Vinyl Lives

Vinylives Background

History of Independent Record Stores

Finding authoritative books or reference materials covering early record store history is surprisingly difficult.

However, for an astute and comprehensive look at early record store history, check out Gary Calamar and Phil Gallo's excellent Record Store Days, published in 2010. Chapter Two: Kings of Swing is a welcome relief to the informational drought surrounding early record stores, and includes helpful passages like this one: "In 1906 there were 25,000 record dealers, a total that would be cut to 7,500 fifty years later, and to below 3,000 a half century later."

Notable and influential early independent record stores discussed in Record Store Days include Wallach's Music City, in Los Angeles, and Sam Goody's, Colony and Commodore, in New York. Some of the other stores and/or record dealers mentioned include Wiley B. Allen and Sherman Clay in San Francisco, Jazz Man Record Shop in Los Angeles, National Record Mart in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and George's Song Shop in Johnstown, Pennsylvania.

First opened in 1932, George's currently enjoys the distinction of being the oldest existing record store in America. Founder Bernie George, along with his brother Eugene, started things off. In 1962, when Eugene passed away, his son John took the reigns and today continues on at the store. Their website, www.georgessongshop.com, features some of their history and pictures of George's "Five Floors of Records."

Beyond the pages of Record Store Days (or the information found online) the trail ends. The early period of recorded music, which extends back to the late nineteenth century, remains a mystery.

Following the invention of Thomas Edison's phonograph (1877) and Emile Berliner's gramophone ten years later, it would be almost another decade before records (as we think of them today) would be commercially available. The Edison, Victor (and, later, Columbia) companies defined and dominated the production and early distribution of recorded music. This formative time of establishing nationwide networks of vendors and retail outlets--our nation's earliest "record stores"--was one of rapid growth for the music industry.

Intriguingly, there is one challenger to George's claim as "America's Oldest Record Store": Rinehart's Music and Video, in Kirksville, Missouri. In an email dated January 19, 2012, Karl Hildebrand and Drew Heller of Rinehart's presented their case. The following excerpt includes my edits.

Edwin S. Rinehart began selling music and pianos in 1897. By 1901, phonographs were added to the inventory. Business ledgers record the sale of music items back to the earliest points, many listing just the order numbers. On [founder] Edwin Rinehart's death in 1931, the business was merged with Rinehart News Agency, owned by his brother, Rupert Rinehart (1878-1970). Rupert's son, Edwin L. Rinehart (1907-1960) was involved in the family business and added radio sales to the music inventory. In 1964, Rupert's daughter Mabel Rinehart Willbanks (1898-2001), returned to Kirksville to help run the family business, which she inherited following the death of her parents. In the 1980's, her nephew, Charles P. Rinehart, opened The Sound Shoppe, a wholesale music distributorship, in Jefferson City, Missouri. In 1988, he took over the operations for the music related portion of the Rinehart News Agency. At that time, the News Agency maintained an inventory of [vinyl record] albums, 8-track tapes, cassettes, sheet music, and supplies. [Later, as different formats] entered the marketplace, he added compact discs, VHS and DVDs and music related gift merchandise.

In 1999, his cousin, Karl Hildebrand, took over the printed side of the News Agency (with books, magazines, newspapers and news services.) When Charles died in 2007, Karl took over the music side [of Rinehart's], quadrupling the amount of floor space dedicated to music, and adding video games. At no time since the first discs were sold by E.S. Rinehart has there not been a rack of vinyl record albums available for customers to browse. We still sell wax cylinders, piano rolls, sheet music, Victrola's & 78 rpm records. Thank you, Dr. Karl Hildebrand, Drew D. Heller, Rinehart's Music and Video,114 Franklin Street, Kirksville, Missouri 63501. (Please note: Rinehart's has no phone. Their Facebook page is: http://www.facebook.com/#!/pages/Rineharts-Music-Video/124821547564797

In August, 2012, I contacted John George to ask him about Rinehart's claim. He said that within the past several months, he had also heard of Rinehart's. But, he had heard that they were primarily a video store, with, possibly, some records. With no phone number available for Rinehart's, it is difficult to verify their claim. (I don't live in Missouri.)

Also within the past year, I received the following email (with my edits) from another potential George's challenger:

My parents Joan and Bill Demarest own and operate what seems to be the second oldest single family record store in the United States. George's Song Shop in PA was established only two years earlier. I would love to officially confirm this. My grandfather, Anthony Taliaferro established the store in 1934 and it has been owned and operated by my mother Joan Demarest to this day. The store was originally named Taliaferro Music but the name was changed to Music Country over 30 years ago. The address is 728 Anderson Avenue, Cliffside Park, NJ 07010.--Charles Demerest

While it is interesting to entertain the possibility that there are other stores in the United States that may be older than George's, for now, it appears that--barring further investigation and documentation--George's claim stands.

Regardless of who is officially the oldest record store in the United States, the history of record stores in America deserves more exploration. With the exception of books like Record Store Days, Vinyl Lives and DVDs like I Need That Record!, there just isn't much available information about the history of record stores. Apart from these and other efforts (online and in-print), our cultural database chronicling record store history is near empty.

Also, it should be noted that there is even less available information about early African-American and Hispanic record store owners, distributors, wholesalers and entrepreneurs. Considering the cultural contributions of both of these communities--as well as those from other ethnic groups--it is more than ironic that with only a few brief exceptions, there is so little information or representation from our nation's diversity of ethnic groups.

Thankfully, there are a few notable exceptions. In John Broven's Record Makers and Breakers, the author includes coverage of Bobby Robinson's Record Shop, which first opened in 1946 at 301 West 125th Street in Harlem. "In a more innocent age, Bobby Robinson's Record Shop...was a mecca for artists playing the Apollo and for their adoring fans. Record men and promo [promotional] men would drop in regularly to check out the disks that were being snapped up by Bobby's discerning clientele," Broven writes. Robinson, who died in 2011, was also the founder of two notable record labels: Fire, and Fury.

And, in Dream Boogie, Peter Guralnick's rendering of the life of Soul and Pop legend Sam Cooke, the author mentions Dolphin's of Hollywood, a popular South Central/Los Angeles record store opened in 1948. Referring to record store and record label owner John Dolphin, Guralnick writes: "What he and his shop were best known for...was the all night radio show that broadcast from the record-store window over KGFL, L.A.'s most popular black station." As DJ "Huggy Boy" tells it: "After about two o'clock in the morning when the bars let out, Dolphin's was jam packed, especially on weekends."

In the book Jazz: A History of America's Music, co-authors Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns mention The Commodore Music Shop, which first opened in 1935 on New York's 42nd Street. The store was operated by record label head Milt Gabler, whose business benefited greatly from his friendships with numerous music business pals--including Count Basie, Chick Webb, Gene Krupa and Benny Goodman. Hosting what would later be known as in-store appearances, Gabler implemented the practice of having Sunday jam sessions at Commodore. With the help of legendary music impresario John Hammond, these Sunday sessions at Commodore soon outgrew Gabler's 42nd Street location, which was only nine feet wide!

In the first Vinyl Lives, I pick up the story of early record stores in 1941, when Tower Records founder Russ Solomon began his initial foray into selling records. He got his start in the record retailing business by trying out records as a category--sold among the numerous offerings at his dad's drug store, Tower Drug. Located in downtown Sacramento, California, Tower Drug was founded in 1938, and enjoyed the distinction of being one of the first independently owned and operated drug stores in Northern California.

With the end of World War II, Solomon returned to his dad's store to resume his record sales. In those several years following the war, the record business saw the rise of the rack jobber--people who serviced store racks specifically designed to hold music. It was the rack jobbers' responsibility to apply their expertise toward satisfying a music hungry public. In the process, rack jobbers became taste-makers.

"Sam Goody was my idol," Solomon explained in Record Store Days, acknowledging his debt to another early pioneer of record retail. Goody (born Samuel Gutowitz) Calamar and Gallo write "had a toy store in lower Manhattan. In 1938, a customer asked if he had any records. Goody found some 78s in his basement and sold them for $25."

Later, in 1948, "When the LP came along, he opened an LP-only store." Solomon explained in Record Store Days. "At his 49th Street store, he decided that if you bought $25 worth of records--and they're going for $4.85 apiece--he would give you a player. He only broke even on each first purchase, but he had made a customer." According to Wikipedia, The Sam Goody retail stores were later purchased by Musicland.

Other parallel developments in the post war period included the rise of discount style department stores, the growth and expansion of suburbia, the implementation of the Interstate Highway System and the development of Stereophonic sound, which first became commercially available in 1958. Coupled with the growing market for home stereos and other advances in consumer electronics, further refinements in sound reproduction technology would soon define the High Fidelity era.

By the mid to late 1950s,cities known for vibrant music scenes had their department stores, like Kresge's, Grant's and Woolworth's. These outlets for records were soon joined by other fledgling entrepreneurial start-ups--independently owned record stores--whose music sales would yet eclipse department stores.

Among collectors,one of those stores,Times Square Records in New York, single-handedly defined the early marketplace for desirable vinyl. Some of the employees of Times Square, notably Jerry Greene and Jared Weinstein, would later team up with legendary DJ Jerry Blavat (aka "The Geator with the Heater") to create an indomitable Philadelphia area record store empire known as the Record Museum.

Stores like Times Square Records, which closed in the 1960s, and the Record Museum, which closed its last store in 1982, are no longer around. But their impact and influence are still keenly felt.

Others, like Tower, struggled with world-wide expansion until finally surrendering to defeat at the hands of bankers/managers in 2006. Solomon soon opened R5 Records, across the street from Tower's original Sacramento location.

In my March, 2008, Elmore Magazine feature ("Vinyl Revival: Platters Still Matter"), I asked Solomon about the future of record stores: "Everybody has predicted that the digital world has killed off the physical world--that's simply not true. It's out there and it's flourishing, and these really good independent retail stores: Waterloo in Austin, Amoeba in Los Angeles and San Francisco, Twist and Shout in Denver--I can't even name them all, there's a bunch of them, they're still carrying the flag."

With that comment, Solomon influenced the course of the next several years of my life, sending me on a vision quest and trying to get some answers (and putting my first book together chronicling independent record stores and the ongoing interest in vinyl).

In spring 2010, after almost 70 years in music retail, Solomon announced his plans to sell R5 Records to Dimple Records (also based in Sacramento) and retire. (see: Here's to Russ Solomon, Vinylives Blog).

Record stores have long been an endangered species. To me, record stores embody everything important in the larger musical culture.

My field research often feels like cultural archaeology. As such, my collection of owner interviews in the first Vinyl Lives (published in 2010) and Vinyl Lives II, published in January 2013) might be referred to as akin to collecting geologic core samples--evidence to be examined and debated by students of Americana.

Currently, the onslaught of store closings in the early years of the new millennium has given way to a new crop of record stores--and a steadily growing resurgence in the popularity for the vinyl format.This resurgence in popularity for vinyl runs counter to the rise in popularity for digital forms of music.

Trends come and go. As always, it is up to the next generations to learn the business of record retailing--and continue to carry the flag.


© James P. Goss, 2009. All rights reserved. Website by FCE Web Design.