For Catonsville Record Store Owner, Vinyl Still Thrills

July 01, 2009|By Dan Rodricks | Dan Rodricks,dan.rodricks@baltsun.com

The first customer tapped on the glass door of his vinyl record store an hour before Gary Gebler opened for business. "Do you have any Michael Jackson?" the customer asked, and Mr. Gebler showed him to the wooden bin containing the stack of original Thriller albums. It was, of course, the day after Mr. Jackson's death, and it didn't take long for Mr. Gebler's Trax on Wax in Catonsville to sell out of anything bearing the King of Pop's name. Bad disappeared, and so did the last of Mr. Gebler's "We Are The World" stock.

But these customers were not only looking for a piece of Michael Jackson; they wanted vinyl - that is, a record, an LP, 33 1/3 RPM. Mr. Jackson released Thriller in November 1982. Music on compact disc was in its infancy that year. While Mr. Jackson's musical style and his use of video and television were groundbreaking, his global success with Thriller came the old-school way - with millions of people walking into local record stores to buy his albums on vinyl. Fans had to put needle to record, a challenging and intimate act that disappeared with CDs. Plus, Mr. Gebler notes, if you owned a Thriller LP, "you had to give it TLC."

When he opened his shop earlier this year, in the same Frederick Road space that had been occupied by Record & Tape Traders, Mr. Gebler made two bets: that longtime vinyl loyalists would find him, and that a new generation would discover that the sound produced by records is far superior than anything they've heard on CDs (or what ends up in their iPods).

"I had a young guy come in here from the coffee shop up the street," Mr. Gebler said Monday evening at Trax on Wax. "He bought a couple of Michael Jackson albums, and then later in the day I saw on Facebook that he was having a Michael Jackson vinyl listening party."

Mr. Gebler, 52, who has worked in music sales for four decades - he started at Music Liberated in Towson - buys and sells vinyl. He spent a few months stocking up on albums, traveling the East Coast to purchase collections posted on Craigslist. Recently, he bought the collection of a Catonsville woman who's selling her house. She asked Mr. Gebler to burn some of her favorites to CD - Frank Sinatra Trilogy, My Name Is Barbra, Judy in London, the Eagles' Hotel California and an autographed Ethel Ennis album.

"I have customers who bring in old albums and I burn them on CD," Mr. Gebler says. "And the sound on those, converted from vinyl, is better than on new CDs."

He's burned an album of the Ted Heath Orchestra nine times for a customer who keeps giving it away to people who hear it coming from the stereo in his car.

Purists have said for a quarter-century that vinyl produces a better overall experience for those who love to listen and groove - and because of that, any new technology would never be able to kill LPs forever.

Many of us were easily converted to the new technology in the 1980s. With Thriller in CD form, you could play it in your car; you could listen while walking down the street. Compact discs took up less space. So millions of Americans jettisoned the albums they had since high school.

And we dropped off our record players at Goodwill. We couldn't play an LP now even if we walked into Mr. Gebler's shop and something caught our eye, like that Joan Jett & the Blackhearts I Love Rock N' Roll album (also circa 1982) I found there Monday night, or the new vinyl releases - that's right, new - from Green Day and Elvis Costello.

For people in this miserable state, Mr. Gebler is now selling, for $130, a portable, battery-powered turntable with a built-in speaker, the Numark PT-01. "Show up at a party with that and spin some discs," Mr. Gebler says, "and you're totally cool."

Dan Rodricks' column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. He is host of the Midday talk show on WYPR-FM.

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