Music store owners amass vinyl treasure

Records: For 16 years, two brothers have been collecting 45-rpm and long-playing records. Their Catonsville store is a museum and an outlet for oldies fans.

March 23, 2001|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

After collecting an estimated 350,000 vinyl records, Ken Hudson considers his tiny Catonsville record store more a museum than a business.

It's not Picassos and Leonardo da Vincis that adorn the walls of this museum. The artwork here consists of covers from long-forgotten albums - Lou Rawls' "Too Much," Ray Charles' "Crying Time" and Quincy Jones' "Smackwater Jack."

Hudson and his brother, Jim, have accumulated the black discs, sheathed in paper and cardboard sleeves and occupying countless shelves, over the past 16 years at Music Man Oldies, at 808 Ingleside Ave.

As record curator, Hudson estimates that he cares for about 250,000 of the 45-rpm records once so popular with teen-agers and about 100,000 long-playing albums, many of which have found their final resting place in the store.

"He's the Einstein of albums," says Kevin Williams, a longtime customer. "He's a man who takes pride in his collection."

Many of his customers are searching for increasingly hard-to-find oldies. But Hudson says more and more kids are coming in looking for soul recordings to serve as the backdrop for rapping, a style of music that Hudson refers to as "mosaic plagiarism."

"It's an amazing collection," says Mike Romano, 19, who buys background music for young rap artists he is producing. "Not many people have vinyl anymore."

Hudson keeps most of the records in storage in a dark and musty room that serves as a warehouse behind the store. Narrow white boxes holding the 45s are marked with a letter on the front to help Hudson locate them. In some places, the walls of 45s give way to floor-to-ceiling shelves of once-popular albums.

"At one time, this was organized like the Library of Congress," Hudson says.

The store, with its yellow front, is off U.S. 40 and not far from West Baltimore, in a largely black neighborhood. As a result, Music Man Oldies has become a haven for classic American soul recordings of the 1960s and 1970s. Still, Hudson offers a wide range of music, from Christmas to the soundtrack album from "Rocky V."

"My customers for the most part look for things they can't find in other stores," says Hudson, 50. "It's a museum business, and my customers perceive it that way."

The business began two decades ago, when the Hudson brothers were buying hit records and selling them off tables at area flea markets. Through the mid-1980s, the Hudsons purchased scores of Top 100 records and sold them to area disc jockeys.

Even after the arrival of the compact disc, the Hudsons continued to invest in records. "The public was resisting it, as they always do," Hudson says of CDs.

In the 1990s, as CDs caught on, people began packing away their turntables. Yet the Hudsons continued buying stores' vinyl collections, seeing a business in collecting, selling and trading records.

"We thought that there was still a viable market," Hudson says.

The market might be small, but many of the buyers are passionate and willing to pay top dollar for recordings.

"Vinyl is hot now," says Rupert Wondolowski, co-owner of Normal's Books and Records on East 31st Street in Baltimore. "It definitely picked way back up over the last few years, because people like to hear the music as it was initially put out."

Today, most of the 45s sell for $2 and the LPs for $5, with rare recordings fetching up to $50. It's not unusual for customers such as Williams to plop down $50 in a visit.

"You give him a title, and he'll find the artist, or if you know the artist, he'll find the title," Williams, 40, says of Music Man Oldies. "It's the songs themselves, they mean something."

Hudson carries a wide range of works, from well-known artists such as Stevie Wonder to more obscure performers such as Dennis Coffee, a session guitarist who played with the Jackson 5 and Temptations

"If I could find all the top hits of the Chi-Lites, Delfonics and Temptations, that's all we would sell," says Hudson. "Their fans are incredibly loyal."

The typical shopper is a 35-year-old man. The men are so loyal to their records, Hudson says, that he often frowns when they walked into the store accompanied by women.

"She'll say, `You already have this,'" Hudson says. "And he'll say, `But I don't have this version.'"

He also notes that his customers want the original classics, not the repackaged products circulating on CD. "The worst thing a record company does is when they tweak a classic," Hudson says. "The guy who knows the Delfonics knows it from the very first note."

Music Man Oldies has begun branching out to the Internet. Hudson spends much of his day on the online auction site eBay, trying to help people find classics.

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