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Catonsville, Arbutus record shops celebrate resurgence in sales of vinyl

Trax on Wax owner Gary Gebler discusses the sound quality of records and Record Store Day.

Punch K5 on the jukebox inside Now & Then Music and Movies in Arbutus, and you'll hear the gears whirl, the record loaded and then a crackling, warm voice from the speakers, asking over and over again in early 60s-style pop, "Who wrote the book of songs?"

The needle might not line up right at first, but that's OK because owner Mike Sanford knows how to fix it. Just a few seconds, and the obscure doo-wop group the Ly-Dells will radiate from the glowing machine once again.

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Sanford and other owners of record shops will celebrate International Record Store Day on April 16. Though he doesn't exclusively sell vinyl, Sanford's shop on East Drive is filled with record players and records. He's worked in the music business for decades and first got into records in his younger days with his older brother.

"He'd play them, we'd have a couple beers," he said.

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It's the warm sound of the medium that makes it attractive to people, Sanford said.

In the past he has sold records at shows, and worked as a DJ on occasion. In 2000 he took over Now & Then and brought music in as a larger component.

Back then, CDs were the top seller, but things have changed, he said.

"Seems like vinyl is here and CDs are on the way out," he said.

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According to research firm Nielsen, new vinyl sales were up for the 10th year in a row in 2015. About 12 million records were sold, a 30 percent increase over 2014, while CD sales declined 10 percent.

Most of what Sanford sells is used, and not represented in the Nielsen report.

On a Thursday afternoon, DJ Ryan Milan, of Catonsville, stopped by to look at some used speakers. He started flipping through a collection of CDs.

Now & Then isn't just filled with records and CDs, but also memorabilia, instruments, movies and vintage equipment, like eight-track players, and the jukebox in the back. The shop reminded him of the music stores he frequented in the 1990s.

"I miss this," he said.

He would spend hours back in the day talking with people at music stores. Changing times and online music put many of those places out of business, but after 16 years, Sanford's shop remains.

"This stuff brings me right back in," Milan said, looking around the store.

Trax on Wax

A community vibe is part of the appeal at record store Trax on Wax in Catonsville as well.

"People just like spending time here and talking about music," owner Gary Gebler said.

On the afternoon of March 18, record collector Chris Zenos, of Silver Spring, came by to look through doo-wop records. She didn't just shop, she also chatted with the store's employees.

"I love records," she said.

She really does — she's collected more than 20,000 albums.

It's the hunt, she said. She dug through a crate filled with albums, looking for a gem.

Her favorite genres are doo-wop, R&B and blues.

Explaining the difference between vinyl and digital, Gebler makes a comparison to an electrocardiogram — a test that measures a person's heart rate.

With vinyl, you hear the high highs and the low lows, Gebler said. The sound would be a wave on that machine. Digital would be flat.

"A digital recording is like when you're dead," he said. "It's just a flat line."

Gebler's favorite album is a constant, he said — "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" by the Beatles.

There are a few other constants in Gebler's life, like alphabetizing records. That's a skill he learned 43 years ago, working in a store called Music Liberated.

"Day one, I knew that's what I wanted to do with my life," Gebler said. "It's funny, I'm 58 now and my day hasn't changed a bit since I was 15."

Over the years he moved as a manager to different companies like Sam Goody and Record & Tape Traders, before opening his own shop on Frederick Road in 2009.

He's seen the upward trend in vinyl sales since opening.

Classic rock is a big seller, and it's also a topic of conversation in the store among customers.

"The stuff that they remember from high school and middle school," Gebler said. "It makes them happy; you can see their whole demeanors change from a bad day to a good day."

New record sales have picked up in the past year or two, Gebler said.

Record Store Day is doing a good job bringing attention to small stores, he added. Trax on Wax will be selling some of the limited releases coming out April 16.

The store will be crowded, but the vibe will still be good.

"But people are very patient. They're in a party kind of festive mood," Gebler said. "They have fun while they're waiting in line."

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