Features & Columns
Talk Is Cheap
"Oh, you're from the 408?" DJ Shadow—globally recognized DJ and collector—once remarked to me during an interview. "Is Big Al's still there?"
As the '80s ended, Big Al's attracted DJs and collectors who came for the prospect of unearthing something rare or wonderful beneath mounds of Barbra Streisand records. Ask any collector, and he or she will spin wide-ranging tales about Big Al's, from great come-ups to disappointing purchases.
Al might overcharge you for a pedestrian 45 or a tattered copy of the Beatles' White Album, but he'll let go a rare African record for a couple bucks. To collectors, places like this carry something specialty shops and boutiques cannot—chance, the possibility of grabbing that one, rare find no one has or has even heard of.
More-organized stores carrying vinyl in the valley include Rasputin's, Streetlight, On the Corner, Knight Sounds and the Analog Room. But only in grimy, disorganized places like Al's can chance truly flourish.Ê
"Al's was the best place in the South Bay to spend an entire day digging" says Nate LeBlanc, local longtime record collector. "If you put in time, you were bound to find something worthwhile." LeBlanc's best find at Al's was an original Surfer Rosa LP by the Pixies, something not all that rare but that would have fetched much more than the $1 Al charged.
To Al however, it's a business built on give-and-take—whether he knows what he's actually giving away or not.
"I love music as much as the next guy," he says. "But I've never been a very serious collector or anything. I do have many, many records of my own, and some are considered rare and are worth tons. But I don't care about any of that. I stopped listening to rock music around 1964. I liked the Beatles when they had short hair," he laughs, though seemingly dead serious.
He continues: "I love country music, I love '50s rock & roll like Elvis and Gene Vincent." When asked about other genres and artists, Al adds, "I like R&B, too; Jackie Wilson, Clyde McPhatter, the Drifters, the Clovers and that kind of stuff."
But don't expect Al to be so open or interactive when you wander into his store. While he often professes his love of shooting the breeze, he's developed a not-so-cordial rep through the years as an endearing curmudgeon who isn't exactly a charmer to all his patrons.
"All my memories of Al were unfortunately largely negative," admits Ken Shipley, founder of the Numero Group, a reissue label. "I'd spend five hours there pulling out great shit only to have him pull out a price guide to total up the records and overcharge me."
Chris Manak, a San Jose native widely known as Peanutbutter Wolf, minces words even less. "As long as I can remember the dude who worked there was always an asshole!" PB Wolf, of course, went on to become a producer/DJ who founded one the most progressive labels around, Stones Throw. He concedes, however, "But I'm glad a place like that has lasted this long."
To Al's credit, he admittedly doesn't pander, especially in an area where confused transients pop in daily to kill time or use the bathroom.
"Look, I'm not a young fella and have no patience. I'm a straight shooter, always been," he admits with a laugh.
In the end, even his harshest critics have come back, not alw ays for conversation but for the prospect of records. And that's fine by Al.
"Al was always nice to me," says DJ Cutso of the Bangerz. "He even once let us take pictures in his upstairs area."
Al's mixed reputation is fine by him. "I've had some tremendous times and stories here and I remember almost every single one of them. At the end of the day, talk is cheap. I just want people to think that I was a fair dealer and wasn't out to rip anybody off."