One of the coolest things about living near San Jose, CA., is what I call Record Row, a string of four record stores mostly centered around Bascom Avenue, which also runs through the city of Campbell. But if you count The Thrift Box, a thrift store in the Willow Glen area of San Jose, it’s five. Unlike most thrift stores, it gets regularly restocked every few weeks by Bud Nemier, who sometimes sells LPs at local flea markets. While you won’t find anything exceedingly rare, The Thrift Box isn’t full of junk, or way too many Christmas records. I like it because it isn’t very big and you can go through everything in about 15 minutes. I often stumble upon unknown (to me) New Orleans jazz bands. The LPs are $1.50, 45s are 45 cents. I bought eight LPs and two 45s. Believe it or nuts, The Thrift Box recently raised $14K a year in album sales alone. Yea, $14,000 for the Lucile Packard Foundation for Children’s Health. That’s a lot of LPs! Buy vinyl and help a kid!
From there I went to On The Corner, which is on the corner of Campbell Ave and Dillon, just on the edge of downtown Campbell. It’s the smallest real record store in the area, run by Jeff Evans. I showed up a few minutes before it opened at 11am and Jeff quickly explained to me pricing for everything in this tiny but cool abode. It’s an easy place to miss, there isn’t a big sign out front. It’s next to an old auto repair shop of some kind that looks abandoned.
A few others dropped in and it was obvious that people feel comfortable coming here to talk with Jeff about what’s going on in the community. I could see spending time here, to talk with Jeff about bands, or stereos, or just about anything. It’s the kind of place I hope does well as vinyl continues its resurgence.
Jeff made it easy to spend time looking around. He isn’t hovering over you, he’s mostly cleaning LPs to play on his Technics SL-1200 while you’re looking around. Later we talked about his stereo system and how his at-home turntable reveals so much, a bad recording is hard to listen to. He didn’t come across like a know-it-all, something I’ve experienced lately at two local stereo stores as I’m in the hunt for a turntable myself.* The attitude at those places really turned me off. They act like you know nothing, and they’re going to tell you what to think.
Perhaps the best thing about Jeff’s shop is his willingness to talk to you about the LP you’re buying. He mentioned that a record I picked up by The Blues Project would need a pretty good cleaning, because he had just played it recently and knew what the condition was like. You won’t get that at the other stores.
On The Corner carried a little of everything. I bought 12 LPs for about $35, a bargain that included two early records by Ike and Tina Turner, one of which Jeff threw in for free as it was pretty beaten to hell. Plenty of dollar records here, if that’s your thing. Not a lot of pricey vinyl, the opposite of what I’m finding at my next stop along Bascom Avenue.
Streetlight is a cool, big place, but the price of vinyl is skyrocketing there. Records that used to go for a few bucks are $10 now. You can still find plenty of dollar LPs, but that sweet spot of $3 to $5 is harder to locate. I don’t know if old records are getting scarce. Perhaps renewed interest in vinyl is driving up prices.
Still, I walked out with nine carefully selected items. The priciest was a Sonny Rollins record that cost me $10. The originally price sticker of $7.99 was still on the plastic shrink-wrap, from Tower Records. So I think this is a re-release, but I couldn’t find any indication of such. No bar code, no nothing. Of course, Streetlight carries tons of CDs, DVDs and the like.
I was tired, but decided to see if Big Al’s Record Barn was still in business. Big Al’s has been going out of business for more than a year. There are several online articles about it if you do a search. But lo and behold, the doors were open. Nuttin’ but vinyl here.
Situated in a run down strip of business, Al’s has that musty smell of old paper and vinyl. Although everything has been on sale for months, it’s still full of records. Al wasn’t there this day, but cool Joe was. “We’re going to be around a long time,” Joe said. “The owner (of the building) has had the whole block for sale for over a year. Even if they sell, we get three months before we close the doors.” Joe is related to Al, I believe, but I’m unsure of how.
Joe wasn’t too happy about the sale prices, however. He felt that Al had dropped prices too much. Anything below $30 is now $2. Between $30 and $50 is $5. Records priced above $50 are $25. The last time I was here, which was several months ago, the sale prices weren’t quite that low.
Several people walked in while I was there, all happy to see the black plastic circles of their youth. Al’s is set up differently than most stores, for example, there are long rows of male singers, followed by long rows of female singers. Tons of 45s, so many it’s hard to get to them. You really have to want to look for 45s to buy them here. It’s kinda dark, too! A miner’s headlamp would be helpful in some of the aisles. You can hardly see in the jazz section.
I was looking through female singers and noted a guy seated at the end of the row, who appeared to be going through every stack of records. I asked him if that’s what he was doing and he said “Yea, basically. I don’t want to miss something.”
Whew, that takes dedication at a place like Al’s. I suspect he’d been there most of the day and would have to come back several times to finish, if that’s even possible. He complained that everything was already picked through and when I told him I can find things here that I can’t find elsewhere, he said there’s a lot of inventory here because Al is stuck with it.
Al does have multiple copies of a lot of records. I mean six or 10 copies of the same LP! A lot of online complaints that everything is over priced are pretty valid. The last time I was here I bought records priced at $25, on sale for $5, that were totally trashed. They played no better than records I buy elsewhere for a dollar.
That said, Big Al’s has a long history in the area (it used to be Rowe’s Rare Records) and I do think his rather obese inventory can sometimes lend itself to the collector, if you’re looking for something you can’t find elsewhere. Just be prepared to spend a lot of time, and bring a flashlight for those poorly lit sections of the store. But don’t be surprised if the LP marked at $25 is a little beat.
If you’re wondering about store #5, it’s Rasputin’s in Campbell, another large store. I just didn’t have the energy to get there. I find it’s usually cheaper than Streetlight for vinyl. Their vinyl got moved to a new room and the selection is less extensive than Streetlight’s. CDs and DVDs are here, too. Neither one of these two big box stores give you much $$ for your vinyl these days. I find it a waste of time to take them LPs to trade-in anymore. I’m better off giving LPs I don’t want to Goodwill and writing them off on my taxes. Really!
Here’s a map of the stores I’m talking about.
Got two minutes and five seconds ? Check out a brief medley of tunes, transferred directly from a few of the LPs I bought…with photos from On The Corner and Big Als’ Record Barn! Be sure to see my Photo slideshow page for more pictures of record stores I’ve visited, including The Thrift Box, Streetlight and Rasputin’s, etc.
Wondering how the examples sound so good? Check out my page on vinyl transfers. Wake Me Shake Me, by The Blues Project, is from the LP I bought at On The Corner that Jeff warned me about (above). Sounds pretty clean, huh? The last tune, by organist Jimmy Smith, was utterly destroyed. But I bought the LP for $2.99 because it was an early Blue Note pressing that had it been in good shape, would have cost well over $100, I believe. Even my software couldn’t quite clean up some of the groove distortion without overtly effecting the sound quality, but it’s a least semi-listenable now. My software took out some of the life that used to be there and you can still hear some grunge in the right channel.
*I’m waiting for the new Pro-Ject RPM 1.3 Carbon to come out. The current 1.3’s tonearm will be replaced by a carbon fiber version. No other details as of yet…