Sunday, April 1, 2001
After collecting an estimated 350,000 vinyl records, Ken Hudson considers his tiny Baltimore-area record store more a museum than a business.
It's not Picassos and da Vincis that adorn the walls of this museum. The artwork here consists of covers from long-forgotten albums ï¿½ 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.
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," said 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 said kids are coming in looking for soul recordings to serve as the backdrop for rap, a style of music that Hudson refers to as "mosaic plagiarism."
"It's an amazing collection," said 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 said.
Music Man Oldies has become a haven for classic American soul recordings of the 1960s and 1970s, but Hudson offers a wide range of music, from Christmas tunes to the soundtrack from "Rocky V."
"My customers for the most part look for things they can't find in other stores," said 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 flea markets. Through the mid-1980s, the Hudsons purchased scores of Top 100 records and sold them to 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 said 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 said.
The market might be small, but many of the buyers are passionate and willing to pay top dollar for recordings. Most of the store's 45s sell for $2 and the LPs for $5, with rare recordings fetching as much as $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, said of Music Man Oldies. "It's the songs themselves, they mean something."
The typical shopper is a 35-year-old man. The men are so loyal to their records, Hudson said, that he often frowns when they walk into the store accompanied by women.
"She'll say, 'You already have this,"' Hudson said. "And he'll say, 'But I don't have this version."'