by Jaime Lees
Vintage Vinyl started in 1979 when Ray and Prince began selling used records out of a booth at Soulard Farmer's Market. The business thrived and eventually put down roots on the west end of the Delmar Loop in University City.
The store was recently named as one of the ten best record stores in the U.S., which only confirmed what locals already knew. Vintage Vinyl has long served as a hub of St. Louis music culture. In addition to the expected music store wares, Vintage is also a friend of the local scene: it stocks tons of local music, frequently hosts local bands for in-store performances and boasts a thriving paper fliers section just inside the front door, internet be damned.
"I'm looking forward to continue working with the best staff that we've ever had in the 35-year history of the store," Ray tells us. "And being a part of the musical community in St. Louis as well as the record store mothership in the Delmar Loop."
Vintage Vinyl ownership isn't the only musical venture in the life of Tom Ray. He's also a long-time DJ at KDHX who currently hosts the Monday drive-time slot with his show the Soul Selector. He was also recently tapped to curate a compilation released by Trojan Records and is known to play a bit of harmonica with blues acts around town and on tour with Los Angeles band Vintage Trouble.
Ray credits the shop's success to the rich musical history in St. Louis.
"I would say that we started with the knowledge that we saw that there was a responsibility to not only serve our customers but to understand how important of a foundation city St. Louis is in American music -- which is something that I often saw ignored by other store owners," he says. "It was almost like they were oblivious to the fact that, you know, we have musical greatness in our DNA here in St. Louis."
And though the Soul Selector is now the sole owner of Vintage Vinyl, co-founder (and White House award-winning) Lew Prince was kind enough to grant us a jovial exit interview of sorts late last night. (Prince is also a former RFT writer.) Here, he walks us through his history with Vintage Vinyl, his political views and his plans for the future.
Will you please explain to me your current situation?
It basically is: Tom and I started this company 35 years ago. I did this for 35 years. My kids graduated from college and it's paid for. My house is paid for. Now I get to do something different. It's just that simple. I don't know what it is yet, but something different!
Until then, maybe you get a couple of naps in?
[laughs] You know, I am going to take the next month or two off. I love to travel. One of the benefits of the job that I had was the way that Tom and I structured the company. It wasn't something that was going to make us a bunch of money, but [it did] give us free time to do the things that we want. I mean, you see Tom go on the road with Vintage Trouble, the band he plays with. You see Tom go off on the road opening for bands as their DJ.
And over the years the two things that I've done is, first, pretty much every year or so I take a month or two off and go hiking in the Himalayas, go hiking in the Andes. I go up a river in Thailand. I spent months and months walking around China in the late '80s. I spent months walking around Tibet in the early '90s.
Oh my god.
Yeah! And this job is what freed me to do that. I think I'm headed to the Himalayas for August and part of September. There's a little former kingdom up there called Sikkim that's between Nepal and Bhutan, that used to be a separate country but now it's part of India. It's one of the places in the Himalayas that I haven't walked so I'm going up there, I think. When I get back I'm hoping to find a job.
And the second thing that I've always been able to do is to go off and do these political things that I've done. I've been a spokesperson for Business for Shared Prosperity and Business for a Fair Minimum Wage, which is a national organization for almost a decade now.
So, I don't get paid for any of that. But it sort of frees me to be part of the political process in a really interesting way. So maybe I'll do something with that.
I really think that you're a local hero when it comes to stuff like that.
[laughs heartily] You know, I totally backed into that stuff. I was really pissed off when dumbass George W. Bush kept talking about "job creators" and all of these backwards things. So I thought, well, through Vintage Vinyl I've created a couple of dozen jobs. I had about 25 employees. And I just thought that he was wrong. Most small business owners that I know really want their people to be able to earn a decent wage and understand that national health care or some form of healthcare for everyone is really important. And I've always done issues that, like, essentially have a moral center.
Yeah, it seems like employees who are well taken care of are better employees, too, right?
Absolutely. I think as Americans we sign this deal that we're going to take care of each other. That this is a country that is constructed to be -- at its root -- classless. That is to say: anyone from one class can move to any other class if the system is working correctly. But it's not working correctly right now. And simple things like a basic wage and safe working conditions and reasonable health care are how we help each other in this country.
Next: Prince on what he's looking for next.
I'm interested how you build on your interests. You built Vintage Vinyl so clearly you can do things and get them done, and now that applies to your political interests, too.
I'm really good at organizing certain things and motivating people to accomplish things together. The structure at Vintage Vinyl has never been top-down. It's always been sort-of like an amoeba. [laughs] We're all pushing against the wall and we're all pushing in the same direction. And that's sort of how I do what I do.
Well, Vintage Vinyl is a retail store but it's also a community center.
Yeah, Tom and I very much wanted it to be the musical center in St. Louis. We wanted it to be a place where people who were interested in a certain kind of American music or world music could find each other. Because Tom and I found each other at college, you know? We have known each other since 1970. I was a sophomore and he was a freshman at Webster University. I was playing guitar and he was playing harmonica and we hit it off musically. We had very broad, broad tastes. The range of the things that we liked was really similar. And in the days before the internet, the way that you learned about music was going through each other's record collections. And he and I both had pretty vast ones, even then, and we discovered things. Like, "Oh, you like that! Wait until you hear this guy!" You know? That kind of stuff. That's how Tom and I bonded. And, you know, here we are getting close to 45 years later.
You've been riffin' off of each other for a long time.
Exactly, exactly, exactly. Between us both, I think it's three wives and five kids later. [laughs]
Tell me about, maybe, your best moment as far as organizing the store or tell me a story about something that really sticks out that really touched you.
Somebody sent me a column that some young woman wrote on the internet a couple of months ago. And it was a woman that I absolutely remember. I think she was a high school kid. What she wrote was that she came into Vintage Vinyl in St. Louis and she described to the guy working there -- and she described me as the guy: bearded old guy with a t-shirt -- she'd told me what kind of music she was interested in. And I suggested some things to her and she chose a Led Zeppelin record. And I told her it was good choice and why. She took it home and she loved it, of course.
And since then, she said most of the time when she goes to a record store and describes her taste, that people laugh at her. You know, there's kind of a music snobbery that goes with some record stores and she was really appreciative that the first time she went into Vintage Vinyl that nobody did that to her. She wrote that it made her feel brave and the whole thing was kind of a thank-you note to me.
I always felt like that what's we're supposed to do and that's what we try to teach the employees. And in the beginning it was hard. In the beginning Tom and I were really bad at hiring people. The store got better when Tom and I quit hiring people because we hired people that we thought would be really entertaining, as opposed to people who might be good for the job. [laughs]
So, once we handed over the hiring and said, ''Look, what we want are people who are evangelical about music -- people who are going to take the sound that someone is describing and find it for them. And the next time they come in maybe the employee says to them, "If you like that sound, here's the next one. If you like ZZ Top, maybe you wanna hear Muddy Waters."' And that's kind of the theory.
That's very sweet. Then you guys get to kind of go on a journey together.
Yep! And I've gotten to do that with thousands and thousands of people. You wouldn't believe just the nice things that people have done for me and said to me over the years. I'm at the point now where people who I turned onto music as teenagers are now working for me. They became managers at my store. And it's pretty cool.
But the thing to really get into this article is that I'm looking for a job! Because what I got for Vintage Vinyl won't support me until I collect Social Security. So anyone out there who is looking for somebody who can run something or organize people or who has a nice slightly-unpopular charity [laughs], I'd be really good at that. So this is my job application. I'm hoping to get about five or six of these interviews so that I can use them all as my job applications, I gotta tell you.
I do have pretty good skills at building an effective value-based organization. Vintage Vinyl is built much more on a value system than on a commercial notion or I'd have some fuckin' money! [laughs]
I am bizarrely selfish about how I spend my time. Basically, in life, you're just trying to keep yourself entertained. And I'm desperately trying to keep myself entertained by doing things that please me. But at the same time, what pleases me involves both my aesthetics and my value system. And that's really all there is. If you spend your life that way, I don't think you get to have many regrets in the end. I'm inside of twenty years from the end. Eh. And it's part of the reason that I don't want to go to work everyday doing retail. I want to do something else. I don't know what it is yet, but I'll find it.
Full disclosure: this writer volunteers at Vintage Vinyl one day a year to distribute free Schlafly Beer to music lovers on Record Store Day.