It's Sunday morning, and Fraser Kinnear is in heaven. It must be heaven, because his idol, Ricky Nelson, is staring back at him.
Ricky's face is on the cover of a record album, a rare LP that Mr. Kinnear has sought for years. And now he has found it, amid thousands of other old albums for sale in the basement of a fire hall.
Mr. Kinnear cannot believe his luck. He picks up the LP and studies the 35-year-old cover, with sleepy-eyed Rick holding a guitar. The jacket is clean as a whistle. Mr. Kinnear takes a deep breath. Dare he peek inside?
Carefully, as if handling plutonium, he slides the blue vinyl disk from its sleeve and, holding it by the edge, looks for scratches. Many old rock and roll records are so beaten up, they look as if they were used as Frisbees. Not this one. The Ricky Nelson platter has aged well; someone took good care of Ozzie's kid.
Returning the record to its jacket, Mr. Kinnear can barely restrain himself. "My knees are getting weak," says the 34-year-old Bethesda man, who owns all but two of Ricky's 28 albums and nearly all of his 45 rpm singles. Mr. Kinnear's collection is almost complete; he is closing in on a full Nelson.
His home, says Mr. Kinnear, is "a shrine" to the late teen idol; stumbling onto such a rare disk is like finding the Holy Grail.
Such discoveries are routine at the Maryland Music Collectors Record Show, a treasure hunt for vinyl lovers held once a month in the cellar of the Arbutus Volunteer Fire Department, at 5200 Southwestern Blvd., Baltimore County.
Here, in a spacious room fit for a record hop, are endless rows of second-hand albums and stacks of vintage 45s, all cleaned up and ready to roll. Forty tables piled high with records, from rock to folk to jazz to soul. At this show, Pavarotti shares space with punk rock, and the Beatles hobnob with bluegrass.
"There's hardly a record that you can't find here, or at least make 'connections' for," says Ray Quigley, the record show's president. Most of the 40 dealers are collectors themselves. Give them a wish list and they'll work to fill it, for a price. What's your request? An obscure movie soundtrack, perhaps? Or maybe those Elvis records that your parents threw out when you went off to college?
"We've had people come in and re-create their whole collections from childhood," says Mr. Quigley, who never tires of seeing customers reunited with their long-lost loved ones.
"I've watched otherwise normal people yell and scream and go into ecstasy," he says.
One Sunday each month -- either the third or the fourth -- the fire hall becomes a chapel of love for about 500 record devotees. Some, like Mr. Kinnear, are hard-core collectors who spend hours thumbing through boxes and crates filled with little-known singles and albums by obscure artists and groups. Others come simply to browse through the mountains of mainstream classics: the pop and doo-wop and Top 40 hits.
"It's the best record show around," says Alan Lee, a weekend disc jockey on WQSR-FM (105.7). "For vinyl maniacs, this is like going to church on Sunday."
There are other regularly held record/tape/compact disc expos in Maryland -- in Timonium, Annapolis, Frederick, Hagerstown, Salisbury and Silver Spring -- but none takes place as often as the Arbutus show. Nor do they peddle near the same volume of vinyl.
"This is vinyl's last stand," says Mr. Lee. "Plus, there's no admission to this show, so if you don't find anything, you haven't lost anything."
Few people leave empty-handed, though. Mr. Lee is clutching two singles: "He's a Rebel," the Crystals' 1962 hit, which cost $1, and "I Need Someone," a record that bombed for Jay Dee Bryant but which now brings $35. Mr. Lee doesn't flinch at the price. "It's not like you could walk into a record store today and buy it," he says.
Some of Mr. Lee's gems are aired on his Sunday-night oldies show. Ditto Ken Schreiber, who trumpets his "Arbutus Finds" routinely on his Saturday-afternoon doo-wop show on WTMD-FM "This place is like having 40 record stores all in one location," says Mr. Schreiber, racing to inspect one box of 45s so he can hurry on to the next. All around him, others are frantically doing the same. In their rush to get to the record show, some customers appear to have forgotten to shave.
"It's a madhouse, early on," says Mr. Schreiber, of Randallstown. "Everyone's trying to find the best stuff. At the same time, you're watching people at other tables to see if they've discovered a gold mine."
There is method to this madness, collectors say.
"It's not like there are multiple copies of these records," says Mr. Schreiber. "Some are one-of-a-kind -- and when they're gone, they're gone."
Mostly, the buyers are middle-aged men, graying baby boomers intent on reclaiming the sounds of their youth -- no matter the cost, say some.
"I'm here to get the records I should have bought for $3 at E. J. Korvette in the '60s," says Karl Hessler, 43, of Linthicum.
Prices vary widely, from 25 cents to hundreds of dollars, &L; depending on the condition and rarity of the record. For instance, an original LP by Fabian can be had for about $10, while an album by the Pixies Three, a one-hit girl group of the '60s, carries a $235 tag.
Most record prices are "reasonable," says Mr. Hessler, a regular at the Arbutus show since it opened in 1992. Like most collectors, he takes better care of his records now than when he was a teen-ager, vacuuming them routinely with a $400 motorized record-cleaning machine.
Some customers are fussier about a record's condition than others. If he sees one scratch on a record, Mike Demski won't buy it. "It's got to be 'mint,' like it came straight from the factory," says Mr. Demski, 37, a country-and-western buff from Baltimore. He's squinting at a Jim Reeves album, examining every groove in the black vinyl for blemishes.
"Aha! Found one," he says, pointing to a mark on the record that a bystander couldn't see with a microscope. The album goes back in the stack.
Sometimes a scratch will slip past him, says Mr. Demski, who once paid $40 for a hard-to-find album by country singer Hank Snow, only to find two tiny flaws on the record at home. He quickly sold the LP to a less-discerning collector.
Dealers know the tastes of their regular customers and aim to please. One man wants only Teresa Brewer albums; a woman drives 30 miles to find records by the Allman Brothers. One man buys anything on colored vinyl, be it red, yellow or green; another collects only 45s with the artist's photograph imprinted on the label.
"Some people want every record that ever made the Billboard Top 100," says Derek Shaw, a dealer from York, Pa. "Others are doing label runs."
One man's dream is to own every single ever issued by Columbia Records. "Here's what I've got," says Robert Price, unfolding a thick computer printout bearing 31,000 titles, all cataloged by label. A record of his records, it is.
Mr. Price, a government worker from Dundalk, is here to fill in the gaps, like the one between Columbia records No. 40,005 and 40,007. Never mind who sang it, Mr. Price is hot on the trail of No. 40,006.
"It's like working a jigsaw puzzle," he says.
Behold, the missing link emerges from beneath a stack of ancient singles: It's "Satisfied," by Johnnie Ray, not one of that '50s pop artist's biggest hits.
"I have a lot of stinky songs, but that's OK," says Mr. Price, 39. "I don't play them that much -- and I've got to fill out my collection."
Johnnie Ray goes into his carrying case -- a brown paper grocery bag -- along with 500 other records Mr. Price has just purchased. A one-day binge may set him back as much as $800, a fair price, he says, considering the numbers involved.
"Some of these records only cost me 10 cents," he says. "When you buy in quantity, dealers are more obliged to give you a discount. Then they know I'll come back next month."
Label runners like Mr. Price are the exception at Arbutus. Most collectors have more specific interests -- a particular sound, or artist, that triggers fond memories of youth.
Ray Mills, a police officer from Pasadena, melts when he finds records by Ronnie Dove, a pop star of the '60s. "I just found one that I needed real bad," says Mr. Mills, fawning over a copy of "No Greater Love," by Ronnie Dove and the Beltones. Add to that the 35 Ronnie Dove singles he has at home, and Mr. Mills' collection may be greater than that of the artist himself.
Though most men come stag to the fire hall, Mr. Mills, 52, brings his wife, Mary, a huge fan of the late Roy Orbison. Mrs. Mills bought that singer's first album here recently for $150. She hurried home, played the record once and then carefully squirreled it away.
Another couple, Frank and Linda Stabile of Jarrettsville, flit nervously from table to table, unsure of where to start. They are rookies here. "We're going crazy," says Mr. Stabile, a retired fireman in search of 45s to fill his own jukebox. "This is a dream come true, to see all of these old records."
The show's hours are from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., although people begin trickling in as early as 7:30, rifling through records while vendors are setting up. Disputes are rare; no one barges ahead in line. Sandwiches and snacks are available, but most folks are too busy to eat.
"You can literally spend the whole day here," says Craig Bill of New Windsor. He arrived with his son, Valdon, as part of "a family thing." Once inside, they split up -- dad in search of Kathy Young with the Innocents, and son in pursuit of Smashing Pumpkins.
By midday, the room is swarming with men shuffling through 50 years of recordings. There's now only one woman in the place, senior citizen Grace Schutt, and she's having a blast her first time out. "This place is a treasure-trove," says Ms. Schutt, clutching her purchase, a $1 copy of 1951's "How High the Moon" by Les Paul and Mary Ford.
Her first visit won't be the last, says Ms. Schutt of Hanover. "This is like going through Grandma's attic.
"Yes, I'll be back."
"Most women don't bother," says Arlene Weiss, a music writer who enjoys the show. "Men see records as a historical, cultural and financial enterprise."
She believes that records are a passing fancy for women. "Women hear songs, they like them, they buy them and then they forget about them."
For men, she says, record-collecting can border on obsession. Some men spend all day rummaging through bins, ferreting out bargains and haggling over prices. See the triumphant smile on Tony Wilds' face? The Mount Vernon, Va., man just paid $30 for a Wanda Jackson album that would have cost $200, except for a couple of water stains.
Before he leaves, Mr. Wilds decides to check out one more record crate . . . then another . . . and another.
"Coming here each month is my only vice," says Kenny Harding, 52, a plasterer from Crofton. He dresses for the occasion, in a T-shirt bearing a 45 record logo. The song on his chest is "My Girl Awaits Me," an obscure doo-wop song by an equally obscure group (the Castells). Unable to find that record, one man offers to buy Mr. Harding's shirt.
Most collectors enjoy the thrill of the hunt, but there are shortcuts for those who are pressed for time. Inside the fire hall, a man at a microphone booms out customers' record requests at minute intervals -- everything from the Big Bopper to Barry Manilow. Dealers are quick to respond.
Jay Goodman doesn't drive clear from the Eastern Shore to have someone else do the looking for him. "I try to sniff out bargains," says Mr. Goodman, 45, of Rock Hall, displaying his latest finds: singles by the Marvelettes, the Miracles and the Four Mints, as well as forgotten 45s such as "Mope-itty Mope Stomp" by the Dovells and "It's A Sin to Tell a Lie," by Dave "Baby" Cortez.
Mr. Goodman leaves, 12 records richer and $25 poorer.
"I've learned to bring a limited amount of money," says the part-time disc jockey. "Good thing they only take cash here; I'd go nuts with a credit card."
Dickering with dealers over record prices is a given, says Sam Mathis of Glen Burnie. "There's a lot of bartering going on; buying records is a lot like buying a used car."
Some dealers even bring their own turntables, so customers can take a record out for a "spin."
Regulars like Mr. Mathis, 46, strike friendships with vendors who can help fill out their collections. For instance, dealers who know Mr. Mathis digs '50s rockabilly music may give him first dibs on early Sun label recordings by Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash or Jerry Lee Lewis.
Anything by the late Marty Robbins, they hold for a slender 23-year-old from Carroll County.
One of the youngest of the Arbutus regulars, Jimmy Rill grew up humming Robbins' gunfighter ballads and country hits. As if he had a choice. "My parents played his records all the time," says Mr. Rill of Hampstead. Now he's hooked, to the point where dealers call him "Mr. Robbins" and go off in search of more vinyl for a man who's been known to plunk down $100 or more for records that were cut before he was born.
Where do vendors find the vinyl? At yard sales, flea markets and auctions. They rummage through thrift shops, attend estate sales and place ads in newspapers (WANTED: Old Records). One man spends his weekends riding transit buses, chatting with strangers and trying to goad them into parting with the dusty albums in their basements.
Dealers clean the records, repackage and appraise them, using industry price guides but leaving room for negotiation.
"It's really a buyer's market," says Marty Mettee, a vendor from Ellicott City. "People shouldn't expect to pay 'book' prices, unless the stuff is early rhythm-and-blues records from the 1950s."
Customers sometimes bring their own records, hoping to swap for something better. The deals rarely pan out, says Mr. Mettee. "Most people want to trade their Abba albums for Buddy Holly."
Like most of the Arbutus dealers, Mr. Mettee peddles records as a sidelight. He's a government worker. Other vendors include car salesmen, teachers, a pet groomer and a retired steelworker.
Most dealers indulge the rock-and-rollers. Not Bill Martin. Ethnic music is his forte, from Cajun to Chilean. The Kent Island native hawks albums and tapes filled with a cacophony of sounds from around the world: Irish, Japanese, even village music from the Andes Mountains.
"Try it, you'll like it," coos Mr. Martin, whose return policy is just as inviting: If you don't like it, bring it back.
His table is nearly as crowded as the rest.
"Baltimore is an exceptionally good collector's market," says Otti Schmitt, a dealer from Alexandria, Va., who works a half-dozen record shows in the Mid-Atlantic region each year. Most are held in armories, hotels or convention centers. It's appropriate that the Baltimore show be held in a fire hall, Ms. Schmitt says.
"This town is a hotbed for oldies."
MIKE KLINGAMAN is a reporter for The Sun.
Checking Out Yesterday's Sounds
The Maryland Music Collectors Record Show takes place today from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Arbutus Volunteer Fire Department, 5200 Southwestern Blvd., Baltimore County. Take Beltway Exit 12A south. Admission is free. The next show is June 25. Call (410) 455-0418 for more information.