Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, February 18, 2022

Full circle: Vinyl lovers find a home at St. Pete

‘Crackle’ of nastalgia lures music fanatics

It’s five minutes after noon on a Saturday when the door at St. Pete Records opens and a lone traveler steps through the threshold. There’s no bell on the entrance to announce his arrival to the proprietor, Keith Wilson, so the crunchy Seattle grunge pouring through the tall speakers on the floor goes unspoiled.

Once indoors, the aging traveler beholds a sight that looks like it was ripped from the yellowed pages of his memory and plastered to the walls of the modest Shallowford Road building in which he’s standing.

Before him, records stretch in long aisles to the back of a deep room. Each bin is marked with an unsleeved LP that contains the name of a music genre in painted white letters and protrudes from the back of the records like a black tombstone. From rock, to blues, to jazz and beyond, all the usual suspects are present and accounted for.

Bins also line the walls that give shape to this enchanted space. Together, they must contain thousands, if not tens of thousands, of LPs, the traveler calculates.

There must be magic in this place, he decides as the door behind him swings open and a man and woman step inside. How else could it exist?

There was a time when vinyl ruled the music industry with a strong hand. Record players were fixtures in homes across the U.S., and one did not have to go far to find a Sam Goody, Tower Records or Turtles.

Long before streaming services like Spotify and Pandora began to feed the masses more music than they could possibly consume, you were somebody if you had a record contract, and if you were anybody, you owned a copy of Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon,” Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” or the soundtrack to “Grease.”

You also sat and listened to this music. As an album played, your eyes would scan the cover art, read the lyrics of each song as it played and pour over the liner notes. Back then, everything about the music and the medium that delivered it mattered.

Every fairy tale has its fool, and in a moment of painful self-awareness, the traveler realizes this is the role he plays. As he surveys the expanse of music, he feels a pang of regret about the day in 1987 when he sold his record collection to fund the purchase of a few compact discs and shakes his head in remorse.

Behind him, the door opens again, and a family of three steps through the threshold.

No shame in selling records

As I browse the merchandise at St. Pete Records, I feel very much like a traveler who crossed through time to enter the store. Forty years ago, my music collection filled a book shelf, which in turn occupied a tall portion of the wall in my bedroom. But as I pick up a newly pressed 12-inch copy of AC/DC’s “Back in Black,” I realize my entire library (which includes “Back in Black”) is stored on the iPhone tucked into the left front pocket of my blue jeans.

I feel guilty, like I betrayed a purer faith. Thankfully, Wilson is there to take my confession like an empathetic priest.

“I sold my records, too,” Wilson, 48, says as I flip through the bins that line the front wall. “A lot of people did.”

As the CD became the dominant medium, it seemed like the right thing to do, Wilson continues. Opinions varied on quality of the sound – some people enjoyed the crispness of the digital format while others missed the rich warmth of analog – but the debate faded like the end of an old song as records joined 8-track tapes on the trash heap of the music industry.

Then something unexpected happened as the industry gradually shifted distribution to the internet: records began to make a comeback. According to a 2011 article in Rolling Stone, as overall album sales dropped 13% in 2010, sales of records increased 14% over the previous year.

This trend continued to 2021, when analytics firm MRC Data noted that sales of records outpaced CDs 19.2 million to 18.9 million during the first six months of the year.

In other words, a lot of people are sitting down and listening to music again.

As I reach the letter “J” in the rock section, I point to a used copy of Jethro Tull’s “Aqualung” and tell Wilson I miss the artistry of the covers for what are now classic rock albums.

“This would look at home hanging next to the ‘Mona Lisa,’” I add.

Wilson agrees and says the “Aqualung” cover provides a clue about why vinyl is booming again. “It’s about nostalgia. You can’t reproduce a cover like that on a CD or a cassette, and if you’re streaming music, there’s nothing to appreciate.”

To emphasize his point about people’s fondness for the things of the past, Wilson stops me as we come to a bin containing Nirvana’s classic “Nevermind” album and indulges in a quiet fit of nostalgia.

“This is the album that got me into grunge,” he says. “It changed music in the nineties. Before then, heavy metal bands like Motley Crew and Cinderella were popular, but Nirvana came in and shoved them aside and bands like Pearl Jam and Sound Garden ushered in a new wave of music.”

Although music genres came and went over the years, everything is popular again, Wilson suggests. As we pass a sealed copy of “Dark Side of the Moon,” for example, he says he can’t keep the record in stock.

“This album rarely spends more than a day or two in the bin.”

I take this opportunity to ask Wilson who’s buying records, expecting him to say 35- to 60-year-olds.

“Everyone from a 5-year-old kid who saw his parents listening to records to a 95-year-old man who was looking for a few LPs he needed to complete his collection,” he says instead.

Then Wilson says the bulk of his customers are 35 to 60 years old. “The resurgence of vinyl has found every demographic,” he adds.

Another selling point for records is the opportunity to own a physical copy of an album, Wilson says. Although streaming and download services like Apple Music and Google Play Music provide unprecedented access to vast libraries of material, those recordings are subject to the whims of the distributor as well as the territorial rights a service has been granted.

When I tell Wilson about watching one of my favorite jazz albums – “A Time for Love” by The Renee Rosnes Trio – disappear off my iPhone one day, he explains this is the risk of building a collection of music in the digital age.

Vinyl, however, is forever, he adds. “No one can take away your records except your mom or dad – if they don’t like what you’re listening to.”

“But vinyl isn’t forever,” I counter. “Its quality worsens as you play a record, unlike CDs or streamed music.”

Wilson nods but yields only a bit of ground. Some people enjoy the crackle of a record as the needle hits the grooves, he says, because it lets them know they’re listening to vinyl.

Plus, good maintenance can extend the life of a record, Wilson adds. “It’s important to keep vinyl clean. It needs to be free of scratches and debris.”

To ensure he sells a quality product, Wilson personally cleaned every album at St. Pete, which he estimates is about 20,000 records. He also cleans every used album his customers sell to him.

“It’s a labor of love,” he laughs.

For most records, Wilson uses a simple spin-clean system, but for the tough cases, he employs an ultrasonic cleaning machine – a technology he says only recently became available.

Wilson claims his ultrasonic device excels at restoring dirty, scratchy records.

“It removes every speck of debris. I’ve tested albums that skipped and had a lot crackle, and they sounded almost like new.”

Wilson doesn’t expect people to take him at his word, though. Instead, he allows his customers to test any used record at a listening station located at the back of his store.

If a buyer still becomes dissatisfied with the audio quality of a record after hearing it at home, Wilson will refund the purchase price, which for used vinyl generally ranges from $4 to $9.

(New albums, which make up about 10% of St. Pete’s inventory, cost far more. For example, Wilson prices freshly pressed copies of “Dark Side of the Moon” at around $35.)

While having a clean record is vital to a good listening experience, so is having a system that can replicate its sounds, Wilson says.

To help customers who are either new to vinyl or returning to it after a decadeslong sabbatical, Wilson sells a variety of record players ranging from inexpensive plug-and play models to systems that include higher end turntables, receivers and speakers.

On the low end of the spectrum is the Rock N Rolla Junior Portable Turntable, which clocks in at $50. As Wilson drops the needle on a compilation record, Abba begins performing one of its hits through the system’s built-in stereo speakers.

The sound is decent, if nothing to write home about, but at that price, the unit provides a cheap entry point for people who are uncertain about investing in vinyl. It would also make a nice present for someone too young to insist on a higher fidelity experience.

Speaking of which, Wilson would have an easy time selling me his house system, which consists of a Stanton ST150 M2 Turntable, a Modular Component Systems and a pair of UBL speakers, each of which comes with a 6-inch subwoofer and a 3-inch tweeter. The cost: $500 for just the turntable.

Wilson seems more confident as he unsheathes Adele’s recent “30” album and places it on his Stanton. As the pop soul singer eases into “Strangers by Nature,” the first track on the record, her voices pours from the speakers like melted butter.

Adele pressed 500,000 copies of “30” on vinyl, which is enough to allow the album to reach gold status. Wilson says the support of artists like her is vital. “Artists need to embrace vinyl for this trend to continue,” he says. “It would give more people the confidence to begin investing in records.”

Fueled by a heady blend of nostalgia and love of music – and eager to scratch an entrepreneurial itch – Wilson opened St. Pete Records in Florida five years ago. He brought his inventory with him when he moved to Chattanooga in 2021 and then reopened St. Pete after settling in and picking up an encouraging vibe.

As Wilson lifts the needle off “30,” he encourages me to join the now dozen or so people in his store in leafing through his bins in search of buried treasure. I accept his invitation and make my way to St. Pete’s sizable collection of jazz, where I hope to find music I’ve been thinking I’d never hear again.

I feel like a time traveler again as I flip through the records. I spent many hours exploring the inventory of record stores in Denver in the 80s and am loving thumbing through LPs as I scan the covers. Like riding a bicycle, my fingers quickly recall how to move through the stacks without missing a beat of the music playing on the speakers.

As I fly through the letter S, my fingers stop on a dime and my mouth drops as I catch sight of a used copy of the self-titled 1976 debut album of Seawind, a Christian jazz rock band I loved in high school.

I tear up a bit as I remember how it was one of the albums in the stack of records I sold that fateful day in 1987. To my knowledge, it was never released on CD and is still unavailable on any streaming service. (I looked over the years.)

As I pay Wilson the $8 he’s charging for the album, I feel like I’m buying a brick of gold. In that moment, I realize he’s right – nostalgia is playing a huge role in the resurgence of vinyl.

Located at 4639 Shallowford Road, St. Pete joins For the Record at Northgate Mall and Yellow Racket Records on East Main Street in bringing vinyl back to Chattanooga.

Although Wilson says he’s there every day prepping inventory, St. Pete is currently open only Thursday through Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. However, Wilson says the enthusiastic reception the store has received might convince him to expand its hours.

Some long-gone media formats seem destined to stay in the grave. It’s unlikely VHS will ever mount a comeback, for example, and sales of the Atari 2600 will probably never exceed those of the latest Xbox or PlayStation.

But vinyl has spun its way into the hearts of music lovers in a big way. Wilson says he can’t predict the future of records, but he says it looks bright.

“No one could have predicted vinyl would get to this point. But sales are continuing to grow, so I believe it’s going to be here for a while.”

Take it from the proud owner of precisely one record: Wilson is probably right.