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The Baltimore Sun

Flipping through a section of Jimi Hendrix albums with slightly worn covers, Mike Moffo of Lansdowne stopped to consider the album Band of Gypsys, with a familiar photo of the rock legend in his kaleidoscopic glory.

"I've got so many copies of this I don't really need another one," said the 44-year-old roofing contractor, wrapping up a visit to True Vine, a sliver of a store on The Avenue in Hampden that caters to vinyl record enthusiasts.

"And it's a green Capitol label, anyway."

To collectors like Moffo, who said he owns six or seven copies of the 1970 Hendrix recording, "green" means the fourth or fifth pressing - so far removed from the original that the album has little monetary value.

Still, he insists that the allure of vinyl has little to do with money, and almost everything to do with the senses. Vinyl records mean cover art large enough to be framed, liner notes meant to be read again and again, the feel of a plastic disc held with hands a foot apart, the pop of the needle landing on vinyl, and the crackle of dust particles riding above the warm sound of bass and horns.

"You put the needle on, and, God, it's great," Moffo said.

Barely more than three years old, True Vine is among a handful of local stores whose owners refuse to believe that vinyl is dead. Never mind that compact discs drove long-playing albums into near-oblivion in the 1980s, and that downloadable music now threatens CDs.

Collectors also flock to shops such as Normal's in Waverly and Own Guru Records in Fells Point, as well as the monthly record show at the Arbutus firehouse, famous among aficionados up and down the East Coast.

True Vine, wedged between a funky jewelry store and an old-fashioned shoe repair shop, attracts hard-core collectors who buy original pressings for upward of $60 and constantly upgrade to find the "cleaner, crisper copy," says Jason Willett, 39, one of the store's three owners.

But it also draws more casual fans who are happy to purchase a vinyl repressing for a few dollars as long as it's in good condition.

"The sound does have that charm, though sometimes the pressings are terrible," said Willett. "It's kind of like using a rotary-style telephone. I'm getting this amazing sound from this? It seems almost impossible."

Rock history greets all who enter the store. There's a Little Feat album still bearing its E.J. Korvette tag, a Firesign Theatre cover with opposing portraits of Marx (Groucho) and Lennon (John) and a copy of There is Only One Roy Orbison with a portrait of the eerily smiling vocalist, his dreamy eyes just visible through dark glasses.

In contrast, Normal's provides a feast of visual and aural treats for lovers of jazz. The shop, on East 31st Street, also contains meandering rooms filled with old books, as well as a performance space called The Red Room for live, improvisational music. Displayed in the window are curiosities including a vintage rubber figure of Mad magazine's Alfred E. Neuman and a tin clown beating a drum.

But the jazz crowd huddles in two front rooms featuring row after row of albums that represent over a half-century of recorded music. Included are popular artists such as Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Lee Morgan.

Co-owner Rupert Wondolowski is particularly proud of titles by offbeat artists such as Sun Ra, the avant-garde keyboardist, composer and bandleader whose music ranged between swing and bedlam - and who claimed to have been born on Saturn.

Normal's opened 17 years ago, just as CD technology was completing its dominance of the record industry. The timing could not have been better.

"People were dumping their vinyl because they thought it was worthless," said Wondolowski, 46, who sports a lone strip of hair on his chin.

"None of us felt there was any reason for vinyl to become obsolete," he said. "There were those who mocked us, but it's only gotten hotter in the last five years."

The hip-hop culture has helped because turntables lend themselves to the percussive "scratching" technique favored by dance-hall disc jockeys. Young adults in their 20s are beginning to discover the historical appeal of jazz on vinyl. Also, rock groups such as U2 are pressing limited runs of vinyl to maintain "their street cred," says Wondolowski.

And there are always stalwarts like Leo Douville of Cross Keys, who never abandoned the recording medium of his youth.

"Number one, it's got a good feel," said Douville, 65, who sported a green polo shirt with a matching John Deere cap. "With the CDs, you just get a little toy box. You don't get the nice cover. It also has a better sound than the CDs."

Douville also maintains that compact discs are "too damn long." Digital technology enabled producers to squeeze more than 60 minutes onto a CD, while the process of etching grooves into plastic limited many early LPs to scarcely more than a half-hour.

"The LP presents the perfect format," he said.

Normal's owners prowl thrift shops and record fairs, looking for vinyl to augment their inventory, but Wondolowski says that "most of our best stuff just comes through the door." He says the shop is picky about condition - it won't buy or sell badly damaged records.

Though the true test is how a recording sounds at home, Wondolowski said browsers can subject records to a simple test: If they can feel a scratch, they'll probably hear it. Otherwise, it's most likely harmless.

It's a common myth that working turntables are impossible to find. eBay has hundreds of used machines in its online auction galleries for as little as $20, and new ones are available at major electronics retailers at prices ranging from $100 to $400. Upscale turntables sell for $1,000 or more at specialty retailers.

At Normal's, many albums sell for $3 to $5, but collectors can also find rare pressings for $60 or more. A recording by Art Blakey, the great drummer and bandleader, carries a $100 price tag because it is an original pressing.

Collectors of Blue Note, one of the premier jazz labels of the 1950s and 1960s, know that a first pressing bears the company's exact street address (47 W. 63rd St.) and has a deep circular groove etched into the paper at the center of the disc. Later pressings say "Blue Note Records New York USA" and have a shallow groove.

"Audiophiles want to go back as far as they can for the pressing," Wondolowski said. "And I have to say, there are sound differences."

Though it's not an everyday occurrence, the store occasionally hits pay dirt.

"Recently, we bought 400 jazz titles from a guy from D.C.," he said. "Within the collection were about 200 original Blue Notes, and they almost all sold to one customer - a scientist who pretty much bought them straight."

The store, which also sells rock, Latin and African recordings, once slapped a $100 price tag on a copy of the Velvet Underground's 1967 debut album - the one with the Andy Warhol banana on the cover.

"If it didn't actually sell, it would still be a conversation piece, but it sold in the first week," he recalled. "The banana was not in the best condition, but it was still pretty good."

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