The Record Collector And His Infinite Collection
Rows of records with album covers yellowed with age are neatly stacked on pine hand-carved shelving. Yards of 33rpm long-playing records line the 3,400-square-foot store from floor to ceiling. Inky black vinyl devoid of scratches, dust and orange price stickers (that forever leave their sticky residue) stretch from the front of the store well into back corners, hidden from customers.
In rooms layered upon rooms, there are old Victorian gramophones, reel to reels, 45’s, 78’s, cylinders and speakers from the 1950s. Sanders (Sandy) Chase gives tours of his store to people who pass a sort of veneration test. If they love music the way that he does, they get to see what’s more than just a rare and vintage vinyl store holding half a million records. Not only does Chase run a unique store, but he also believes in playing the records on analog equipment only.
“The Record Collector,” the words displayed in white letters on a green awning, sits on the corner of Melrose Ave. near Fairfax. The store was established in 1974 with Sandy’s personal collection of 10,000 LP’s of mostly classical music. He used his earnings from his success as a violinist to open what is now LA’s oldest record store.
Descriptions of its insides are etched on the windows and front door.
“We have Esoteric, Mercury, New Jazz, Classical, Rachmaninoff Society, Vangard.” The names sound like they belong to a private club, and to some degree, 59-year-old owner Sandy prefers to keep it that way.
No CDs, DVDs, or anything of digital matter exists within its walls.
“We’re anti-digitites. We believe in the sanctity of the sound that the medium is the message. It’s inextricably wound that you cannot legitimately make a claim that LP’s may sound better but CDs are more convenient because convenience does not, in this store anyway, trump art,” says Sandy.
When Sandy refers to “we,” he’s talking about himself and his archivist, Henry Gastelum, who’s been with him since 1976. Although Sandy says the records are in order by composer and genre, only the two of them really know the vast and arcane structure in which the records are arranged.
Henry, 63, is smaller than Sandy and hunched over. Sandy’s only four years younger, yet Henry looks much more wizened and worn. He shuffles around and doesn’t say a lot. He retrieves the records at lightning fast speed whenever Sandy tells him to get something.
“Aren’t these beautiful?” says Henry, pointing to a section of classical records, their sleeves browned at the edges. Many records are only accessible by ladder, and Henry climbs careful and measured steps to pull out Debussy’s “La Mer.”
Posters of Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Sarah Vaughn peek out between the aisles of records.
“To Sanders, much spiritual love. James Moody,” reads one framed picture of the jazz saxophonist.
“Here’s Ray Walston, he did ‘My Favorite Martian’ and ‘Damn Yankees!’” says Sandy.
“To Sandy Chase, who remains the great magician of records, sincerely Ray Walston,” reads another photograph.
Paper bags taped to top shelves flap each time the front door opens. The bags were put there to protect framed and signed black-and-white photos of musicians from the glaring LA sun.
Horace Silver, the famed jazz pianist and composer, used to stop by and flip through records. Nina Simone shimmied through the aisles. Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, best known as a blues musician, came in and signed his autograph on yet another framed picture, May 23, 1992.
“The beauty of this place was that it used to be a hangout for musicians, who are all gone now,” says Sandy.
He gestures to another wooden framed picture of him and the Russian conductor Yuri Temirkanov, “the world’s best conductor,” talking between the record stacks, Yuri stands with his reading glasses forgotten in his hand and mouth half open while he looks at Sandy pointing to a record.
The store is more of a museum or library dedicated to the love of Sandy Chase’s life: analog music. It’s not the music of now, but from days long gone, which are more ethereal because much of it doesn’t exist on anything but the discs he holds with such reverence.
Reverence doesn’t come cheap. Records are never a bargain like the one-dollar vinyl that Amoeba Records sells in Hollywood. Prices start at $10 but can go up to as much as $10,000.
“Lee Strasberg was a customer here for 14 years and was another avid record collector,” says Sandy. “He would spend hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
Sanders Chase was born August 19, 1951 in Inglewood, California. He grew up in a mostly black neighborhood and has been happily married for 31 years. His wife is also black. Sandy himself is white. He has four stepdaughters who are all grown.
Sandy’s mother was a concert pianist and his father was an artist. Hung against one of the shelves in the store is a framed book jacket with the title, “Just Being at the Piano,” with a foreword by Lee Strasberg. It’s written by Mildred Portney Chase, Sandy’s mother. Sandy is a classically trained violinist. He owned four houses by the time he was 22 and was able to fund his store with savings from his gigs at places like the Hollywood Bowl. He played at the funeral of his mentor, Josef Rosenfeld, in 1968 at the Hollywood Cemetery.
Many of Sandy’s friends and family were musicians. “They’re all gone now so they can’t stand up and say anything.”
The people who do say something are part of a new generation of customers from different backgrounds. The one thing that links them to Sandy is their unmeasured love of vinyl.
Jose Manuel Macedo is an immigrant from Peru, and after he received his first paycheck as a manager assistant in a cosmetics factory, he stopped by The Record Collector to buy some Depeche Mode albums. (Though 80 percent of Sandy’s stock is in jazz and classical records, the store also holds 100,000 LP titles of rock and “modern” music.)
“I couldn’t understand very well the seller ‘cause my English was bad. I remember that day perfectly, I was super excited, I was like a child in a candy store, I was like in the paradise. CD is ok but not comparable at all to the magic of vinyl’s,” says Jose.
Tom Hayden, a lawyer and local musician, agrees with Jose on the alluring quality of vinyl. Tom is not the other Tom Hayden, who is a political activist and was previously married to Jane Fonda. When asked about his name: “I’m a lot better lookin’ and a lot less liberal than he. But then that would include most men when compared to that Mr. Hayden.”
“I have both CDs and a huge record collection. You should see some of my nice vintage albums. In terms of pure sound, analog is so far ahead of digital it’s a joke. There’s nothing like a warm record on a nice turntable with a nice cardboard album jacket, preferably recorded to good old tape. Honestly, CDs are and always were a gimmick and for nothing more than convenience,” says Tom.
Obviously, Tom would get no argument from Sandy Chase.
“The sound on digital mediums is monochromatic, there’s no push and pull like there is here and you can’t feel it. Unless you can feel it, it’s not music. Music is something you need. And if you don’t feel like you need music, come and spend some time here and you will find that you do need music. Transporting music through a medium must be physically experienced and 1s and 0s do not recreate a physical experience. It must be properly presented; otherwise it doesn’t get in your bones,” says Sandy.
But some sound engineers below believe that there is a romanticism associated with vinyl. In fact, they say, it’s inefficient in terms of producing the best quality sound.
“The debate stems from the fact that records were made or ‘stamped’ into vinyl from a plate,” says Tony Gueffen, a Los Angeles sound engineer and keyboardist. “Vinyl is a petroleum derivative and carries with it inherent harmonic distortion. That natural distortion which comes in parts per million, is what gives vinyl the ‘warm sound.’ The limitations of vinyl come in the form of the dynamic response and recreation. In terms of musical dynamics, vinyl can only go from piano to double forte (very soft to very loud), while digital can go from pppp to FFFF” – or twice the softness to twice the loudness that is heard on a vinyl record.
Tony, who has mixed dozens of jazz, new age and gospel music and was a job reference to Grammy Award-winning singer Darlene Koldenhoven, says audio quality is actually determined by the rate, or number of kilohertz (kHz), that the recording was made at. Vinyl’s recording limit is 48 kHz. Once any recording passes 48 kHz, he says, “People who think they are audiophiles can’t even tell the difference…When the consumer world reaches products that play back at 96 kHz, this debate will be dead.”
Tony is right in a way that people really can’t tell the difference in analog versus digital sound unless they have a spectacular system to play it on. CDs with a 96 kHz rate can’t be heard on any run-of-the-mill player because CD parameters are typically 44.1 kHz, which is what’s played on an average home player.
In order for a person to really hear the difference in playback, that person would need to hear it on a $30,000 stereo system, according to Tim Page.
Tim is a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic of the Washington Post and a professor at University of Southern California.
Although Tim says that he couldn’t hear the difference on his personal stereo system, he and his friend experimented on his friend’s very expensive system and he noted that the LP “did in fact sound fresher and livelier.”
This is where Tony and Tim disagree. They both say that sound should be played on a superior system for a listener to tell its quality, but where Tony says digital far surpasses analog, Tim says the record still possessed “greater warmth.”
However, Tim’s opinion takes more of a middle ground than everyone else in the debate:
“I have a sentimental fondness for old records but I really never play them, in part because I don’t have one of those magnificent stereo systems. I prefer the CD simply for convenience sake. I think if you have millions of dollars and you have the means to have a really good stereo system, then it makes sense.”
Tim went into Sandy’s store 28 years ago and initially thought he was “grouchy.” But he’s heard from other friends that after they got to know him a bit more, “he’s really a terrific guy.”
Bill Vestal, the artistic director for LACMA’s Sundays Live program for free chamber music concerts, says that his initial reaction when entering Sandy’s store was that he had quite a bit of equipment and “it was all expensive, as it should be.”
“We make no bones about the fact that we’re a high-end record store,” says Sandy, but the sound element outweighs the fiscal and is what ties him with other audiophiles who are also self-proclaimed “anti-digitites.”
Sandy picks up a loose record he was just playing in one hand and takes the album cover in his other hand. “Eddie Harris, The Tender Storm,” reads the cover; it has four faded rainbows surrounding a side profile of Harris.
He bows the record’s album cover against his gut and slides the record in. He places it back in its wooden bin.
“The main thing is don’t bounce it in and out of record bins because that will split the covers and it’s hard on the item. It’s a definite no-no if you hold the record album cover flat and just pull out the record without bowing it first because it’ll tear the cover; that shows a disdain and disrespect for the record, for the form. Just be respectful to the form.”
The way Sandy handles the record equates in a larger way to how he handles his store. From a small to large scale, he protects the things he believes in.
“We were built before digital, during digital and post digital. No one really buys CDs anymore. The integrity of sound must be preserved through analog, which has come back, whereas digital has gone bye-bye for the most part commercially. We may be an anachronism, but not really; we’re just the one that survived and kept everything together and coalesced it under one roof,” says Sandy.
Evidence backs Sandy’s claim that CDs aren’t as commercially viable as they used to be. A Nielsen SoundScan survey showed that “From 2006 to 2007, vinyl record sales rose 14%, from 858,000 to 990,000. The same can’t be said for CDs, sales of which have continued on a downward spiral that began after a peak in 2001. In the first half of this year, CD album sales were down about 18% to 110.3 million units from 134.6 million units during that same time last year,” said a Sept. 24 article by Computer World.
And more than two out of every three vinyl albums are bought from independent music stores like Sandy’s.
Sandy used to lease a 1,800-square-foot store on Highland but moved to Melrose in 1999 for more space and owns the store free and clear. He even had his carpenter reuse some of the wood from the shelves in the old store for the new. Fat Beats used to operate down the street and closed after 16 years. It sold predominantly hip-hop records.
“That was for children, this is for adults or for children who want to be adults,” says Sandy.
He’s glad the place closed down because the kids used to come in and tease him all the time. He was stuck in a time warp, they said. His store was a mausoleum for dead music no one listened to anymore, they said.
“We out-survived all our competitors. How many professional violin players do you know have record shops? I paid my dues. We made a commitment; we made a major sacrifice that is unparallel. Doesn’t that count for anything?”
According to the new generation of online consumers, apparently not.
Earning two stars out of a possible five on Yelp.com puts The Record Collector in a store-that-you-want-to-avoid-at-all-costs category.
“Look the guy’s a dick and there are plenty of other choices,” said Ziggy Z. from LA. “The problem is this guy thinks he’s being cute and if acting like a douche is cute to you then head on in.”
Sandy’s gray and white peppered hair, glasses and grizzly beard show no signs of “douchiness” that Ziggy’s talking about, but there is a small amount of gruff cuteness to him. The kind of cute from an old uncle who, when you were five, says he doesn’t want to play but has somehow crouched down on the floor 10 minutes later with his creaky knees to build Legos with you.
“To hell with those comments. They’re a commentary on how LA treats its writers and musicians. LA is the town that people go to be forgotten.”
Sandy says he doesn’t care about the Yelp comments, but he refers back to them as if deep down he’s hurt and wants them to understand what they’ll probably never understand in a lifetime.
“I’ve had people come in and have told me, ‘what they say about you is not true.’ I built this store and paid for it out of my own pocket. All I can say is, outsiders don’t take to us en masse, but there are a lot of wonderful things out there that have been ignored.”
Sandy’s never been in the market for being a commercially successful shop.
“I’m here to present the art and availability of what is not available. We maintain everything and we try to present the best face to the world at large. Hopefully we can share that with people with a state of mind who want to be enriched with knowledge. Whether a record is commercially viable in this market is irrelevant to its relevancy on our premises,” says Sandy.
He believes that the past remains omnipresent. Like William Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
After he and Henry are gone, he plans to pass the store on to the Getty Museum, or LACMA.
“People ask, what is your business model? I’ll always say, the Watts Towers, which is an art installation. That’s my point. That’s exactly my point. We’re a record museum. The whole idea was to inventory this stuff, not to sell it off and go to Tahiti.”
As Bossa nova music filters through the sun drenched store, Sandy lays his hand on the hand crafted wood that he gave new life to by digging it out from his old store.
“We may be audio snobs, but there’s a philosophy in reusing this wood and keeping the life of it going forever and ever and ever. That’s art, that’s history. We build it and they come. This stuff is timeless. We are preservationists. First and foremost that’s what we do.”