It's no secret that the music industry is in dire straits right now. Illegal downloading has contributed to a massive slump in album sales, and mom-and-pop stores are holding on for dear life. In such a harsh environment, the notion of a flea-market-style record fair feels positively antiquated.
But don't tell that to Carl Kuelker. He's the president and cofounder of the St. Louis Record Collectors Show, which is still going strong in its 31st year in existence. If anything, the music business' turmoil might actually be helping Kuelker's venture.
"One of the reasons I think our shows are growing is 'cause some of the record stores are going under," the Sunset Hills resident says, adding, "A lot of people don't like dealing on the Internet."
The event is a labor of love for Kuelker and his partner, John Frese, who finance the shows through their day jobs. (Kuelker is a lawyer, and Frese works for a book distributor.) Kuelker held his first show at what was then a Howard Johnson hotel near St. Louis Community College-Forest Park in 1979. "At that time, there were just a couple of record stores, if even that," he recalls. "There wasn't any, I guess, except for ones that sold new records, like at Famous Barr. So I decided I'd put on shows." Kuelker then found the first of his three partners in Bob Mumper. (Sadly, Mumper recently passed away.) The pair threw a second event at an electricians hall in the Tower Grove neighborhood before they booked a show at the American Czech Educational Center in south city. The show has stayed there ever since.
After Mumper and second partner Jim Ronat departed, John Frese joined Kuelker to form the current St. Louis Record Collectors Show team. West county native Frese had been "doing the shows as long as [Kuelker's] been putting them on" as a dealer, so his transition into a show organizer was natural. The duo is responsible for setting up everything for the bi-monthly show, from renting the hall and promoting the event to planning and assembling the layout of the record-dealer tables.
The hard work is worth it for what Frese calls "the hunt of the record." (And it generally is a record: The St. Louis Record Collectors Show sells CDs, DVDs and videos but is mostly known for its vinyl.) Explains Kuelker: "I didn't start out to be a collector, I started out to get the song. Had downloading doo-wop tunes been available, I may have never started collecting records. And then it comes in, and you get caught up in the paper and the plastic. That's what you want." Soon enough, Kuelker's transformation from music fan to obsessive record collector was complete. "One time I was at a show years ago, and it looked like I was going to make $400," Kuelker says. "I had a guy come in in the last half hour with a box of records. He wanted $400 for the box. It was funny because my wife said, 'Did you make any money?' 'Well, yes and no.'"
The collector mentality is common among the frequent record-show attendees. "It can be addictive," Kuelker says, "I've seen guys that lie about the amount of money they spend on records to their wives." This shared passion has fostered a loyal sense of community within the St. Louis Record Collectors Show. Kuelker notes that there are some dealers who frequent the event so much that they only inform him when they will not be attending.
Bill Miller of Florissant is one such dealer. The owner of mail-order specialty LP retailer Loran Records, Miller has consistently made his presence known at the St. Louis Record Collectors Show since its beginning. "There's always stuff to find," he says via phone. Known for selling high-quality records, Miller contends that you are more likely to find better records and more knowledgeable record vendors at events like the record show than you would online.
"A lot of dealers that do go there have been doing it for a long time, they gotta know what they're doing," he says. "There are a lot of people who are hesitant to buy on eBay because there are so many amateur dealers and people who don't know what they're talking about, so they seek out record conventions to go to because they can look at the merchandise and handle it. Plus, it's fun, too, to see what you're going to find."
Still, Miller cannot deny that the Internet has had an impact on record fairs, in particular the popular auction site eBay. "[eBay has] really affected the record shows because there's many dealers that used to sell at the record shows only, but now they don't go to record shows with the stuff," he says. "They sell on eBay only." Even the dealers who still go to the record shows are often compromised. "Some of the dealers who still go to the shows bring a lot of their stuff that's either unsold on eBay or not good enough for eBay," Miller says. "So it's kind of diluted record shows to a certain extent."
Miller, Kuelker and Frese also note that high demand for records overseas has taken a lot of quality vinyl out of the country's circulation. But you never know when you might happen upon a diamond in the rough. "Records are kind of a unique hobby," Kuelker says. "They're the last hobby where you can maybe find a $100 record for a dollar or a dime. If that time period ever existed for baseball cards and comic books, I missed them. People were too aware of the values early on. But there are just too many records for anyone to know them all."
This is a drawback for the serious collectors in attendance, but the many casual fans looking for a bargain should still find plenty to pique their interest. This is especially true now, as Kuelker and Frese are making an effort to bring in a wider audience and draw in more dealers. Finally launching a St. Louis Record Collectors Show Facebook page has increased exposure. And though he visits them for fun, Kuelker's trips to record shows within a 300-mile radius of St. Louis have undoubtedly alerted other people to his show.
As evinced by the packed crowd at the March show, these steps are working. Or maybe the freewheeling atmosphere just sells itself. Either way, everyone agrees that the St. Louis Record Collectors Show is something special. "It's really neat to see that there's still another world going out there," Miller says. Perhaps the record show isn't so antiquated after all.