Newport News shop American Oldies finds new life as vinyl records jump in popularity

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NEWPORT NEWS — As those dusty, 33-rpm vinyl albums have rotated back into fashion, a shop tucked in corner of a Denbigh shopping center has emerged as an unlikely hotbed of musical cool.

American Oldies, a record store with roots in the 1970s, has survived countless shifts in trends, tastes and technologies. While most retailers were quick to give up on black plastic LPs decades ago, this used-record mecca never lost faith in the value of vinyl.

Now, it's persevered long enough to seem less like a curiosity and more like a treasured antique. As record stores in general have become a dying breed, music fans say that shops like American Oldies shouldn't be taken for granted.

That sentiment has fueled the growth of national Record Store Day, which will be observed at the Denbigh store and across the nation on April 21.

"People are starting to come back," said Doug Crane, who has owned American Oldies since 1990. "Now, we are the only place around. We're seeing more travelers from Richmond and Virginia Beach. The lack of competition sure helps. There's not that much of a market to share with anybody."

Aaron Bushman, a 29-year-old record collector from Richmond, makes the pilgrimage to Denbigh every couple of months to search for rare 45-rpm singles. He's on a relentless hunt for punk, funk, soul and gospel sides.

"This place is unique in that it has so many records," said Bushman, his fingers robotically flipping through 45 sleeves. A number of small stores sell new and used vinyl in Richmond, he said. "But there's more quantity here definitely ... It's a known spot amongst record nerds."

Bushman represents of a new wave of music consumers, ardent fans in their 20s and 30s who see vinyl records as the antidote to disposable, invisible MP3s and effortless digital streaming.

"I haven't bought a CD in I don't know how long," Bushman said. "I rip records to my computer so I can listen to them on my iPod when I'm driving around, but at home, it's pretty much just records."

Chuck Dailey, manager of American Oldies, said that the average age of his store's vinyl customers falls in the 17-to-29 range. "It's not like they've never heard the music before. They've already got it on their iPods. The kids, and all kinds of people, just want the vinyl. They like the sound of it. It's kind of fun to play records, the whole ritual of taking it out of the cover, putting the needle in the groove. It's kind of ceremonial."

American Oldies does stock new and used CDs and even a handful of new vinyl titles. The store's main focus is on used LPs, however. It offers at least 15,000 of them. Vinyl represents about 35 percent of the store's sales, according to management. Even though overall sales are down from four or five years ago, the renewed appetite for vinyl has been a welcome bright spot.

Young customers who walk through the doors of the neat-but-jam-packed shop are looking for everything from classic rock to cutting-edge indie, staff at American Oldies said.

"Black Keys albums. Jimi Hendrix albums, sealed, new vinyl. Tom Waits. Dead Kennedys, Tool, Amy Winehouse. Adele. Clash and Ramones. It's really all over the place," Dailey said. "I recently got a new copy of the first Specials album. We sold it within 10 minutes of having it in the store."

The vinyl re-issue of the 1967 album "The Velvet Underground & Nico" was also scooped up. "Who would think that kids would be buying that first Velvets album?" Dailey said.

American Oldies trades in another increasingly rare commodity: A sense of community among music fans.

"Anyone can walk in and mention an artist that they like and get directed to an obscure album, or something similar they might appreciate," wrote Zachary McCoy, a recent Christopher Newport University graduate, in a school newspaper feature about American Oldies. "Sure, Pandora can do the same thing sometimes, but it can't look you in the eye, shake your hand or talk with you about why a song makes you feel a certain way. That's something reserved for contact with humans."

Human contact is a big part of what has kept Dailey and Crane devoted to American Oldies for so long. Dailey's been working there longer than five years. He shopped at the store for more than a decade before that.

"We've just got good customers," said Dailey, also a student at Christopher Newport. "The random people you meet and the stories you hear, it's priceless.

"I'm mean bad stuff happens. It's retail. People will try to skeeze on you. But overall, I enjoy it so much." Dailey said he's prone to drop by the store on his days off. "I just go to unwind. It's a happy place. Who goes to work for a happy place? That's just nuts. But working there is effortless. It's like breathing or walking. I enjoy it."

Crane, 58, now lives in New Jersey and travels to Newport News periodically to inspect and replenish the racks. The store was already about 13 years old when he bought it in 1990. Crane moved it to its current location in November of 1993.

A former computer programmer, Crane said he left that rapidly growing field to run the store full time. Looking back, he knows that some people would consider him crazy for leaving computers to trade in used records.

He remembers telling his wife his decision as they were driving to Atlanta. "I broke the news to her on the James River Bridge," Crane said. "It was a quiet ride, let me tell you. She was trying to figure out whether I was serious or not. But I hated the [computer] work. I couldn't take it anymore. Of course, money wasn't the inducement."

He has no regrets, he said.

Meeting eccentric, music-obsessed friends such as the late Steve Pyrados made running American Oldies a rewarding lifestyle as much as a profession.

"Steve was one of the biggest characters I've ever known," Crane said. "He would only own 10 albums at any one time, but they'd all be $400 albums. His phone was always getting cut off because he called Europe and talked to some collector for 20 minutes."

In addition to owning American Oldies, Crane runs a music mail order business in New Jersey and sells discs at record shows and conventions. Those events keep him connected to his fellow music fanatics.

He hopes American Oldies will continue to help music lovers discover vintage sounds — and each other — for years to come.

"It's been a great run," Crane said. "I just couldn't imagine myself sitting at a desk writing code. Twenty-two years of working for myself, that's been the reward."

Want to shop?

What: Record Store Day, a national event created to promote independent music retailing. On Record Store Day, stores sell special, limited-edition vinyl and CD releases and other promotional items.

When: Saturday, April 21

Where: Independently owned record stores across the country, including American Oldies, 14333 Warwick Blvd., Newport News.

More info: Contact American Oldies at 877-6877 or at facebook.com/AmericanOldiesRecords. To learn more about Record Store Day, visit http://www.recordstoreday.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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