends on the genre of music.  I just saw soul legend Lee Fields do a hellacious set a few weeks back. At Red Rocks last month, I experienced as great a performance as I’ve ever seen by Winston Rodney, The Burning Spear, which is to say as great and powerful as reggae ever gets. Sure would love to see a 2nd release by Them Crooked Vultures.  I just heard the pre-release of Psychedelic Pill by Neil Young, and it’s killer. And when I was in my teens and 20s back in that day, I HATED Neil Young. So, it’s all over the place.

10. What is your favorite thing about your store?
Too many things. It has been a great personal blessing to work with the employees we’ve had for more than 3 decades, many hundreds of talented people, and the customers too. I’m always struck by how essentially NICE our customers always are.

11. What are your goals for the future of your store? Long term and short.
Long Term and short term?  To thrive and continue enjoying this musical aquarium we’ve built here on the Delmar Loop. As a Baptist preacher might say in the pulpit, GLORY!

Photos courtesy of Louis Kwok