The Record Exchange: St. Louis’ — and possibly the world’s — largest collection of vinyl records
But it was not always so. Before iPods or portable CD players, before Sony’s Walkman and the transistor radio, listening to music was a stationary activity. A visitor to the Record Exchange in south St. Louis will leave with a new sensitivity to media. With a vinyl collection in the tens of thousands and paraphernalia from the entire history of recorded sound, the Record Exchange proves to be a valuable St Louis institution, not only as a superb entertainment store but also as the area’s best music museum.
The Record Exchange’s extensive collection promises an excellent find for any music lover. A first trip to the store may prove overwhelming; my conservative estimate places the total number of records, cassettes and CDs in the tens of thousands. “And that’s just the tip of the iceberg,” owner Jean Haffner said. “I have the largest collection of records in the city, probably in the world.” Haffner’s enterprise has operated in St. Louis for the last 34 years; he at one time managed nine stores. Today, the only active location is on Hampton Ave., and the bulk of his hoard waits in warehouses.
Haffner describes his store as appropriate “for any fan of music. I’ve got just about everything.” The Record Exhange has no particular specialty. While the store may not have a specific album at any given time, its large collection encourages browsing and often leads to serendipity. I encountered the soundtrack to a movie from the ’60s that my father showed me when I was 8 years old. “Every once in a while, I’ll hear someone in the back yell, ‘Oh my God! I’ve been looking ten years for this record!’”
Haffner acquired a large part of his collection by buying and trading locally. Sometimes, he will come across rare and valuable records. “A few years back, a fellow was selling me a box of organ records. I wasn’t real interested, but he just let me have them. Inside the box, though, was a record I had never seen before. It ended up being worth $3,200.”
Thanks, no doubt, to its wide variety, the River Front Times has deemed the Record Exchange the best place to buy vinyl for the last five years.
The Record Exchange itself is a museum. Titanic speakers pump oldies throughout the stores. Cardboard advertisements for the Beatles and other popular groups are everywhere. The most successful albums in history adorn the aisles as artwork. The true gem of the store, though, is the stereo equipment. It’s all for sale, most in excellent condition. The receivers, which direct information from the turntables to the speakers, range from models manufactured in the early 1940s to those of the present day. While for the most part, technology has improved with time, many collectors actually prefer older equipment for its high fidelity systems.
Before the transistor, electronics relied on vacuum tubes. According to enthusiasts, systems using vacuum tubes sound “sweeter” or “warmer” than their transistor counterparts.
For the most part, Haffner agrees, and notes their popularity. “They don’t stay here long. Lots of people, particularly the Japanese, buy them as soon as they can. Vacuum tubes wear out, though one of the major vendors of tubes is here in St. Louis,” he said. Examining the receivers is a history lesson in electrical engineering. Analog displays become digital, knobs become wheels, buttons for selecting the phonograph become CD buttons. As technology improved, all of this progress followed as engineers sought to better replicate the original sound.
While the Record Exchange’s wares may focus on the past, its example still holds lessons for the future. In last Tuesday’s New York Times, the science section detailed progress in psychoacoustics, the study of sound perception. In many ways, the engineers researching advanced surround sound systems are furthering the work of the men who design vacuum tube receivers. Technology’s impact on the industry is even more evident when considering the Internet. Torrents and online music stores, such as iTunes and Amazon, allow searching for a specific album or single; the browsing component is nearly absent. Haffner endeavors to adapt to the online market as well. The Record Exchange sponsors an online auction. Every five minutes, a random album of one of several different categories is auctioned; this online experience somewhat mimics the store’s greatest strength—browsing. According to Haffner, the Internet auction has expanded his market from St. Louis regulars to collectors all over the world.
After visiting the Record Exchange, my own white earbuds seem repulsive. Listening to recorded music has an august history; for so long, engineers and enthusiasts have attempted to perfectly replicate live performances. Today, the technology is more affordable than ever, yet consumers prefer dinky earbuds for tuning out whenever they wish. Downloaded music files from virtual stores like iTunes are lossy, meaning that some information about the recording is omitted to reduce the file size. While this permits more songs on the iPod, it diminishes the quality of playback. Perhaps our compulsion to have thousands of songs in our pockets available at any time has hurt what we care about most, the music. I fear for the day producers no longer mix elaborate tracks and optimize recordings for downloads instead.
At any rate, we’re fortunate stores like the Record Exchange exist. As long as they’re around, we’ll always have reminders from the past to encourage us to treat listening to music with respect.