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
In 1981 Detroit had a handful of used record stores, certainly more than there are now. "May's Records was the first, then you had Car City Records. I followed, and Jeff from Record Graveyard did too. There were a few others in the area. Nobody really knew about used records." In 1987 Westfall moved RC to Livonia, Grand River at 8 Mile. He lasted there to 1999.
"It was in a dead shopping center and I was going to go out of business," he says. He learned of the old Sam's Jams space open in Ferndale and moved. "It was challenging because they tore up 9 Mile for six to eight months around that time. Completely redesigned it. If I didn't have in-laws giving me money, I wouldn't have made it. I've been here ever since."
The man who didn't think CDs would catch on admits he's made mistakes, though he's never heard a record he wouldn't carry, even the most narrow-minded hate-mongering ones. His was one of the few stores in the '80s — certainly the only one in Detroit — where you could find Skrewdriver, a racist punk band.
"It was really funny. ... My employee was black and he thought it was a hoot — that they had to come to Detroit to buy Skrewdriver records. Look, I was brought up in the '60s and I went through my phase of not wanting to carry records that are sexist and racist, but that just eliminates all of culture. Essentially, I'm not about censorship. I have limits, although I can't think of the last time they were reached. When rap started coming out and you had the ratings stuff, I wouldn't sell it to kids. Then the parents started coming in and buying it for them anyway, and I realized that it's not my job. I realized that many parents have abandoned their responsibility. Besides that, it's amazing when you hear something and think it's horrible, then a few years later it's really quite good. Your ears change. There are things that passed you by. I didn't "get" punk in the '70s. I probably didn't get punk until I was in my mid-40s."
With this talk about music being little more than a media commodity, don't think that Westfall has lost any passion for the art. In fact, he can define its purpose as well as anyone, if not better. "I think music is like a language," Westfall says. "Not everybody speaks this language. I happen to like contemporary classical. It's a language you grasp but not because you're going to impress anybody with it, because who cares? You do it because it's like reading difficult literature. It forces you to think in ways you didn't before. If you don't learn to listen to contemporary classical, it's alright. I don't speak French, and maybe I'd be better off if I spoke French, but I don't. I'd probably benefit if I did, and learning contemporary classical or jazz — I think it does open up intellectual and cultural horizons that you wouldn't have normally got."
That kind of passion for music has a B-side: the compulsivity of record collecting. Because Westfall owns a record store, isn't that like putting a mouse in charge of the cheese? "I've jokingly said to people that I've got a problem," he says. "My problem is that this stuff's important. It really is my problem, not the consumer's problem. I think this is worth pursuing. I don't like going into other people's stores because I know I'll find something that I've got to have. It's a disease. I think sometimes if we had a 12-step program [for music collectors], it'd just end up being a record swap. Who cares about recovery? I know people who just have to buy. It's the curse of owning a record store ... if you have as catholic a taste in music as I do. I'm as comfortable listening to contemporary classical as I am comedy country and western hokum. It's all there for me and it all makes sense. For many years, I was my own best customer. I would overpay for records that I just had to have. At some point, you realize that, to stay in business, you have to treat the records as a commodity and leave your passion at home."
Despite his protests, the fact Record Collector is still in business is testament to Westfall, his passion. Still, as we ponder the struggles he faces, I ask him if he's considered moving out of the Detroit area.
"One of the things about record stores — what you stock is what reflects the community," he says. "You take my stock and move it to Cleveland, they'd look at it and say, what the hell is this? I've grown up in the Detroit area. My parents are from the suburbs. The music that shapes Detroit, the stuff I carry would never go any other place. I don't think it translates."
Record Collector is located at 327 W. 9 Mile, Ferndale; 248-548-9888.
The Record Collector's Westfall knows that every disc here tells a story.
> Email Brett Callwood