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Big Al's Record Barn MUSICAL MEMORIES: Somebody, somewhere, is jonesing for a Mama Cass classic, and Big Al's obliges.

Stacks of Stories

Through 45 years of business, Al has seen a lot from behind his counter. There was that time when Ricky Nelson, the 1950s teen idol with a long, distinguished pop recording career, came by the shop shortly after it opened. Al asked him to sign a record.

Ricky asked, "Do you know how much that'll be worth if I sign it?"

"Ricky!" Al replied. "Just sign it to me and the shop, that way no one will want to steal it!"

Ricky said, "Good idea" and reluctantly signed it.

"I still think he was kind of a jerk that day," Al says.

Enter the shop right now and you'll see Elvis' first record sitting up high on Al's shelf next to the autographed Ricky Nelson record.

Al keeps a lot of meaningful vinyl to himself. But like any true record seller, he has had to rid himself of some supply he would've liked for himself. And there's always the one that got away, the one that sticks out but was sold as a purely financial decision.

Al remembers: "My best buy was by accident. A guy walks in my store and says, 'I have a box of records to sell.' I was looking through it, and I walked downstairs to answer the phone. When I got back, he had wheeled in 15 boxes. This was on a Friday, and he said, 'Just go ahead and go through them, and I'll be back Monday. You just tell me if you want any.' When I finally went through them, it was some really, really rare jazz stuff."

He continues, "Come Monday, I said I can't afford most this stuff, so I just pulled out a small pile and said I could give him $250 for them, which was pretty much all the cash I had to my name. He said, 'I'm moving to Florida and honestly do not want to move any of this shit. Take everything for $250.' My friend who was a collector called his friend in L.A. and told them I had four of these Charlie Parker 10-inches in great shape. And the fella offered me $800 a piece for them all. This was 30 years ago, and $3,200 was a real sweet deal. Hell, it'd be a sweet deal nowadays."

Victory Lap

On that Thursday when I spoke with Al, buyers were roaming about the store, some young, some old, some lost and overwhelmed by the condition and size of the place. Others probably had no interest in records but walked around with amused looks on their faces.

"We're busy again," says Al, as a fluid stream of people came and went. "The sale we're having right now is the biggest we've ever had, and somehow a lot of people heard about it. I don't think anyone in the area has this amount of records I have or is selling them for the prices I am. We have to move everything before we get booted."

It's a bittersweet benchmark in a place that had largely been abandoned until interest in vinyl surged.

"There used to be a lot of young people at my shop 20 or 30 years ago. Then it all stopped. But they say young people are buying vinyl again, and it shows," says Al. "I have young people like yourself coming in asking about all kinds of stuff. It's always something I like seeing."

He adds, "Everyone thinks selling records is easy. But there's rent, phone bills, insurance and all kinds of stuff involved. You just gotta hope that every month you make enough money to pay the bills. And for 45 years, I was lucky enough to do just that. I put my son through school. My daughters are grown with good jobs. And my wife and I paid our rent and ate well for 45 years."

While we were talking, Joe put on his flannel, fed Huey some seeds, walked by and waved at Al. "See ya tomorrow, boss."

Music writer David Ma runs the audioblog www.nerdtorious.com.

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