Vinyl Solution in San Mateo is one of the Peninsula’s last vintage music holdouts. And yes, they have cassettes.

by Jennifer Christgau-Aquino

Vinyl Solution stocks all manner of analog doohickeys, like this turntable. Photo by Jody Troxel.

On a Tuesday morning, in the middle of a quiet street in San Mateo dotted with nail salons and Asian restaurants, Vinyl Solution Records is buzzing. Twentysomething employees rack records, customers stream in and out picking through the rock and jazz sections and young and old tote in backpacks and armloads of records to sell.

A white-haired woman with black-rimmed glasses and a clutch of reel-to-reel tapes, their boxes breaking at the seams, navigates through racks of records to the back of the store. It’s her first time here. Behind a case of mostly $10 Beatles memorabilia she finds owner Tommy “Toonz” Predovich, tall and not generally characterized as approachable.

“I think I died and went to record heaven,” she marvels.

Variations of that sentiment have been uttered, thought or repeated in reviews by hundreds of music enthusiasts who find themselves inside the expansive store surrounded by pop, metal, hard rock, reggae, jazz, classical and blues records wondering how a record store can take up this much real estate in an area where brick-and-mortar stores are being replaced by condos and office buildings at a furious pace.

Predovich even has enough room for throwbacks. Vinyl Solution stocks cassettes (cool again), VHS tapes and CDs; a curious collection of vintage alarm clocks; a jukebox for sale in the front window; an assortment of audio components from new, trendy models to vintage; and dozens of stickers and posters on the wall like The Who, ABBA and the Mother Hips.

It’s this broad reach showcasing albums from the Ramones to Ella Fitzgerald and a range of services, like stereo maintenance, that’s kept Predovich’s needle on the record for more than 31 years despite the vagaries of a music industry that’s changed so much he’s nearly gone out of business several times. For the two weeks after 9–11 he had maybe 12 customers total. He’s one of the last surviving record stores in an area that used to call Tower Records, Rod’s Records and more home.

In their absence, though, Predovich stands to gain if the predicted uptick in vinyl sales continues. Deloitte, an auditing firm, predicts record sales will reach nearly $1 billion this year. In 2016, vinyl LP sales marked 11 years of increases to account for 11 percent of the total physical album sales, according to Nielsen.

Who’s buying? It’s not Baby Boomers seeking nostalgia. Enter millennials who want a music experience with more life to it. Predovich explains it best.

“There’s so much involvement with listening to records. Taking the record out of the sleeve, putting the record on the turntable, dropping the needle and then the listening. It’s an active experience that’s been lost in digital music,” he says.

Thousands of records, cassettes and CDs crowd Vinyl Solution, which has been in business for more than three decades. Photo by Jody Troxel.

That surge in desire for a more tactile music experience has changed the demographic of Predovich’s clientele and pushed what was once a full-time job he could easily handle himself into what he equates to the work of three full-time positions consumed with buying, trading and selling records both in the store and online, where he operates on eBay.

Buying online might be convenient, but for the true record store experience, one must make the journey to Vinyl Solution and join the customers hanging on the fringe around Predovich, holding purchases or sale items close to their chests. Sometimes an uncomfortably long time passes before he says anything. And when he does, it’s a curt “Do you need something?” It’s not harsh, but it’s also not friendly.

Record store clerks have a famously abrasive reputation. Consider Jack Black’s character in High Fidelity. In one scene, a middle-aged man asks to purchase Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called to Say I Love You.”

“No, no, you can’t,” Black answers. When the character asks why not, Black explains, “Well, it’s sentimental, tacky crap, that’s why not. Do we look like the kind of store that sells ‘I Just Called to Say I Love You’? Go to the mall.”

This fear of being called out for your musical taste is part of what makes Vinyl Solution — actually, any record store — so daunting. There’s an arrogance that’s intimidating enough to drive a novice away. Predovich knows it, too.

“You know it’s all in jest. We don’t try to be offensive,” he says.

The thing is, you can’t let the lack of pleasantries and absence of effusive help deter you. There’s a lot to learn from Predovich and his staff.

Take the lady with the reel-to-reels. She wants all the recordings—her dead husband’s collection—digitized so she can still connect to him. Predovich could easily take the tapes and charge her for digitization. But he pokes through them and realizes that they are actually all recordings she could purchase on CD for a lot less money. He starts directing her to where she can find them in the store. Then he stops and suggests she consider checking to make sure she doesn’t have copies of the CDs at home. “That’s a lot cheaper,” he says.

Predovich gets it: Music is about resurrecting the past. It’s part of why he’s kept the store open for so long, and will continue to for the near term.

“Music sets a moment in your life,” he says. “When you hear that moment being played, it brings you back. You go to that place.”

VINYL SOLUTION RECORDS, 151 W. 25th Ave, San Mateo. (650) 571–0440. Open 11am-7pm daily

Photo by Jody Troxel

BONUS TRACK: How to Navigate a Record Store

Look for limited independent releases.

Record labels release limited pressings exclusively to indie stores like Vinyl Solution. Predovich says to look for limited releases in colored vinyl, deluxe editions, limited packaging, alternative covers and albums with bonus material. Check indie store websites, Facebook pages and Instagram for updates on those releases.

It’s OK to bring the kids.

Back in the store’s heyday, customers were largely lone male shoppers, and they didn’t like to be bothered. Predovich now sees a lot of female vinyl collectors and parents shopping with teens or twentysomethings. It’s pretty cool, he says, to see adults and their children introducing each other to new music. And it’s not a quiet activity anymore; shoppers share and start conversations about music in a way that’s different from in the past.

Your grandma’s opera collection isn’t worth much.

The classical and opera music that you’ll likely find in your grandmother’s garage isn’t worth that much, so don’t expect to trade it in. That said, don’t purge a vinyl collection without first checking its worth through eBay or any number of vinyl resale sites. Predovich says a lot of people, particularly in the thick of settling an estate, end up tossing or giving away valuable records. Predovich is known for being fairly priced. He buys low and sells low.

Ask for help, please.

Don’t be afraid to ask for advice. Predovich and his crew want to give you a tour, but they don’t want to bug you. Music stores often attract some of the savviest, most diverse music listeners as employees. They might turn you on to something you’ve never heard before, like Latin heavy metal.

—Jennifer Christgau-Aquino

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