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Photograph by Curtis Cartier
Knob Hill: Franklin Williams is seeking a new home for his collection of old TVs and stereos.

Sound Off

Volunteer and activist Franklin Williams sets up a stereo museum in the Grey Bears, only to dismantle it again.

By Curtis Cartier

IN AN unremarkable office trailer tucked in a corner of the sprawling California Grey Bears thrift complex on Chanticleer Avenue in Santa Cruz is one man's ode to the stereo. No more than a modest collection of dusted off old speakers, televisions, radios and record players stacked on flimsy shelves among a scattering of musical and political posters, the room is the pride of Grey Bears employee and local activist Franklin Williams. But one person's "sound museum" is another's "inappropriate use of space," and come July 16, these old relics will need to find a new home.

"Most of this stuff was donated to the Bears, but there's some of mine in here too," says Williams, a tall white-bearded former Black Panther wearing a worker's back harness and rainbow-colored African kufi hat. "They want to use the space for storage, but I just want people to know that it was here and hopefully find somewhere it can stay."

At any given time, Williams has a hand in a half-dozen volunteer-based projects, like a food delivery program for homeless people and a work studies class he teaches at UCSC. But for full-time work, Williams runs the actual thrift store portion of the local Grey Bears branch. About four weeks ago, his higher-ups commissioned him to set up an extra stereo equipment sales room in what was then a vacant office trailer. What they got was a stereo equipment room, but there was one thing missing: price tags. Williams had opted to keep the displays strictly educational, though now he says he realizes that might have been a mistake.

"I just tried to make something that people can come in and enjoy. But I do think it would be better in a museum or something," he says, adding. "I'm hoping the Museum of Natural History or Louden Nelson might be interested."

The equipment inside the room ranges from valuable antiques to outdated junk, the best of which he's given romantic naval titles. His "aircraft carrier" is a G.E. tube-TV built inside a mahogany entertainment center, and his "battleship" is a rare Curtis Mathes turntable and reel-to-reel cassette stereo that sounds almost as good as it did in the 1950s. A few odd radios and a handful of records are there too, watched over by photographs of Williams' daughter and posters of Cesar Chavez and activist Geoffrey Canada.

Having picked up an interest in stereos as a young boy, Williams spent most of his working life in and out of the sound equipment industry, most notably for nearly 25 years as a buyer for the recently shuttered Ocean Street Home Entertainment Exchange. And though he's disappointed by having to dismantle his newest display, he hopes that the room's future use as storage for medical supplies like walkers, wheelchairs and portable toilets will be a success. In fact, he's currently applying for grants on behalf of the Grey Bears to buy a bigger stock of the much-in-demand walkers and wheelchairs.

Lynda Francis, the executive director for the local Grey Bears, says the room was never meant to be any kind of museum. She says she hopes the equipment will find a better venue.

"The fact is, that space was supposed to be a stereo component store," she says. "Franklin did this on his own because he had a vision. It would be great if he can find a home for it, but it's not at the Grey Bears."

The fact that Williams took an idea, added his personal touch and ran with it seems no surprise to the people who know him. Pastor Paul Spurlock of Twin Lakes Church in Aptos says Williams' work ethic is humbling, though his tact is often lacking.

"He's an old guy but he's got the energy of a 20-year-old," says Spurlock. "I totally respect what he does because I see his heart is in the right place. I think he's more about getting things done than getting good PR."

Perhaps Williams' closest friend and colleague is Santa Cruz Councilmember Mike Rotkin. The politician and UCSC lecturer first met the young activist while teaching a Marxism class in the '70s, and later went on to host Williams' wedding in his back yard.

"Franklin is totally committed to helping disadvantaged people," says Rotkin. "He's essentially an activist. He's always out doing some kind of volunteer work. He's done a ton of anti-racist work and is a guy that's able to cross racial boundaries. He just gets in the trenches and does the work--a really amazing individual."

At day's end, Williams agrees that the stuff inside the little trailer at Grey Bears is just that: stuff. He hopes it will end up somewhere, but, as one might expect, he's got plenty of other projects lined up and is already chomping at the bit to get them started.

"I've got a new plan. I'm going to offer a free moving service to any senior citizen. Just call me up and I'll deliver anything, move anything and take it away for free," he says confidently. "That's the point I want to show people: that taking my museum down doesn't phase me. I keep on going. That's what I do."

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