The song collector
One of small handful of remaining record shops in the Detroit area turns 30. Meet owner Warren Westfall.
Published: September 21, 2011
Ferndale's Record Collector used record store has been kicking for 30 years this month. That's something. It's not easy keeping a record store alive these days — just ask the owners of two long-standing local "brands" that recently shuttered, Car City Records and Record Time. Each was ensconced in the community and, we thought, immune to cultural shifts. Such closings are scary stuff for countless hardcore music fans — and those who'll likely never abandon the idea of owning tangible albums and collections, or those who care about sound quality and spending hours going through bins in a record store.
Well that's not to say the man who MT managing editor Brian Smith calls the "Mayor of Ferndale" hasn't achieved much simply by making his business work, by hook or by crook, for a full 30 years. In the Detroit area, that alone is reason for Detroit pride. Not that you'd know it talking to the Record Collector's proprietor Warren Westfall.
"First of all," Westfall says, "it would be remiss of me to not mention the fact Jeff Garbus over at Record Graveyard in Hamtramck has been doing this for 30 years too. But also, who cares that I've been open 30 years? In the great scheme of things, what does it matter? It has as much to do with my employees as it does me."
Trustworthy employees or no, Westfall admits he doesn't know how much longer he'll continue ("It's not if I'm going to go out of business, it's when). It's sad, really, that music as an art form has become devalued to such an extent that many think it should be free. But should it? Well, much of the quality in the glut of zillions of songs available for little or nothing online is awful, to be sure. And when you have a zillion bad choices, you have zero choices. Whether there are enough people bucking prevailing download attitudes to keep some record stores, even as a niche, is yet to be seen.
"Downloading is inevitable," Westfall says. "I don't have to like it. Music has truly become a product and a commodity like a shirt, and it doesn't have that much depth. People don't care about it with quite the same passion. My interpretation is that the culture war is over and we lost.
"I'm a minor league audiophile," he continues. "I like good sound but downloading is what sells. It doesn't matter if it's shitty sound, it's what people will do. I was reading that Blu-ray only has three to five years because people will just be streaming off the Internet. That's shitty sound and shitty picture. AM radio sounded great until the first day you heard FM. With downloading, we're going back to AM. Maybe hi-def AM, but AM nonetheless. The sound isn't that good, but maybe for the commodity culture it's all that's required. It's like, as much as I love real jazz, sometimes I can make a better case for smooth jazz. It's got tunes and people like it. That I think less of it is my problem, not theirs."
That's Westfall. A large honest dude who's outwardly modest — even self-effacing to a fault — and articulate as all get-out; the guy can talk on most any subject with an informed, researched opinion. (Just get him rolling on the value of personal accountability as it pertains to the larger context of community well-being.)
And he's almost as happy talking of other used record stores as he is his own, including the one that sat across the street from his own 9 Mile shop. "When Record Time was over here, we had a great relationship," Westfall says. "We both took the attitude that it gives people an extra reason to come to Ferndale. If I don't get the sale, you do and vice versa. We probably drew more customers together than we would have done individually."
To understand how Westfall's a walking history book of modern Detroit record store history, you should know he was an outsider-y kid growing up in Warren whose own music obsession got him into the retail racket.
"In the early '60s, the department stores were selling mono records for 39 cents because they were getting rid of them as they transitioned to stereo," he says. "I was buying jazz records, then you'd see the other album covers on the inner sleeve and pick more. I was just buying these 39-cent records with my paper-route money. One record wasn't enough and 10 definitely wasn't enough. More music. It all made sense to me in my mind. In 1976, I started working for Harmony House [Records]. I was there for a few years and eventually another chain made me an offer, Full Moon Records. I took over in 1980 running the store in Pontiac. The economy sucked."
He lost that gig in 1981 and began working at the storied Sam's Jams record shop for only about six weeks. "There's a story there that I won't go into," Westfall elaborates. That store, their second location, happened to be where Record Collector sits now.
Having paid his dues in other stores, Westfall decided to open his own, with a small loan from his father-in-law. What better place than in a Detroit multiracial community?
"[Mayor] Coleman Young said that for the city to come back, the international sign of commitment is putting your ass on the line, so I opened my business in Detroit," Westfall says. "I was there from '81 to '87. I watched the neighborhood go down the tubes with crack and everything else. When the city began partly relying on the parking meter fines for the budget, you know you're in trouble."
> Email Brett Callwood