Vinyl records gain new life on South and West Sides of Chicago

Categories: Chicago Tribune

Resale stores draw longtime fans of LPs, new customers and buyers from overseas


By Mark Guarino l Special to the Tribune

John Forbes had only been in Out Of the Past Records for 15 minutes one recent January afternoon but the Chicago musician was winded, confused and thrilled.

“I’m on a bender, I’m overwhelmed,” he said, holding several gospel and soul titles.

Forbes said he did not expect the overwhelming volume or the work it would take to burrow through it all, but he wasn’t deterred.

“I’m ready to hang out all day,” he said smiling.

Forbes is part of the vinyl records subculture that keeps a steady flow of customers at Chicago shops like Out of the Past. Most of them, located on the South and West Sides, are part thrift stores, part community centers and part living museums.

At the Madison Street storefront on Chicago’s West Side, there is no easy passageway through the dizzying number of stacks, cabinets and shelves of LPs, boxes of 45s, drawers of cassettes, piles of 78s—and even a few hundred 8-track tapes. Navigating the narrow aisles feels claustrophobic.

That’s just the main room.

There’s also a storage room in the back, and if owner Marie Henderson really wants to make an impression, she will sometimes allow visitors down into the damp, moldy, cavernous basement. Henderson estimates the inventory of music, from forgotten hitmakers from the early days of regional R&B to 1980s stars, is more than 100,000, but she is never quite sure.

“I’m a freak for records. CDs is OK, but I love to collect vinyl,” said Henderson, who has spent 40 years piling and re-piling her collection, which was once spread over 10 shops throughout the city.

She moved to Chicago in 1955 from Jackson, Miss., and She and her husband, Charlie Joe, built their stock by buying up inventories of stores clearing floor space for CDs.

Today, their collection is consolidated in two stores: at 3948 W. Madison, which opened in 1970, and 4407 W. Madison, where Forbes was, opened in 1986.

Last year was a historic year for vinyl album sales, 1.9 million, according to Nielsen SoundScan. More vinyl albums, old and new titles, were sold than in any other year since SoundScan began reporting sales. The previous record was in 2000, with 1.5 million units sold.

“I don’t see [vinyl] going away, it definitely is making a comeback,” said Krista Schmidt, international director at Touch & Go, the Chicago music label.

Schmidt attributes the 10 percent increase in sales at her label to two primary consumer groups: 30-year-olds who grew up with the format and remain die-hards and college kids who are starting to discover vinyl’s advantages over digital files and CDs: its value and richer fidelity.

Schmidt said she replaced her entire CD collection with vinyl years ago.

“For me, going into a used record store is like being a kid again. But I think you have to reinvent it for the younger generation. [Labels] are finding new and interesting ways to appeal to them.”

Still, those obsessed with vinyl will find used record stores like Out of the Past, which caters to a wide range of consumers: A mother and daughter looking for a favorite gospel group, a 24-year-old man from Tinley Park combing through classic jazz, and, every few months, collectors from the U.K. who fly to Chicago to spend days foraging through Henderson’s chaotic basement sprawl.

“They want us to lock them in,” said Henderson. “We leave them in the store overnight, they bring water, sleeping bags.”

Shops on the South and West Sides are reserved for more hard-core buyers, requiring more patience and a passion for the hunt. These shops mostly stock used titles and specialize in specific time periods and the owner’s personal tastes.

“This, to me, is the true way to enjoy music. This is the way it was created. We grew up on it,” said Steve Batinich, 61, owner of Record Dugout, 6055 W. 63rd St., on the Southwest Side.

His store, tidier and with room to breathe, stocks mostly garage rock, doo-wop and early R&B, as well as another childhood obsession: baseball cards. On a recent gray Saturday afternoon, collectors mingled near the cash register and debate the merits of the Rolling Stones versus Cream while Batinich combed through boxes of records that another customer is interested in selling. One side of the store is dedicated to 45s on revered labels like Imperial, Kent, Josie and Hi.

The scene can be considered almost quaint in an era where music is sold as digital files, songs become hits through placement on television commercials, and brick-and-mortar stores are quietly suffering the same fate as neighborhood bookshops.

But stock is plentiful as people spent the CD heyday of the 1980s and 1990s unloading their vinyl collections. A significant majority of buyers on the South and West Sides are from overseas—individual collectors and buyers for record chains in Japan, Denmark, London and elsewhere.

“A lot of these records are going out of the country,” said Marcus Pettigrew, 33, co-owner of Mr. Peabody Records, 11832 S. Western Ave. “They’re definitely putting a serious dent in our inventory.”

His shop specializes in soul, funk, jazz and Chicago house music, all picked through regularly by foreign tourists, the findings shipped to their home countries.

“We might have five Japanese guys in one month, each [representing] a chain of 10 stores,” he said.

Yet stock keeps refilling the shelves.

The small Beverly storefront is becoming so well-known in Europe that it joined with Barely Breaking Even, a UK techno label, to release three compilations of obscure Chicago soul and dance music between 1976 and 1982. The first installment, which Pettigrew compiled, comes out next month.

At Out of the Past Records, a black, cross-eyed cat named Shadow follows customers through rows of dusty metal shelving. Henderson is in her late 60s and says the store will continue through her daughter, a business student. Not to say that the new generation is expected to create order.

“If you straighten up, people won’t come back,” Henderson said. “When I start organizing, they start fussing.”

Copyright © 2009, Chicago Tribune

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