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Second set: Vintage Vinyl keeps the music playing

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 27, 2012 - The website Cinema Treasures is pretty solid with info, serving a one-stop, online source for information on dead, demolished or forgotten movie houses.

Writes contributor Kevin Schneider in the short blip of accompanying text, “Building currently houses an adequate independent record store called Vintage Vinyl. It’s just blocks away from the lovely Tivoli Theater also listed here. Both are in the Delmar loop area of St Louis.”

“Adequate independent record store”? That might draw an argument, right there. Let’s go ahead and present one.

On Monday afternoon, I popped by Vintage Vinyl during a dinner-time lull in business. I met with an old friend, Jim Utz, who handles promotions and in-store appearances at the shop. He slipped me a packet filled with photos, posters and the like. He’s been collecting some of these recently as the business is hitting a special mark next year, turning 33 in 2013. A nice number, 33, signifying both a third of a century and the revolutions-per-minute of an album.

After the handoff, we did what you’re supposed to do in a record store. With the overhead PA system switching from jazz to Britpop, we talked about music. There was chatter about this’n’that, before Utz tossed out a real winner of a brainstorm.

Referring to Karen Ried of the long-running local group Bunnygrunt, he mentioned that she should front a set of the ‘70s tribute band Superjam. If you know the principals, you’d recognize that this is a brilliant idea. So we kicked around some possible songs for them to combine on, even as two of the store’s few shoppers seemed to wanna be exactly where we standing, causing us to do a little slide into the aisles.

Talking music, real fan-ish stuff, inside of a music retailer. It was a very right-on moment: One of dozens I’ve had at Vintage over the years, whether it was attending an in-store performance or finding that long-lost album. Mind you, it wasn’t always that way.

Changing times

There were moments as a teenager that I regretted going to Vintage Vinyl. The staff knew music, while I was working to get there. So I’d trundle up to the counter with an album that fell well short of the quality meter ticking that afternoon. Once, I suffered third-degree burns to my ears, solely based on the long, audible sigh that a clerk exhaled as I presented a used copy of Asia’s latest album “Alpha.” But these days, the same clerk and I are cool. Time heals most wounds.

No doubt, record stores have changed since the 1980s. There are fewer of them, for starters. And with customers able to buy music from their phones and laptops, it’s a different world in retailing.

Asked about the tenor and tone of his current staff, Tom “Papa” Ray says, “In the past we had some talented and brilliant people working for us. I would have to say, though, that the group we have right now, as a unit, is the most cohesive, friendly and enjoyable staff yet. During Record Store Day, a member of the media inquired to do an interview. I was asked about the show that I thought was the absolute finest in the history of the store. I had to tell them that the greatest performance put on was that of my staff.”

But how many bodies have moved through Vintage as employees over the years? The Vintage co-founder says that “I have often fantasized about walking into Vintage Vinyl and all the living, former employees would be the room. I have no idea of a number, but it would have to be in the hundreds.”

Represented in that group would be musicians, painters, photographers, artists of all stripes. All the others have been pure appreciators of music and the arts. And there’s a good chance that long-time shoppers have been given a gift by them, just by walking into the store and catching whatever was being played on the house sound system. Suggestions come, sometimes when not even asked for, but they’re usually on the mark. The interplay between customer and floor staff beats a solitary session, downloading tracks in the privacy of the house, no doubt.

In sending out an e-mail to a few staffers, arguably the most personable and enthusiastic member of the current crew, Orlandez Lewis, was the first (and only) respondent. Asked to simply describe the mood and vibe of the place, he wrote back, “There are so many things that makes that place special that I couldn't even begin to fit them all in this email. But I'll just list a few …. The atmosphere for one. There's typically something going on at our store. Whether it be in-stores (concerts), listening parties or just good conversation about that new release that everyone is raving about. And also the staff/my fellow employees. Absolutely every single one of us share a knowledge and love for music that flows through our veins. And lastly THE MUSIC!! That's what it's all about at the end of the day! That's what brings the people together! I know I've made tons of new friends from it there, and shall continue to.”

With Orlandez Lewis behind the counter, you’re OK to buy that Asia album, these days. Or any other guilty pleasure. He makes it a safe space, no matter how awful your taste.

Movies and more

Before Vintage Vinyl came along, 6610 Delmar was a Medicare-Glaser pharmacy. And prior to that it was the 993-seat, single-screen Varsity, which was home to one of the most-amazing, late-night staples of the ‘80s culture: “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” Then only about a decade old, “Rocky” was done right at The Varsity, with a good selection of the audience dressed for the evening, toast and rice flying, songs sung along to and chants chanted.

Sometimes “Rocky” was the end of the night, attendees spilling out into the middle of Delmar at 2 in the morning, tuckered out from the emotional screening. Other times, with energy still flowing, “Rocky” was the bridge event; say, the link between closing down a school party, then heading across the river to all-night parties at after-hours, underage-friendly venues like Faces or Pop’s. It was a time and a moment, no doubt, and no other St. Louis theater ever quite recaptured the “Rocky” aesthetic.

It’s cool when buildings of an artistic use get a second life as something cultural. A commentator at the Varsity page of Cinema Treasures (almost surely Darren Snow, in his online guise as plasticfootball) mentions, correctly, that the transition between the Varsity and Vintage wasn’t as “theatrical” as it could’ve been. “I worked at Vintage Vinyl for a while and always wished that the drugstore had never intervened,” he notes page. “The record store would have had a much cooler vibe if it had been converted directly from movie-theater use.”

But the marquee remains. And there could be a little cinematic magic in those bricks.

Ray says that the move into the old Varsity wasn’t a given, but that a strange set of circumstances led the building into the hands of co-owner Lew Prince and himself.

He explains that the Medicare-Glaser bankruptcy case was handled in Arizona and got mixed up with the Keating Five scandal. And that led to unfavorable views of real estate speculators. So, local investors Ray and Prince, who were on the block and had a sound expansion plan, were given the nod over a higher outside bid.

The story of Vintage’s beginning is well told in other places, though we’ll note that the pair started out selling records out of racks at Soulard Market, eventually establishing a brick-and-mortar presence at 6354 Delmar. In time, “around ‘84 or ‘85,” Ray remembers, the shop expanded into a neighboring storefront, with the then “old” shop becoming the CD venue, the “new” one handling the vinyl. The two stores were separated by a stairwell and there were two entries. Amusing, but weird.

The move down the block to the large Varsity/Glaser space put all that stock under one roof, and new product lines could be brought in. These days, Vintage has a very respectable DVD section and also sells T-shirts, turntables, a bit of original artwork and the usual allotment of lifestyle-affiliated products, though the focus remains firmly musical.

Ever tied to trends in music, Ray’s asked about what product might be a dud over the years, or a surprising hit. Addressing the former, he says that “at one point I would’ve told you 45s. But guess what? We sell 45s now and we do it nicely. Thank you very much.”

As for future hits, he’ll only say, “Our plans,” says Ray, “are to broaden the musical ministry in any we can.”