I recently came across a blogger who was ranting against writers who post stories about the return of vinyl records and their rising popularity. He claimed that the comeback of the LP is a myth perpetuated by a small cult of vinyl hipsters and that the format is officially dead — so why lie about a nonexistent second coming?
Yes, everyone knows that vinyl records are not going to experience a renaissance that would match their popularity during their peak years, but we really are in the midst of a vinyl resurgence, as niche as it might be. A recent local example of this revival is the rebirth of Ella Guru Records, owned and operated by Don Radcliffe.
Any music lover who has lived in Atlanta since the late 1990s and knew the best places to buy new and used records and CDs has probably frequented at least one of Radcliffe’s locations. First he was at Vista Grove Plaza, then he moved to Toco Hill Shopping Center and eventually relocated to Elizabeth Street in Inman Park. When he decided to close the store in 2009 due to the escalating cost of rent, it was a sad day for his regular customers. But if you hang around long enough, everything old becomes new and cool again, and Ella Guru Records has recently re-emerged in Oak Grove Shopping Center, just a stone’s throw from Radcliffe’s original location.
In a recent interview with ArtsATL, Radcliffe touched on everything from the demise of CDs to the giant of 20th-century music known as Prince to the second-worst-selling album in the history of Columbia Records. (Can you guess? It’s an Atlanta band.) Along the way, he provided a nostalgic mini-history of the record business in Atlanta since 1978, while espousing a Zen-like attitude toward vinyl that seems a healthy alternative to stockpiling LPs that you never listen to when somebody else could and would.
ArtsATL: What made you decide to open a new store now?
Don Radcliffe: I’d been selling music online, which is OK, but it’s really, really inefficient. It was my way of keeping my hand in it while trying to find some gainful employment. And I wasn’t able to find anything gainful. [Laughs.]
So the guys who own this shopping center, it’s the family who owns Evans Fine Foods and a bunch of real estate. We used to go to Evans every Saturday with our kid and got to know the family. They told us that if the little hair salon that was here ever decided to move out, it would be really cool for them to have a record store. I’ve never heard that from a landlord ever. And, lo and behold, one day I was looking on Facebook and heard that the salon was going to shut down. And two things came together at the same time. I’m paying probably a quarter of the rent I was paying at Toco Hill 10 years ago. [The owners] are supportive and this little center is just jumping. I’m between beer [Beer Growler Nation] and tacos [Taqueria El Vecino]. I couldn’t have asked for a better spot.
ArtsATL: What are some of the reasons your customers prefer vinyl to other music formats?
Radcliffe: I’ve got two groups of people who are coming in here: guys who never stopped buying vinyl and younger people who are just getting into it. There’s a bunch of kids who got into vinyl because it’s cool and it’s hip and they can go to thrift stores and buy ’em for a buck.
What I think has happened to some percentage of them, the same as when we were younger, is that they’ve just been seduced by the whole thing, the whole experience of everything you’ve got to do to successfully play an LP. It’s so different. I also think that they are probably giving value to music for the first time in their lives. Before, they were just downloading music [for free], putting it on a recordable CD, writing on it with a magic marker and then throwing it through the sunroof when they’re done with it.
Music has no value if it doesn’t cost anything. But so many people have never had to pay for music before; the people who have realize that there is value in this. So now they have something to collect, to take care of, to read the liner notes, to look at this thing that holds only about 40 minutes of music and go, “I wonder why they picked these songs?” or “I wonder why they’re in this order?” They can read the stuff that’s scratched in the runoff groove and try to figure out what all that means, basically the same stuff that happened to a lot of people in the early days of buying rock ‘n’ roll albums.
I have seen some kids come in here and buy jazz records that have been heavily sampled. If I get anything in here on the CTI label or any Ahmad Jamal records or Charles Earland or a bunch of other ones, kids know these records because that’s where samples of some of their favorite music have come from. But I think they end up listening to the records. And I think guys that bought the little digitizing turntables finally put it all together that they bought a really cheap turntable, they’re taking a so-so copy of a record and they’re ripping it to MP3 in real time. So why not just listen to the record? You can hear digital music in a million different ways. If you want to hear analog music, there is only one way to hear it.
ArtsATL: Who is still releasing vinyl these days?
Radcliffe: Neil Young still puts out vinyl of all his records. I think the Flaming Lips’ new record is coming out on vinyl. I don’t know how many of the Neil Youngs or Flaming Lips get pressed, but it could be anywhere from 1,500 to 7,500 depending on the artist’s popularity. They’re extremely well packaged. They’re extremely good vinyl. And they’re expensive.
There is so much good catalog stuff that I cannot keep in the store: AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd. But they’re not five dollars used. A good copy of any of those artists is going to be 15 to 30 dollars. There is no cheaper version of the vinyl anywhere.
If Warner Brothers took their whole catalog and started putting out the classic Neil Young records, AC/DC records, Joni Mitchell records and people like that, I honestly think they’d sell a bunch of them at a reasonable list price. People just want the records. But I also think about record companies having to reopen pressing plants. For manufacturing, records have to be heated, cooled, shipped, pulled. They’re heavier than CDs. They cost more to ship. From an economic standpoint, I don’t really see the record labels doing it.
ArtsATL: Prior to opening your own record stores, did you work in the music business?
Radcliffe: I went to school in Gainesville, Florida, and there was a record store next to the pinball place, which is where we all lived; we all majored in pinball. [Laughs.] And I was a little music geek with no clue. What these guys did — and it has always stuck with me — I went in there and they went, “You need help. You like this, this and this, but we need to move you forward.” And so they eased me out of Yes and into Genesis, which remains one of my favorite bands of that era, and from there to Roxy Music. That was the biggest change. If there was one group that completely changed everything, it was Roxy Music. Those first two records were just so, so out there. So these guys pretty much shaped my musical tastes forever.
I ended up working there for a couple of years before I left Gainesville and then moved up here to work at a store the guys in Gainesville had opened on Peachtree Street, called Chapter III. It was at Peachtree and Pharr, right next to Good Ol Days [a restaurant]. And that was weird because Oz [Records] was two miles one way and Peaches [Record Store] was two miles the other way, and that was an interesting little explosion where people thought it was a great idea to drive a long way to go into a converted grocery store to buy records.
We decided to take a shot at opening a retail record store [in 1999], and that was the shop at Vista Grove Plaza. I had always been talking about opening a record store, and my best friend, Forrest, said, “You are so full of shit. You know you should, you know you want to, but you’re not going to.” He got sick. He got sicker. He died. And that was one of the things that made us realize, you’re not guaranteed anything so you might as well take a shot at it. And we did take a shot at it, and it was pretty successful. We were selling lots of compact discs. The store was called Ella Guru. We had a number of names, but my daughter Ella thought Ella Guru was a really good name.
We moved over to Toco Hill and actually we were really successful there, too. Then we sort of got the big head and doubled the size of the space. We started carrying new stuff. Capitalization and expenses went way up. Margins went way down, and we just had to struggle after that. I guess you have to call it something of a success, since it stayed open eight years after the iPod came out.
ArtsATL: I heard you recently scored a huge private jazz collection. Is that how you get such great used records, or is that an unusual circumstance?
Radcliffe: When we were building out the store, a woman and a gentleman walked in and said they knew somebody who had a bunch of country albums they wanted to sell. It turned out that the woman who came in — her husband had recently died — wanted to get the records into the hands of somebody who could allow other people to enjoy them, because this guy loved music, took great care of his records, had great equipment to play them on.
For the second one, there was a guy from New York who drives around buying collections, and he had an appointment with a gentleman who’s lived here in town for a long time — in his late 70s, a tremendous jazz fan and DJ at a jazz radio station. The guy went and looked at the collection, and most of it wasn’t for him. But he got in touch with me and said, “This would be great store stock.”
This fellow was a traditional-jazz fan. It’s all Miles and Mingus and Monk and Dizzy Gillespie and Bud Powell and Kenny Dorham and Dexter Gordon and Sonny Rollins. This guy grew up in New York and saw all these musicians play over and over again. All the labels are the ones jazz fans look for: Prestige, Riverside, Milestone, Contemporary, Columbia, Atlantic, Blue Note, Muse, Inner City, SteepleChase. It’s just a great, great collection.
I’ve bought two collections since I opened the store. and both are really lightning-in-a-bottle deals. Everything else is coming in by fives, tens, twenties. I’ll search through them, look for what I can resell and buy them. There’s just an overwhelming number of used LPs out there.
ArtsATL: You must have an amazing LP collection at home.
Radcliffe: I don’t. Not allowed. Rule one: you open the store, you don’t get a collection. At home I have maybe a hundred records. Ninety of them I could bring to the store and I wouldn’t feel terrible if I ended up selling them. There’s a few I feel attached to, but I got over it when I opened the CD store. My CD store was probably half my stuff when I opened it up. It kinda hurt to sell them for a while, but then letting go of them was just not as difficult as I thought it would be.
The other thing is when you get this great record in and go, “Wow, I never thought I’d see this,” you get to play it a couple of times and somebody buys it and it goes away.
I got this yesterday. [He pulls out a copy of "Music to Eat” by the Hampton Grease Band.] You know, it’s famously the second-worst-selling album in the history of Columbia Records, behind a yoga album. This is the second copy I’ve bought since I opened the store. So when something like that walks in the door, it’s like, “Holy crap, somebody just brought me a Hampton Grease Band record!” The covers can be in various states of decay, but the albums are always in great shape because nobody played it. And this one’s in spectacular shape. I get a kick out of that. It’s like I’m eternally collecting records but I don’t get to keep them. We’re spreading the happiness. Somebody’s gonna buy this [p[pointing to "Music to Eat”]and they may keep it forever.
ArtsATL: In today’s digital age, what value does a record shop have?
My daughter’s 20 and she’s been around music a lot. She adores Radiohead. And I took her to see them and they really are brilliant. I try to be so hip and say, “Radiohead is so played,” but they’re fantastic live. All of the strange electronic records they’ve made since then, when you add a little visual and extreme volume, it’s just spectacular. She sent me a text message that said something like “Dad … Can?” And I went, “What?” And she said, “I thought Radiohead had invented that type of music.” But those Can records, they’re 40 years old. So occasionally those little connections get made.
That’s what record stores used to do. Now there are programs on the computer like Pandora that make the connection digitally for you. But what we are and those guys at Wax ‘n’ Facts and Criminal Records are is the analog version of Pandora. And, by definition, analog is better, so we’re better than Pandora. It’s basically missionary work.
For the guy who sold me the jazz collection and the woman who sold me her husband’s country collection, it was the same thing. Once you get across to them that these are really gonna make a lot of people really happy, they go, “Well, I can let go now.” If you love your used records, set them free. That should be our slogan on the door. It’s that whole Fahrenheit 451 thing. You want to keep a lot of this stuff in your head for when they take it away from us.
Ella Guru Records is at 2747 LaVista Road, Atlanta.