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Remembering Danny Graul of Black & Read: "He Was a Hell of a Guy"

Danny Graul behind the counter at Black & Read in 1993.EXPAND
Danny Graul behind the counter at Black & Read in 1993.
Jennifer Norton

Mikey Baca, who started working at Black & Read Music, Books & Games two decades ago, remembers having dinner with friends who were griping about their bosses. Baca, who’d been quietly sipping his beer, told them: “I don’t want to sound like a dick or pretentious, but I absolutely love my boss. He's my best friend and my bro, and he’s just a wonderful person.”

That boss was Danny Graul, who opened the Arvada store in 1991. Over the years, he turned Black & Read into one of the largest and longest-surviving independent music shops in Colorado.

Graul — who died after a long illness on October 23, at age seventy — was more like a father than a boss, says Baca.

“He just loved humanity and people, all walks of life, all political affiliations,” Baca says. “He loved everyone. He just wanted to hear your story. He wanted to hear where you're from. It didn't matter what you looked like or if you were a little kid or an old guy. He was just such a sweet guy. He was stoked to understand everybody, and he really tried, and he had a lot of friends because he was genuine and just had a big heart. He was a lovable person. He was a hell of a guy.”

Mike Stelk, who used to drive up to Black & Read from Colorado Springs a few days a week to buy and price vinyl, says Graul could talk to anyone. That came in handy when he was buying large record collections from hoarders, estates or collectors in cities around Colorado.

“He basically got a conversation going,” says Stelk. “He would kind of feel them out and see what they were thinking. And that's basically half the decision in the process; you want to talk to the person and see if you can make a deal.”

Graul wanted to be fair and put people at ease, even if they didn’t know anything about the record market, Stelk adds.

Black & Read Books, Music & Games is located at 7821 Wadsworth Boulevard in Arvada.EXPAND
Michael Emery Hecker

Not long after the two met in 1999, Graul took Stelk to his Wheat Ridge home to show off 220 boxes of vinyl — about 20,000 records in all — that he had bought for $100,000 with a loan from his father. When the mattress store next to Black & Read moved in 2000, Stelk suggested that Graul take over the space and sell the records there. During the expansion, Black & Read's vinyl, CDs and memorabilia were moved to the new side, while the books and role-playing games stayed in the original space.

Not long after, Graul opened Black & Read II, an Internet warehouse shipping center in Wheat Ridge that’s open to the public for browsing on the weekends. With more space, Graul and Stelk could buy more music, sometimes adding stock from record stores that went out of business.

When Jerry’s Record Exchange shuttered in 2011 after a thirty-year run on East Colfax, Graul bought all the stock, including a massive selection of jazz, a genre he loved. He was a Miles Davis fan and a supporter of jazz station KUVO who frequented concerts at Dazzle, El Chapultepec and Mount Vernon Country Club.

Bob Becker, who’s known Graul since the ’80s and has worked at Black & Read II since 2005, says one of the last concerts Graul attended was Herbie Hancock and Kamasi Washington at the Mission Ballroom last year, just before his health began to deteriorate.

Matthew Garrington, past president of the music nonprofit Creative Music Works, which has produced improvised music concerts since the ’90s, says Graul was always there for the organization, during good times and bad.

“He took the time to get to know the people in the organizations he supported,” Garrington says. “Danny was a true friend of the organization and a champion of music innovation. He will be sorely missed.”

Some notable musicians — among them former Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore, Black Crowes frontman Chris Robinson, Ryan Adams and B-52s singer Fred Schneider — have visited Black & Read over the years. Former Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra, who grew up in Boulder before moving to the Bay Area in the late ’70s, started frequenting the shop more than a decade ago during an annual trip back to Colorado to visit family and friends.

“I quickly realized that Black & Read was going be one of those destination stores,” Biafra says. “Like Wax Trax, it takes days to go through, and you'll never even get through it all.”

Biafra says Graul eventually gave him permission to go rooting around in the back room for records that still needed to be priced.

“I'd find all kinds of things and then drive them crazy when I would bring out a foot-high stack of 45s to whip through and see which ones were good,” Biafra remembers. “And then I'd go root through more boxes and pull out some more LPs. I'm a big believer in magic accidents, and with any good store like that, there's going to be magic accidents every time I walk in the door.”

When he's in Colorado, Biafra is known to throw dance parties at places like the Lion's Lair, where he's the night's DJ. “A disproportionate number of those really cool garage and soul and wild oldies stompers that people dance to at my DJ events at Lion's Lair and Pon Pon and other places came from Black & Read," he notes.

A stack of eight-track tapes in the back of Black & Read.EXPAND
A stack of eight-track tapes in the back of Black & Read.
Michael Emery Hecker

He recalls Doug Gaddy, owner of Absolute Vinyl in Longmont, summing up the Black & Read shopping experience beautifully: “When you go into the store, you’re family.”

“I think that's why they had such a diverse group of employees who are fiercely loyal to Danny,” Biafra says. “They’d even be nice to Cory Gardner if he walked in the door looking for Jimmy Swaggart albums.”

Derek Rolvsbakken, who’s worked at Black & Read for around 26 years and currently co-manages the store with Kari Bakken, says Graul could be quixotic and liked to stay on people's good side.

“I was almost always the bad cop,” Rolvsbakken says. “We made a great team when it came to getting deals done, and he made sure I learned things the hard way so I would remember them. He used to buy everyone lunch every day in the past, and if you were with him, he was old-school and insisted on paying for everything. Obviously, if you were raised correctly, this made for very loyal employees. He was smart, funny, and a joy to work with. I miss him.”

Rolvsbakken recalls being on a buy with Graul at a house where there was a pet monkey.

“I was trying to look at books while this nutty primate was jumping all around, swinging on all these little perches on the wall,” he says. “Danny started waving his hands and sang ‘Danny Boy’ until the monkey started nodding his head and chilled out on his shoulder and started grooming his hair.

"We were at another house straight out of Hoarders that was packed floor to ceiling with Bibles, most still in their mailing boxes. Only the entrance was clear," Rolvsbakken continues. "Danny asked in his best Irish accent, ‘So, have you read the Good Word?’”

Graul often helped friends in need by letting them work at Black & Read.

“Some would have had a hard time getting a job otherwise, so he was instrumental in making their lives better,” Rolvsbakken says. “Sometimes it felt like we were more of a pirate ship, tackling new things every day. We’ve had a lot of hard workers, sometimes filling up moving vans on a buy and loading hundreds of boxes. Danny was good at making sure the right people were in charge, as well. He’s hired some extremely knowledgeable people that probably wouldn’t have worked for anyone else.”

Becker says Graul made a success of himself and Black & Read through his outgoing personality

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“That made Black & Read continue to succeed where others may have failed,” he says. “He loved meeting and interacting with people and sharing new experiences."

Outside of the store, Graul was a sports fan who took his friends to games, and an avid film buff who was a regular at the Sie FilmCenter. Becker says the two of them — who met when Graul fell asleep on Becker's shoulder at the Denver Film Festival — would watch upwards of 300 films a year.

Jennifer Norton, who first worked for Black & Read in 1993 and came back in 2011 to work at Black & Read II, says Graul took care of everybody.

“He just had this warmth about him,” Norton remembers. “He just liked to help people, no matter who they were. He was complex, and a bit of a rebel.”

Black & Read will remain open for the foreseeable future; a public celebration of Danny Graul's life will be held in the spring of 2021. Visit the shop online at Black & Read's website.

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