In Their Golden Oldies Shop, Good Vibrations Are Plentiful

Times Staff Writer

It offers what a nostalgia merchant should, the texture of things past as well as the objects themselves--in this instance, a record of sounds.

You can find Nat King Cole singing live at the Sands here, captured in high fidelity about 2 a.m. one morning in 1960. You can browse among the racks of '70s Salsa and '50s rhythm and blues while over a loudspeaker Dinah Washington plaintively states "Unforgettable." You can hold Sarah Vaughan at her sassiest in your hands, her gowned, buxom sepia image on a Mercury album cover smoothed and buffed to a soft glow by decades of unknown hands.

And incongruously, without warning, Thelma Cook's Golden Oldies record shop at 140 N. Market in Inglewood will also give you a blast of the B-52's punk rock.

What's played here often depends on the mood of her grandson and sales clerk, William Byrd. Of course, if you are 21, as he is, the B-52's 1979 eardrum beater, "Rock Lobster," may be nostalgia.

It is definitely music to Byrd's ears--music he feels more than hears. He is deaf, an actor, a co-star in "Children of a Lesser God." "I played the disc jockey," he says.

He fell in love, he says, with the vibrations of music in his grandmother's record shop. "I've been working here since I was 6. I wanted to be an actor and a musician. I wanted to experiment, play all types of music--rock, pop, funk, punk."

There are two categories of deaf people, explains Byrd, who reads lips, uses sign language and speaks clearly as well. "There are some who can hear lower frequencies and there are the type that can hear higher frequencies. I hear the lower frequencies--the bass, the drums--things like that. Flutes and higher sounds, I have to have somebody tell me that those sounds are there."

The lure of punk began when he was 15, Byrd said.

"I had a friend who was going to school with me. I thought he was a little weird. He had pink-and-blond hair. But I started talking to him. I asked about the music. Where punk rockers went. Why they dressed the way they did. I asked 'cause I didn't understand," he said with speed and intensity--words that characterize his entire being. "But I was pretty sure it was because they wanted attention. And I started thinking, 'yeah, that's for me.' I wanted attention too!"

Byrd puts a record on the turntable. He is a study in black and red--crimson socks against tar-colored sneakers, bright red turtleneck under a loose black shirt. The word boy is scrawled along one leg of his designer sweat pants, proclaiming the name of the London store where he bought it. He was there touring in a production of "Godspell" while a student at Gallaudet College in Washington, D.C.--a school for the hearing-impaired with a widely respected theater program.

He returns to the subject of attention--his intense need for it. "I got into drugs, marijuana," he said.

Frustrated in Schools

Some of his problems began because he and his mother "didn't communicate." And he was frustrated in the Los Angeles public schools he attended. "I wanted to act, I wanted to play music. They kept saying, 'You can't do that. You're deaf.' " He didn't get into anything "deeper" than marijuana, Byrd says, because "my grandmother kept pounding it into my head how bad these things were. But I really started in the first place because I wanted more friends and joining the drug crowd was a way to get them--I thought."

He looks at his grandmother, a bespectacled, 67-year-old woman with gray tingeing her cloud-puff Afro. "I didn't understand," Byrd continues, "that you really didn't have to get into that kind of thing--compromising yourself to be accepted. To, to . . ., how do I say it?" He looks toward his grandmother again.

"You said it," she answers. "You didn't have to compromise yourself to have friends. That's simple enough."

"She was always there," Byrd says of his grandmother, "stood up for me when nobody else understood what I was trying to say or what I was going through. She's been a really big influence on me."

Cook, who is a recovering alcoholic, says she didn't realize the influence she had over her grandson until he started having problems. "I've been in the program (Alcoholics Anonymous) for 16 years. I took him all the time with me to those meetings when he was little."

As soon as he got older "and got into a little drinking, it didn't take him long to find out it wasn't good for him and he dropped it," and the marijuana, as well, she says.

Quality Customers

A bell rings signaling a customer, one of a few who wander in during the course of the afternoon.

"People wonder how we manage to stay in business," with so few patrons, Cook says. "But it's the quality, not the quantity. I may get five or six customers in a day but they tend to buy at least a hundred dollars worth of records or cassettes."

She carries new releases, but stocks mostly oldies. "I don't have much overhead," says Cook who, until 1968, had worked as a waitress. "I started at swap meets," she says. Now, she has two stores. One at the North Market Street location and another at 3700 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.

"Until I went to a psychiatrist here a couple of years ago, I never considered myself successful," she said, leaning over the glass counter in her store. "I still don't consider myself successful because I thought success was where people had a lot of money in the bank--and that's not me. But I do meet my expenses and I don't owe anybody. I don't work for anybody. I'm completely satisfied with my life."

Her grandson cannot say the same. He is frustrated with his inability to get work as an actor. He has had only one acting role since he filmed "Children of a Lessor God" in 1985--a small part on "Houston Knights."

Film Makers Fear Risks

"In this business they are afraid to take risks, whether you are black or white. And of course it's harder if you're black and deaf." He has an agent "but he's doing nothing for me," Byrd said. Right now, "I feel like no one in the business believes in me."

The Manhattans' smooth, soulful, "Let's Just Kiss and Say Goodby" is playing. Byrd walks toward a record bin and pulls out a Thompson Twins album. "They play the kind of electronic music I like."

He acknowledges that he likes "some old stuff too. The early Jacksons, Frankie Lyman and the Teen-agers. I don't like the Platters though, they just sounded too old-fashioned to me."

His grandmother, a die-hard Platters fan, laughs. "Oh, I know what you liked. The Five Stairsteps."

He is reminded of the group's soulful, "Oooh, oooh child, things are going to get easier. Oooh, oooh child, things will get brighter. . . ."

"Well, I liked the music," he said. "But I didn't know what they were saying. It's the vibrations I feel."

In the background, vintage, romantic Lou Rawls is playing, "It's too bad you belong to somebody else. I wish you belonged to me. . . ."

Exasperated, Byrd shouts, "You're playing Lou Rawls, again? You know I don't like him."

His grandmother smiles but says nothing.

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