Johnson Lee said he lost 20 pounds the last time he moved his business, Joe’s Record Paradise in Silver Spring, Md.
“I’m more efficient now,” he said last week as he stood in the middle of the used-record store’s recently closed location, five blocks down Georgia Avenue from its new one. “I’m more methodical. It was torture last time.”
Johnson, 40, surveyed the work he and his staff had already done and the work that remained: Rock records had been boxed. Hip-hop and R&B, too. Yet to be packed were jazz, country, reggae, all the compact discs.
“This will probably be pretty bad, too,” he said with only a hint of resignation.
You may have heard that vinyl is coming back, as hipster bands clamor to have their music released on the groovy discs. But at places like Joe’s Record Paradise, vinyl never went away. You can buy an LP there for as a little as a buck — a dozen songs or more for the cost of a single iTunes download — or hand over many times that for a rare jazz or R&B record.
That record will have a physical presence — album art, liner notes, perhaps the ballpoint pen scrawl of a previous owner — that your pristine digital download lacks. On the downside, it will be harder to move. Oh, one record is easy enough to move, but ...
How many records in the Joe’s Record Paradise inventory, Johnson?
Johnson scanned the 6,000-square-foot space and did a quick calculation.
“I think close to 100,000 maybe,” he said. Then he remembered the understock and doubled his estimate: 200,000.
Understock: the records stored under the custom-made wooden bins that customers flip through. They are duplicates of what’s on top, for really, how many copies of Vanilla Fudge’s eponymous 1967 debut album do you need on display at any one time?
Joe’s Record Paradise has been in this particular suburban Maryland location for six years. Before that, it was on East Gude Drive in Rockville. Before that in Aspen Hill. Before that at Plaza Del Mercado in the Layhill area of Montgomery County. It first opened in 1974, in Takoma Park, founded by Johnson’s father, Joe Lee, black sheep of Maryland’s Blair family and behind-the-scenes booster of D.C. music, involved with such acts as the British Walkers and Root Boy Slim.
Johnson was about 10 when he started working for his dad, spending weekends in the back of the store, running a shrink-wrap machine. He did other things after high school — worked in a pharmacy, worked at a print shop, cared for his grandmother with Alzheimer’s — and then, around 2008, he took over the record store from his dad.
“When the economy started to tank, he just tossed me the keys,” said Johnson, who is named after Robert Johnson, the Mississippi Delta blues guitarist who, legend has it, sold his soul to the devil.
Joe lives on a mountain in West Virginia now. And Johnson contemplates the move. “The last move was in a snowstorm,” he said. “I probably lost a year of my life.”
The last thing to be done is taking the posters down from the walls: “Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics,” which hangs next to Gene Simmons of Kiss, who is under Seals & Crofts, and near Nils Lofgren and Iron Maiden.
The new location — 8700 Georgia Ave., in the basement of the SunTrust bank building — is a bit smaller but there’s more parking nearby. Johnson hopes to be all moved in and open by next week, but that will depend on whether he passes inspection. (Call 301-JUKEBOX to see whether Joe’s has opened.)
Even though he has 200,000 records, Johnson said, he’s always looking for more.
“I go through 10 collections a day, ranging in size from a stack of records to five to 10 boxes,” he said. “People call and say they have jazz records. I say, ‘Big band or bop?’ If they say bop, I ask, ‘Is it Blue Note, Riverside, Prestige?’
“If it’s one of those [labels], I say, ‘Let’s do business.’ ”
But, really, wouldn’t it be easier to do away with the storefront and just sell stuff on the Web?
“I don’t sell online because I want the D.C. area to have an amazing record collection,” Johnson said. “Should I sell our culture to the highest bidder, or should I keep it here in the DMV?”
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