The Vinyl Solution

Think 45s are a thing of the past? Think again.

The main floor of Mountain Coin, located in an industrial cube of a building on a lonely stretch of 62nd Avenue just west of Interstate 25, is packed with the latest in electronic games and diversions. There's "Wrestlemania," in which a beefy champion under your control tries to smear the face of a fearsome challenger into a virtual mat. (As the device waits to be activated, a voice from it occasionally declares, "What a moron!") There's "Magical Touch," a contraption that allows patrons to test themselves in assorted contests of skill, including "Joker Poker" and "Sex Trivia." There's also "Tournament Solitaire," "Super 6 Plus II," "3 on 3 Hoop It Up World Tour" and a Space Jam-themed pinball machine in which rivals launch metallic orbs painted to resemble miniature basketballs. It's a proud collection that can't keep quiet; even when no one's pushing their buttons or wiggling their joysticks, these oversized toys beep and blip like flashy robots whose sole purpose is to keep boredom and depression at bay two quarters at a time.

Most of the jukeboxes that are part of this assembly gleam just as brightly as the other sales items, embodying the kind of technical advances that tend to loosen the purse strings of Nineties consumers. "The Performer," a "hyperbeam" box manufactured by NSM, lacks a coin slot (the smallest monetary unit it will accept is a dollar bill), but it more than makes up for this deficiency with a sleek design that includes a display window in which a pair of CDs float and rotate a la flying saucers. A different music spinner, from Seeburg, has a V-shaped front section that makes it look like a coin-changer from beyond the stars. And while the exteriors of some jukes--particularly one that's lined with tubes of bubbling, colored fluid--recall previous eras, their insides are as modern as today. A case in point is a Rock-Ola disc player that sports antique lettering identifying it as a "laser phonograph." If someone had seen such a placard on a jukebox during the Fifties, he would have called the bomb squad to defuse it.

But such a person would have felt very much at home on Mountain Coin's second floor, where a small outfit dubbed Hear Here occupies a pair of rooms. Portions of the enterprise seem utterly up-to-date--especially those racks inside the main sales area that brim with CDs ranging from golden oldies to recent blockbusters. But what's most striking about the place are its walls, which are lined with 45 rpm vinyl singles. Thousands of them--more than sixty thousand of them. And these 45s aren't dusty, scratchy relics from days gone by. They're brand-new, never-before-played stacks of wax, their obsidian surfaces protected by crisp paper sleeves just as they had been during the period when similar platters could be found in every Woolworth and Budget Records location between the Pacific and the Atlantic. So crowded are Hear Here's shelves that the space seems less like a music store than a vault--or perhaps a time capsule containing the finest aural nuggets from the twentieth century.

"When people come in here, we see a lot of wide eyes," says Carolyn Quick, Hear Here's personable owner. "I can't tell you how many times we've had people stand here and say, 'I didn't even know they made these things anymore.'"

They do. Musicians looking to present their songs to the public in a cost-effective manner have discovered that 45s provide a viable alternative to cassettes and compact discs. Hence, vinyl continues to thrive along the fringes of the music industry, especially among fanciers of punk and indie rock. Meanwhile, many well-known acts (including Pearl Jam, whose song "Spin the Black Circle" pays tribute to the old-style single) tout the format for aesthetic reasons: They feel that music on vinyl sounds warmer and better than it does when digitized for CD. And that's not to mention the nostalgia factor. According to Carolyn, "A lot of people who remember how much fun jukeboxes are have gotten to the point in their lives where they can afford to put one in their basement or their rec room. And when they do, they need something to put in it."

Of course, Hear Here isn't the only place that Denverites can find 45s. Numerous specialty shops in the city continue to sell them, but most focus on new songs by up-and-coming underground combos; rare, imported or collectible singles that come complete with hefty price tags; or used singles purchased for a pittance from persons more interested in cleaning out their attics than in holding onto little slices of musical history. By contrast, Hear Here concentrates on what's left of the jukebox market. Carolyn and family sell a huge variety of popular ditties (from Fats Waller to the Beastie Boys) for around $1.50--and often less. Included for that price are pre-printed labels that fit jukebox slots--and clients who want extra title strips for singles they already own can have them custom-made for the princely sum of a nickel apiece. "We've got the printer right here," Carolyn points out. "It's no big deal."

Given these prices, Carolyn must sell a considerable volume of product in order to keep her doors open. She's been able to do so because there are only a handful of establishments like hers remaining in the United States. "I know there's one in Minnesota," she says. "And I think there's one in Arizona, too. But between here and there, we're pretty much it. So we ship all over the country."

"Maine, Rhode Island, California, Alaska," notes Carolyn's daughter Heather Johnson, who works alongside her sister Tamara Johnson in her mom's business. "I don't think there's anywhere we haven't shipped stuff at least once."

"People think there's no way you can make a living doing this," Carolyn goes on, "but we've actually grown over the past year. The need's still there."

"A lot of people don't want to get rid of their old 45 jukeboxes," Heather says. "They like them. And as long as there are those old jukeboxes around, there are going to be people who want records. And that's what we're here for."

Because of Hear Here's off-the-beaten-track location, those who want to peruse singles in person must make a special trip. On this mid-January day, when the high temperature is preceded by a minus sign, only a brave few do--but neither cold nor snow nor dark of night can stay Ray Fudge from dropping by to pick up a Grateful Dead album and a CD of selections by Irish specialist Charlie Taylor that he hopes will liven up one of the jukes he looks after come St. Patrick's Day.

As Fudge trudges down the stairs to confront the elements again, Tamara, sitting at a computer terminal printing CD labels, says, "Ray was mom's very first customer."

"He bought a 45 by Steve Wariner," Carolyn confirms. "It was called 'Lynda'--and it was spelled with a 'y.'"

Such a feat of memory is hardly out of the ordinary for Carolyn: She knows as much about the music available on 45 as anyone drawing breath. Ask her if George Clinton's "Atomic Dog" can be found on a single and she replies, without any perceptible pause, "It's on the B-side of 'Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow,' by the Rivingtons." These songs have precious little in common: "Atomic Dog," from the early Eighties, is a slab of funk that was sampled more than a decade later by Snoop Doggy Dogg, among others, while "Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow" is an entertaining nonsense tune that fell eight spots shy of the Top 40 in 1962. Carolyn, however, doesn't recall this pairing because of its absurdity; she remembers it because she remembers everything.

"It's a necessity," she insists. "For example, sometimes people come in looking for things, but a lot of the time they won't know the titles. They'll ask for 'The Corvette Song,' but if you look it up in the books, there isn't any such song. So you just have to know that what they really want is 'The One I Loved Back Then,' by George Jones. Or if somebody comes in wanting 'The Perfect Country-and-Western Song,' that's 'You Never Even Called Me by My Name,' by David Allen Coe. And if you don't know that, they may never find out."

Carolyn, who's 48, has been picking up such bits and pieces of wisdom for as long as she can recollect. She was born on a farm in South Dakota but moved frequently after her father discarded his pitchfork in favor of a job as an aeronautics engineer. Because the family changed addresses so frequently, music became one of Carolyn's few constants. "My dad had a nice speaker system he built himself," she says. "He found the plans in Popular Electronics. My mom made him keep them in the basement, because they were made of plywood, but that didn't stop me from listening to them." Smiling, she adds, "I still have my very first record: Bobby Vee--'Run to Him.'"

Upon graduating from high school, Carolyn enrolled at the University of California at Riverside with no clear idea of what she wanted to do when she grew up. After a year of trying to decide, she dropped out in order to marry Raymond Johnson, who was then serving in the Air Force. Upon completing his hitch, Raymond got a bachelor of science degree in engineering technology and went to work for a company that serviced oil wells. The job required him to skip from site to site on a regular basis: "They'd tell him that if he wanted to pick up his next paycheck, he'd have to go somewhere else to get it," Carolyn contends. Thus, she returned to the gypsy lifestyle she'd known during her girlhood. Her first child, Grant, was born in Riverside in 1971. (Currently a U.S. Marine stationed in Kansas City, Missouri, he plans to become a computer programmer once his tour is completed; he wrote the program Carolyn uses to keep track of her inventory at Hear Here.) Four and a half years later, Heather made her debut in Long Beach, California, followed eighteen months down the line by Tamara, who arrived when the family was living in Kenai, Alaska. "We were there almost two years," Carolyn says about this last hotspot. "It was enough."

During most of this period, Carolyn worked as a full-time mom and homemaker. But when the Johnsons were headquartered in Dickinson, North Dakota, she got the opportunity to indulge her love of music by starting her own business, the Sarsaparilla Saloon and Dance Hall. "It wasn't a bar--it was a hangout for kids," Tamara says. "It had a dance hall with a mirror ball and a DJ, and it was great, especially since kids in Dickinson didn't really have much to do. I was only three when we had it, but I still remember it. Mom would work there all day, and we'd take our naps in the basement. I loved it."

"It was so much fun," Heather agrees. "On the nights when we'd stay there until closing time, I'd get all dressed up in this dress I wore when I was a flower girl in a wedding, and the DJ would play a special song for me. I think it was an old Queen song. And at the end of the night, all the kids would clear off the dance floor and I'd dance around by myself until the song was over. And then I'd run back downstairs again."

Unfortunately, the Sarsaparilla Saloon turned out to be a short-lived venture: Nine months after it opened, Raymond was told to move somewhere else, and that was that. The clan wound up in Denver around the time the Johnsons' marriage was disintegrating. "It looked like I might have a reason to have to support myself," Carolyn says, "and after looking around a little bit, I realized that typical male careers paid a lot better than typical female careers. So I decided to go in the typical male direction."

To that end, Carolyn signed up at a Denver electronics institute and learned how to repair pinball machines. (She also met her current husband, Vince Quick, who was in the class behind hers. Today he's a photocopier repairman.) Her new skills earned her a spot at Denver-based Struve Distributing, which sold and serviced games and jukeboxes, but after a year on the job, her position was phased out. "At first I didn't know what I was going to do," she admits. "But the whole time I'd been working there, I'd hear people say, 'You should have a record department.' And I thought, 'I like music. I could do that.'"

The executives at Struve approved Carolyn's scheme, and in short order, she was running a precursor to Hear Here from three rooms at the distributorship. It was tough to get the operation off the ground, in part because record companies initially balked at supplying her with music. "I don't blame them," Carolyn says. "They didn't know who I was." But the setup allowed her to look after Heather and Tamara, who at the time were eleven and ten, respectively. She'd put them to work making title strips and checking in stock, and when they got restless, she'd send them into the Struve showroom to play video games and pinball. "They were all left on free play for demonstration purposes," Heather reveals. "We both got really good."

When Struve was sold to another corporation, Colorado Game Exchange, Carolyn was confident enough to strike out on her own. Her first two locations weren't exactly swank--the first was directly above a food-stamp office on West Alameda Avenue, the second on Federal Boulevard next door to a nightclub called Dandy Dan's--but she found a way to survive. Then, in 1995, she received a call from the manager of Mountain Coin, her only local rival. After informing her that the company had decided to stop selling discs and singles at its stores in Las Vegas, Salt Lake City and Colorado Springs in order to consolidate its goods at the Denver location, he proposed that she merge her business with Mountain Coin's music department. By October, a deal was struck, and Carolyn moved in.

"Some of the things they stocked were a little strange," she says as she mentions some holdovers from the Mountain Coin era--such as three boxes' worth of "Eyes of a Child," a flop by Air Supply, and a CD copy of the soundtrack to Schindler's List, which hasn't gone down in pop-history as a jukebox favorite. She fingers a 45. "Like Timmy Gatling here--I don't think anyone's ever heard of him, so his stuff may be around for a while. And Ken Griffin--he played the organ, and organ music isn't really big in jukeboxes.

"But most of these records will find a home sooner or later. I'll bet there's somebody out there for every single record we've got. It's just a matter of finding them."

Not that Carolyn is knocking herself out to let vinyl lovers know about her treasure trove. She's never advertised, relying instead on word of mouth to attract buyers. For this reason, Hear Here remains something of a mystery to some. "We get calls from people with hearing aids all the time," she remarks. "One guy came in here and said, 'I need to get a new battery for my hearing aid.' And somebody else said, 'I want to change my appointment with my doctor.' I felt bad turning them away."

Nonetheless, a wide variety of aficionados have managed to find Carolyn somehow. Folks with their own boxes make up an increasing percentage of her business: Denver Broncos coach Mike Shanahan filled his jukebox with 45s from her musical cache, as have countless people of less means. ("CD jukeboxes start around $5,000," she notes. "But you can get a good 45 jukebox for $500.") Collectors, too, rely on her expertise: Joel Whitburn, who's authored numerous reference books under the auspices of Billboard magazine, got many of his singles from Hear Here. And square dancers and dance callers throughout the region turn to the shop when they want to update their repertoires. "They have what's called the 'round of the month,' or the 'round of the week'--they're published in national square-dance magazines," Heather says. "And they'll call us to get singles, sometimes for everyone in their group."

Hear Here is also patronized by so-called "operators" like Ray Fudge, who have contracts to service and provide music for jukeboxes on routes that generally include restaurants and bars. In the Thirties, Forties and Fifties, this task was often linked with organized crime: If a barkeep refused to take a jukebox at an inflated price from a mob underling, his teeth might soon be jutting from the back of his head. Carolyn doubts that anything similar goes on among her clientele, but she acknowledges that some operators exhibit a certain paranoia about competitors anyway: "It's a cutthroat business. People will try to break up someone's route by going to all their customers and offering them better deals to take their jukeboxes and games. That's why some people won't tell us where the music's going--because they want to keep their routes secret. Or they'll have us separate things for different places using initials--like 'S.C.' or 'B.P.'--or different color codes. That way, they can let us keep track of things without being afraid that we can figure out their routes." She laughs. "It's all kind of funny to us. Because we don't care where it goes."

"Besides," Heather elaborates, "there are getting to be more and more big companies that are doing this, and they're not really afraid of people stealing their routes. Like there's this one we deal with called Vicorp that supplies music for the jukeboxes in all the Village Inns across the country. I don't know how they heard about us, but we didn't call them--they called us. We couldn't believe it."

With only a handful of exceptions, corporate operators such as Vicorp are interested in compact discs, not 45s. Still, most major record companies continue to make a sizable portion of their catalogues available on vinyl. The proof is in any of Hear Here's bins. Pick out one at random--the middle of the letter 'D,' perhaps--and you'll discover a stunning assortment of acts from yesterday and today: Dean & Jean, El De Barge, Chris De Burgh, Joey Dee, Kool Moe Dee, Ricky Dee, Deee-Lite, Deep Forest, Deep Purple, Def Leppard, the DeFranco Family, Desmond Dekker, Delaney & Bonnie, the Delfonics, the Dells, Martin Delray...

Contemporary smashes can be had as well; Carolyn estimates that she can get about a third of the current Hot 100 pop singles on 45, and two-thirds of the selections on the country hits chart. The exception to this rule, she says, is hip-hop, which owners of 45 boxes haven't taken into their hearts. "It sells on twelve-inch because people want to mix and scratch it," Carolyn says. "But it doesn't do well on 45 at all. We service a place in Five Points that won't take it. They say it brings in the wrong element. And if it won't sell in Five Points, it's not going to sell in many other places. Most business owners want something that seems a little safer to them."

Like?
"Like 'The Macarena.' We've sold hundreds of copies of 'The Macarena,' and we still can't keep it in stock. You may be sick of it, but somebody out there still likes it."

Even when a cut is listed as available, actually getting ahold of it can be tricky. Because vinyl accounts for such a small part of an imprint's profits, the format is often treated as an afterthought that results in the issuance of too many copies of some singles and not enough of others. Complications also arise when firms sell titles to houses like Collectables Records, based in Narberth, Pennsylvania, that specialize in the making and marketing of vintage 45s. Such pacts keep classics in print, but while the kinks are being worked out, they can lead to periods of months or even years when Carolyn can't obtain certain titles. "We've been trying to get 'Dancing Queen' and 'Fernando,' by ABBA, for a couple of years; they're supposed to be available, but they never show up. And you pretty much can't get any early Rolling Stones stuff right now because the rights are all fouled up. Somebody found a bunch of Stones singles in an old warehouse in New York state a while back, and they were selling them for nine and ten dollars apiece. And those were for the cheap ones."

"People are always asking for 'Jose Cuervo,' by Shelly West, too," Tamara offers. "It's a good drinking song, and we could sell a ton of them. But we can't get it."

So what is the single Carolyn and company would most like to obtain--the one that has been requested most regularly?

Tamara and Carolyn don't need to confer. They respond in unison, as if intoning the name of the Holy Grail.

"'Stairway to Heaven.'"

Is there a future in 45s? Ask this question of any music-biz pro you can find and you'll likely receive the quickest "no" in the history of verbal communication. But Tamara and Heather are of the opposite opinion. In fact, both expect Hear Here to flourish for many years to come--and they plan to be a part of its success. Tamara works forty hours a week at the store. "Things just got too busy for Mom to handle by herself," she says. "On those days when I've got to be gone for something, I come back and she's just worn out. And when she's gone, I can hardly believe all the work that I've got to do." She's taking night courses at Community College of Aurora with an eye toward an accounting degree that she wants to use to make Hear Here run even smoother. "I'd like to take everything over when Mom's ready to retire," she says. "Even though I don't think she ever will be."

For her part, Heather spends between fifteen and twenty hours a week working alongside her family members; she uses this income to supplement the paycheck she receives from the Toys R Us branch at Interstate 225 and Mississippi, where she's toiled for nearly five years. "But as soon as mom can afford to take me on full-time, I'd like to do that," she says. "What I really want to do is become a dance instructor. That way, I could work at Hear Here during the day and teach dancing at night. Then I could be around music all day long."

No, Carolyn, Tamara and Heather aren't sick of music, even though they spend most of their time immersed in it. Their conversations brim with references to musical arcana, and their idea of a good time is to contribute to a list of "funny song titles" that they give to preferred customers: Their roster includes Wayne Kemp's "Your Wife Is Cheating on Us Again" and the Bobby Peterson Quintet standard "Mama Get Your Hammer (There's a Fly on Baby's Head)." And while they sometimes play the radio while they're helping people choose among more 45s than they knew existed or readying packages to be sent to vinyl enthusiasts all over the continent, you're just as apt to find them at the office turntable spinning the black circle.

"I'd hate to see 45s go away," Carolyn says. "I like the way they sound--and when you only want to hear one song by somebody, there's nothing better. People in the music industry keep coming up with different formats, but they haven't topped 45s yet. They're perfect.

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