Ben Harper & Bill Wisener
Being a record collector continues to be a joy for me especially since I have had the opportunity to literally “travel the world” finding record stores that may contain that one piece of vinyl that will complement my music collection. I can honestly say that I have rummaged through some of the best and worst record stores in the world. Most assuredly, you never know what you will find at those places. Sometimes it’s a gem and sometimes it’s a dud, but the bottom line is that for vinyl collectors like me, it’s just a whole lot of fun to devote a few hours of time in a record store.
Given that I can vividly remember most every record store that I’ve ever been to, I decided to relate my thoughts and experiences of visits to some of those stores that were unique and provided me with that bag of vinyl that was brought home to grace my turntable or improve my jukebox selections.
While visiting with two of my grandchildren in Dallas recently, I convinced my stepson to take me to a record store that I had read about called Bill’s Records. We arrived at Bill’s at about 11:45 in the morning and noticed that the shop actually was scheduled to open at noon. We looked through the window, saw that some of the lights were on but the door was locked. A few moments later, the door opened and a man peeked out his head and said that he was watching his favorite Sunday morning TV program, but we were welcome to come inside before the shop officially would open. In all my years of record buying, I had never been greeted at a record store this way.
As we entered, most of the lights were turned on, but the shop seemed dark and it also had a distinct smell of cigarettes. I immediately realized that the smell of tobacco was the result of the man who opened the door and his ashtray that contained ashes and a lit cigarette. I correctly surmised that the smoker was Bill. And the darkness was due to the fact that the shop had only one big window in the front and nowhere else was there even a hint of letting the sunshine in.
After his show on TV was over, Bill wasted no time in telling me that at one point in his ownership of a record store that he had the largest independent store in the U.S. and that Billboard magazine did a story about him and that establishment. He proudly pointed to the article written by that publication which was laminated in a frame by his desk. He said that he had sold that store and was now in this new smaller location
“So, Bill” I said “I am mostly interested in seeing your 45’s; where are they?” He pointed to the side wall and said there were shelves packed with many 45’s.
“Are they in any particular order?” I inquired.
Bill said no they were not in any particular order and that I should just begin my search and call him if I needed any assistance. Before I made my way to the section of the store with the 45’s, Bill cautioned me on the condition of the rest room if in fact I needed that facility. Apparently, he has concerts in his store for local bands and since there was a show the previous night, he said he had not as yet emptied the beer cans from the restroom trash can. Not information I needed, but thankful to know about this.
Most every record store that I ever been to has some degree of classification for their 45’s, LP’s, 78’s, etc. Apparently, Bill didn’t feel the need to classify the records. Every genre is mixed together. Most record stores pack their 45’s for example, in bins or boxes. Apparently, Bill did not feel that this accommodation was warranted either. Most record stores do not provide seating, so that after a long day of rummaging through the racks, one can get tired. Here too, Bill has not followed the norm because he provided a number of chairs right next to endless shelves of 45’s so that a customer can comfortably be seated while looking through the records.
Since there was no particular rhyme or reason to the way in which the 45’s were organized or presented, I found a Billy Preston record next to a Four Tops record next to a Led Zeppelin record. Ironically, all the records I looked at were in surprisingly good shape. I continued my search and at the end of a few hours, I was well rested courtesy of Bill’s comfortable chairs, took my bounty to the front desk to discuss whatever payment was required. Oh, another aspect to Bill’s store was that no prices, at least for 45’s were posted. He is truly a very interesting guy running his store in his way.
Paying for the records is yet another unique experience. Bill is a very affable man and my conversations with him were most pleasant. Although I wanted to settle on a price and leave, I was drawn into Bill’s stories. He is a very engaging individual.
On his wall, I noticed a RIAA award to Ben Harper. Bill told me that he knows Ben, is friendly with him and when Ben played at the 9:30 Club in Washington, DC, Bill traveled up there to see him. The more I spoke to Bill, the more I realized that this shop, this man represented a part of America that we don’t see any more. He is a gentleman who knows his business no matter what the shop may appear to look like. And even though the bulk of his income from selling records today comes from e-Bay auctions, not from guys like me rummaging through the racks, he is pleasant, knowledgeable and a joy to converse with.
As we began to talk about the prices that Bill would assign to the records I brought to the front, I glanced around to see the many CDs on display. Thought I’d push my luck and ask him where I could find a certain artist in the CD section. He looked at me, grimaced slightly “I know it’s somewhere out there, you’ll have to look” he said. I knew it was time to pay and go.
I learned a lot from Bill on a hot sunny August afternoon in Dallas that day. It was a great experience and I intend to visit him and his store again in that order the next time I’m in the neighborhood. I hope that he continues to operate his store in exactly the same manner when I next visit.