When the third Sunday of the month rolls around, Columbia resident Alan Lee knows just where he'll be going. It's to the Arbutus Fire Hall, an unassuming brick building just off the southwestern Baltimore County town's main drag of East Drive.
But Lee isn't a volunteer firefighter. He's a pop music aficionado, specifically an authority on the doo-wop vocal group records of the 1950s and early 1960s. And his monthly venture to the fire hall is spent in that venue's basement, perusing old vinyl 45s and LPs of the music he loves.
"It's one of the few record shows in the country held every month," said Lee, who hosted the oldies radio program "Forgotten 45s" for nearly two decades on the now-defunct WQSR-FM. "There used to be a number of record shows around but they would be held sporadically. This one has survived for as long as it has, I think, because you know it's going to be there every month."
The show, which usually features between 50 and 60 dealers who cart in thousands of records, had its genesis in 1991, when it was started by some music fans who were part of Catonsville's chapter of the Knights of Columbus. In 1995, the show moved to its current location, where it was overseen by local music buff Ray Quigley, who moved out of the area four years ago.
These days, Arbutus resident Frank Ruehl oversees the event with his wife, Janet, and the pair has kept it flourishing. Ruehl estimates a "few hundred" people come to the show each month, but at the October show it seemed like there were more, judging from the throngs of people jostling for space at 117 tables.
The reason Ruehl doesn't have an exact head count of attendees is because the show has no admission fee. Instead of charging customers, each dealer pays a fee of $30 to set up a table. They're usually able to earn that amount back quickly when early-bird record collectors descend on the fire hall at 9 a.m. sharp to scoop up hard-to-find items.
"I think the free admission is one of the reasons it's survived so long," Lee said. "It used to be that they'd have these record shows a few times a year and you had to pay to get in. But you shouldn't have to pay to get in. You don't have to pay to get into a supermarket."
Rare sounds abound
Standing among the piles of albums he sells each month, show organizer Ruehl says he believes there are mostly two reasons people buy old vinyl records.
One is that they're trying to find something rare, like the copy of the oddball cash-in album "The Beatles vs. the Four Seasons" that usually lists in the triple digits at these shows.
The other is that buying used records and CDs is a good way to get a lot of bang for your buck. Inside the overflowing bins of records, show goers might find records by once-popular acts such as the Doobie Brothers or Carly Simon. Such recordings, pressed in the millions, now go for only a buck or two because they're easy to find.
But the best thing of all for a record collector, Ruehl said, is when his or her propensity for the cheap and the rare unexpectedly meet.
"There's always people who find records here for a dollar or two that are worth a lot more," he notes. "And that's what makes it fun. For many people, it's all about the hunt. Hunting and finding records is probably more than half the enjoyment they get. Because you just never know what's gonna be in that next box."
For the past few years, Ruehl says, soul and jazz records have been popular genres among seasoned record collectors, and they often come in looking for original pressings of discs by Sam Cooke, Otis Redding and Miles Davis.
The show is populated by veteran record dealers who specialize in specific types of music. For instance, there's always Jack Suplee, from Pennsylvania, who stocks the kind of big-band jazz records your grandmother would know.
West Virginia's Dave Weber owns Dave's Metal Magic Records, and is the guy you want to see if you're down with Pantera or Anvil. Find Skip Groff of Yesterday and Today Records and you're sure to score some cool '80s punk or hardcore, some of which Groff may have produced himself, such as the groundbreaking hardcore band Minor Threat.
Considering records are, well, kind of an old-timey thing, you might expect the Arbutus show to be filled with gray-haired pop fans. Think again, Ruehl said. There's a whole new contingent to these shows — people in their late teens and early twenties whose interest in the old stuff comes from listening to classic rock radio.
"The Who, the Doors and bands of that era are still strong sellers with the younger generation, who weren't even alive when they were recording," Ruehl said.
"Obviously, some of these kids here," he said, gesturing outward to the crowd, "never bought records when vinyl was king and now they're starting to latch onto it. There seems to be some resurgence in vinyl."
For the record(s)
Ruehl is correct in his assessment of vinyl's newfound popularity.
An article published online by Rolling Stone earlier this year cites a report from the media-tracking firm Nielsen SoundScan indicating sales of vinyl increased by 14 percent in 2010, with some 2.8 million units sold. This is especially impressive considering the other statistic Rolling Stone reported — that overall album sales dropped 13 percent last year.
The article also claimed the sales figures marked "a new record for vinyl sales since 1991." That's when the format pretty much disappeared because of the popularity of then-new CDs, which were touted to be the sound of the future.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the future. Once sound went digital, music buffs gravitated toward the far more portable MP3 format for convenience, and back to vinyl for the warmer, more nuanced analog sound that the harsher-sounding digital CDs don't offer.
"I see people as young as 17 and 18 who are getting into vinyl and are really into listening to analog sound," said Al Ercolani, a longtime Washington, D.C.-based record dealer who mostly sells vintage rock records from the 1960s to the 1980s at the Arbutus shows. "Younger people are discovering Pink Floyd for the first time and things like Jimi Hendrix. That stuff that still stays around, whereas I don't think a lot of people remember what was in the Top 25 five years ago."
Ercolani did note, however, that one factor driving the vinyl market among the younger set is the new crop of indie acts including Baltimore's own Beach House and Wye Oak, who make it a point to release their works in that format.
Alan Lee's very presence at these shows is a testament to vinyl's ongoing popularity: He buys records at the Arbutus show, he says, to sell at his store, Roadhouse Oldies, a Baltimore-based business that specializes in vinyl made before 1970.
Ercolani — whose business card boasts the legend "Get Real – Get a Turntable" — says that he's found CDs to be "pretty much worthless" on the collectible market, whereas the value of his vinyl items has either been retained or gone upward. How far upward? Well, he remembers selling an LP by the 1960s psychedelic group the Chocolate Watchband for "around $150" and says he recently saw an EP by the D.C. hardcore punk act the Misfits sell for "something like $400."
He says his most popular items lately have been records from the 1980s, specifically those made by the hair metal bands such as Twisted Sister and local favorites Kix.
"My average price is from $4.50 to around $10," he says.
But newcomers to the record-collecting scene shouldn't think it's all about the dollars, Lee cautioned. He says one of his favorite elements of the show is the way it's become a meet-up place for music lovers on the same wavelength.
"It's become more than just a record flea market," Lee said. "It's a social thing. Almost anybody in the Mid-Atlantic states that's interested in vinyl knows about Arbutus, and you're sure to see them there. So you can easily meet people of like minds that share interests in collecting vinyl or have an interest in music in general."
The next Record & CD Show will be held Sunday, Nov. 20, 9 a.m.-3 p.m., at the Arbutus Fire Hall (5200 Southwestern Blvd.). The final one of the year will be held Dec. 18. Admission is free and breakfast and lunch will be served on the premises. Call 410-242-4649.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun