Photo by Phil Harris
If you’re ever fortunate enough to find yourself having a conversation with Lew Prince, savor the moment. His imposing figure and gruff-looking exterior may send out an inaccurate vibe at first that is dispelled the moment he speaks. He has an extraordinary way of relating to people, drawing them out seductively, relishing a good joke or a chance to tell a story. His eyes light up as he speaks and he has a personality that puts people at ease. Within moments, you’ll feel as if you’re talking to a long-lost friend.
Lew Prince is the co-owner of Vintage Vinyl, nationally recognized on more than a few occasions as one of the best record stores in the United States. The expansive store, housed in the old Varsity movie theater in the once earthy and bohemian (and now increasingly gentrified) Delmar Loop section of University City, Missouri, boasts a wealth of musical treasures with seemingly endless variety. It is the vortex of St. Louis music fans, sending out a beacon of hipness, individuality and non-conformism that so characterizes its owners’ philosophy and humble beginnings.
Lew Prince doesn’t fit the stereotype of a typical record store owner. He is well read, well traveled and can converse on a wide variety of topics from baseball to Incan history. His zest for life is infectious and he is generous with his time, but he is hardworking and always on the go to keep his business running.
On a lovely day in September, Lew and I sat down together at a nearby coffeehouse, drinking chicory decafs and talking about his life, his passions and his business. Lew needs little prompting to speak which makes the job of an interview nearly effortless.
Ken Kase: You were born in Newark.
Lew Prince: [mock thick accent] New Jersey
You’re in the business of selling music. Music must have had a profound impact on your life when you were young. I’m wondering what led you to your interest in music. What were some of your early experiences with music?
You know, it’s really weird. The first record I ever bought, I was like, nine or ten. It was a Roy Rogers record that you got from sending in the back coupons from Sugar Pops. And I loved getting this thing in the mail. This record came in the mail and it was a set of three 45s in a foldout sleeve and it was just too wonderful. It was just full of life and energy. I had some control over it. My uncle had bought me this Genie flip top record player and I loved it. And, pretty much, that’s when I started buying records and I bought 45s. I bought Chuck Berry 45s, I bought vocal group 45s and then I got real political when I was in about seventh or eighth grade and that’s how I became a folkie. I got into folkie music.
The first folkie music concert I saw was Peter, Paul and Mary when I was thirteen. I didn’t like them that much—I thought that was okay, but they kept talking about these guys who wrote the songs and they mentioned their buddy, Bob Dylan who wrote “Blowin’ in the Wind” and this guy Jessie Fuller who they met in San Francisco who wrote “San Francisco Bay Blues” which they did. So I went out and bought a Jessie Fuller record, who turned out to be a black street musician from San Francisco who wrote wonderful songs and played a 12-string guitar and a kazoo and an instrument he’d invented called a “fotdella”. And then Dylan—I bought that when I was thirteen and I didn’t get it. I thought, “God, he sings weird!” I played it over and over again and one day it just struck me and I got it—that this is a human voice, this isn’t a manufactured commercial voice and this is all about human beings, it’s not about just love, which at thirteen I wasn’t interested in, anyway.
So I started reading interviews, mostly by Dylan, and he kept mentioning this Woody Guthrie guy and I bought Dust Bowl Ballads, which was the only Woody Guthrie LP you could buy at the time, at least in Jersey, because no one sold Folkways records in New Jersey so it was the one on RCA. It blew my mind. It was like a trip to 1930. After that, then came the sixties and rock n’ roll and drugs and all of the good music that came out of that. I believe that for most people in my generation and the generations after mine, music is their tribal drumbeat—that we are tribes and then there are sub tribes in the tribes and I was in the folkie folk-rock psychedelic tribe. My musical shamen in my tribe were people like Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan. And the tribe just before mine were Chuck Berry and Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis.
What brought you from Newark to St. Louis?
The [Vietnam] War. I was working in a Ford plant when I got out of high school. I was seventeen. There was a war on and I had sort of neglected to register for the draft. When the draft figured it out, I figured I’d better find a college. It was August and Webster University was still taking people because it had just turned from an all Catholic girls’ finishing school to an attempt at being a real college but they didn’t have any boys. So if you were a male, breathing and could pay the bill, they would take you. I had a really good job, so I had money and they took me. I got a bachelor’s degree in philosophy.
How did you come to be a math teacher?
That’s a whole weird story. In the late seventies, the city was trying to avoid integrating the school system, trying to get around court orders. And they decided that the easiest way to try to get around it was to integrate the teachers. In other words, the city had been so segregated that almost all black schools had black teachers. Basically, if you were white and willing to work in an all-black school, you didn’t need a teaching certificate of any kind, although the job was contingent on the fact that I would get one. So I started taking teacher education courses at Harris Stowe State College downtown. I got the job because I’d take the job and that’s what it really came down to. There were five white people in the school and they were all teachers. It was just about local school politics. They needed a math teacher, so I was a math teacher. And you know, there were no higher mathematics involved. If you could basically do anything through fractions, you could teach grade school in the city of St. Louis. I could do math. If you can count money and do fractions, you could pretty much teach math in St. Louis.
So how did you get into selling music?
After I got out of college, for years I was sort of this traveling folkie act. You can’t make a real living at that, so like most musicians, you had a day job and the easiest job for me was working in record stores. The reason is that my partner, Tom Ray and I actually have the same bizarre skill: If either of us has seen an album, back in the days when albums were big and they weren’t six inch by six inch CD boxes, and I read the back, I could pretty much remember every piece of information you could glean from that. If I actually heard the record, I can’t associate at all. When someone says the name of a record, the slide just falls in with the picture and the back. So I had all this information in my head so I was a really good employee for record stores. A guy would walk in and say, “I’m looking for this Gerry Mulligan album Light of the Limelight’”. Ninety-nine percent of all the people who work at record stores would go, “Huh?” and I’d go, “Oh, is that the one with the blue cover where there’s a David Stone Martin drawing?” and the guy would go “Yeah! That’s the one!” and I’d say, “I think I can find that one for you,” and I’d use the research stuff in the store and find the record. It turns out I’m sort of an idiot savant in that I was really good at picking things that should be [stocked] so I ended up buying for the record store.
[Tom Ray} was working for a distributorship in New York. He’s also a musician and that was his day job. He’s a great harmonica player. We stayed in touch because we went to college together. I lived in Boston and Colorado working in record stores and he was in New York and one day Tom said, “I gotta get out of here. I hate this.” And I said, “I’m not to crazy about this, either.” I was just offered a teaching job in St. Louis and I said, “Let’s start a record store in St. Louis. Let’s do it right.”
What year was this?
I started teaching in ’77 or ’78, right around there. By 1979, we had both moved here. I was teaching and Tom was taking whatever day work he could get. Between us, we had $300, which I sent to Tom in New York right before he left, so it was my $300 actually. Among the things Tom did was run an avant-garde jazz club called Axis in Soho. So he knew all of the local music critics and he would call them up and say, “Do you have any records free from the labels that you want to sell cheap?” And he’d go through their stuff and he’d buy it and he came back with about three, four, five hundred records that we got for the $300 plus whatever he threw in. And that’s how we started the business. We took those records down to Soulard Market where we rented a booth for twenty bucks. Actually, we couldn’t legally rent the booth. The booths were $10, but only farmers could rent—people with farm produce and stuff like that. So we had a farmer rent the booth and then he rented it to us—he rented it for ten, we got it for twenty.
The first week, we brought three or four hundred records down and we sold almost all of them and walked out with eight or nine hundred dollars which we turned around and bought more records with and in three or four months we were hauling two thousand records and we had two booths. By May of 1980, we had the first store on Delmar, which was less than five hundred square feet. That’s how we started.
I used to shop at that store when I was teenager.
To give you an idea, the current jazz room in our store is four hundred and thirty square feet. So we had four hundred square feet of retail space. The other hundred was the back room.
But now you run this enormous record store that’s recognized as one of the best in the country.
Well, we recognize it! (laughter) Some time in the late eighties, Rolling Stone did a list of the ten best record stores in America and we were on it. We occasionally get that kind of stuff.
So, in a Dickensian sense, in terms of the record business being lucrative, what were the best of times and what were the worst of times?
You have to understand that as businessmen, Tom and I are good musicians. (laughter)
If there’s a mistake you can make in business that can cost you money, we’ve made it. The trick is, we’ve hardly made any of them twice. The very best time for us was a fortuitous coming together of circumstances. Right about the time when my wife talked me into moving the business from eleven hundred square feet, which was what the next sore was, into the seventy five hundred square foot spot that we’re in now, was exactly the moment when alternative rock was starting to happen in America and we had a very good local alternative station, WMRY. At the same time, Washington University’s radio station was playing a lot of it, but none of normal radio was. And we had been ahead of that curve. We really liked all that stuff. I mean, I had been selling early punk rock in stores in Colorado where I ended up buying for a chain. We were selling The Romantics and The Vibrators and The Sex Pistols and The Crucifucks and the bands whose records are now very collectable. When that all hit, we were a place where you could find it. Our theory had always been to plough the money back into records, so the inventory started growing and growing. We didn’t take a lot out, but the business made a lot of money. A lot of money went through it. As Tom used to say, “Like shit through a goose!”
What was the worst period?
The period surrounding 9/11. The record business had started to slump early in 2000. When you combine the outside forces of a bad economy, war—people don’t buy a lot of music when they’re frightened—downloading, which I’m not against, but it did cut into certain kinds of sales. When we became the place to buy alternative rock ‘n roll and alternative became the top selling records, we got used to being able to sell hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of copies of something that was essentially an alternative hit. By 2000, you weren’t selling hundreds and hundreds. You were selling a couple dozen because each of those people would let fifteen friends burn a copy or would get the next three albums by that band by downloading them. So there was a real skid in 2001 which carried over into 2002. By late 2002, record stores started closing in St. Louis and we started picking up the business that was being lost by those guys because we maintained our inventory and everybody else didn’t. When everybody else started losing money, they started sending records back because they have to pay for them. But we own everything in our stores, pretty much, so we were able to keep our stock.
You mentioned downloading. What do you think of the RIAA’s efforts to scare people with lawsuits? Don’t you think that peer-to-peer file swapping can actually be used as a promotional tool to actually move records? Has the record industry failed to realize that it may not be as much of a threat as they think and that in fact, it might help?
The record industry is run by greedy idiots. That’s pretty much true of all corporate capitalism in America, but it’s particularly true in the record industry. They don’t get the fact that the more people know about music, the more music they’re going to buy. Peer-to-peer swapping is the best way to learn about music because it’s essentially trading goods within your tribe--to get back to the notion of tribalism in America and musical tribes—so that people who like jam band music are going to discover Rusted Root and Phish and Galactic before anybody else. They’re going to swap that stuff around and they’re going to create a market for it that the label can then end up selling to and that the band can end up touring off of. People who like avant-garde jazz, when they discover the four or five new guys out there who can do it and swap that information. That’s really the best part of peer-to-peer music trading.
To me, it’s like making vast libraries of pre-sorted music available to people and I love it. It’s always been, in the long run, good for our business. I think in the early 2000s, up until really recently, it has hurt us. I think the RIAA’s war on my customers is stupid. All it does is make less music available. It makes curious people have a harder time figuring out what they want to buy in my store.
When we say we’re an independent record store, it doesn’t just mean that we don’t have a big chain. It means we’re independent of the industry and we’ve never viewed ourselves as part of the greater record industry. Almost every store our size has a direct relationship with the record labels. We did not have one until basically Streetside Records folded. Labels wouldn’t even sell to our store directly because we wouldn’t promote what they wanted promoted or feature the flavor of the month at a giveaway price. What we’d rather do is buy things that we think are really good and tell people about them at a price where we can make money. The record industry isn’t about music. It’s about money. What we do is about music. We figure there are enough smart people with good taste that’ll make a living. We’re not gonna get rich, but we make a living.
OK, that’s the basic stuff. Now I want you to regail me with anecdotia.
Like what kind of anecdotia?
Tell the Muddy Waters story.
Ooh, you mean about Muddy coming into my office?
I was the buyer for this chain in Boulder, Colorado. Boulder’s a big college town—there’s the University of Colorado that has a huge campus with like, twenty thousand kids.
When was this?
Nineteen seventy-three or four, maybe. Maybe five. Maybe six. The mid-seventies are kind of a blur to me. Muddy had moved to CBS/Epic because Johnny Winter became his producer and he was on Epic. The CBS campus rep came in to show me what the records for the month were. They would tell you what the new releases were going to be and you would place your order. Like with most people who work for record labels, she didn’t know dick about music. So I’d go through the list with her—I was always her first stop—and I’d tell her what each record was and who she should sell it to. Id tell her, “If you go to this store, tell them that this will be soul top ten, and I’d break it down for her and she’d make notes. One day she said to me, “Is there any favor I can do you?” And I said, “Yeah, I’d like to meet Muddy Waters!” You know how you just say stuff like that? “I’d like an audience with God, to cross the Atlantic in a zeppelin,” you know, how you just say stuff. And off she went. A couple of weeks later, go figure, Muddy is at a stopover somehow in Denver which is an hour away. And I didn’t know any of this, and she shows up in my office with Muddy Waters!
So she split, you know, she figured she had done her good deed for the day. So Muddy plopped down and we just had a great time talking about blues and I figured that the thing to do was offer him a drink. Back then, I always had a bottle of good scotch in the bottom drawer of my desk for just such occasions—I didn’t drink on the job. I pull out this bottle and I say. “Can I pour you something?” And he says, “I need some milk. I drink scotch and milk.” And I said, “Oh, man!” It was the single most disgusting thought I’d had in many months. And he said, “Yeah, well, you know, I’ve got an ulcer.” And I said, “Let me get this straight: The scotch is for your head and the milk is for your ulcer?” And he said, “Well, yeah, you could put it like that. The doctor said I gotta drink milk.”
And I said to him, “Man, that’s a blues song!” And he said, “What do you mean?” I said, “You know, the hook line would be ‘The milk is for the ulcer you gave me and the scotch s for the blues you gave me’” And he said, “That’s a great idea. You ought to write it and I’ll sing it.” But I never wrote it and he never sang it.
Have you had any other brushes with music luminaries here in St. Louis?
Sammy Davis Jr. used to shop at the store and he was hilarious, very funny and very personable. He loved the fact that his records sold for four or five times as much as Frank Sinatra’s records. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that was because nobody had bought his records when they came out, so they were now rare whereas there were millions of copies of Sinatra’s. And he said, “Man, I gotta tell Frank. He has to hear this!”
I worked at a record store in Boston right next to the Jazz Workshop, and I remember Les McCann used to come in whenever he was in town, check through the bins, come into my office and hand me a note of what was missing—like what he expected to be in there when he was playing next door.
George Winston is a steady customer of ours who comes in and buys really good and interesting piano music. And I said, “You know, this is nothing like the swill you play.” And he said, “Well, you know, I’m kind of getting paid to practice. This is what I like, but that’s what my audience likes, so I’m playing that.”
My favorite musical visitors are not the rich and famous. My favorite musical visitor we’ve ever had was in the very first store—I think I’ve told you this story before, about the guy who played with Elmore James? I can’t remember the guy’s name, but we had this little tiny store and I was blasting and Elmore James record, this great slide guitar player, a funky-ass slide guitar player from the fifties who plays blues and has this voice that sort of starts in the scrotum and rips its way through his body and just erupts. A very well attired, petite black man walks in. He’s perfectly turned out with a razor sharp crease, really nice plaid sport coat and a little skinny brimmed hat and he’s an older guy. He sticks his head in the door and goes, “Is that Elmo’?” And I said “Yeah.” He said, “You know, I used to play with Elmo’.” “Really?” So he’s got my attention and he said, “Yeah, I used to play saxophone with Elmore. “ I said, “No shit?” So I reached under the counter and I had my alto saxophone because if it was boring, I’d just play. So I threw the thing up on the counter and said, “Go ahead, man.” And he said, “Oh, I don’t know…the doctor says I ain’t supposed to play,” And I thought it was just another bullshit story. And the guy starts to wander around the store. It was long and narrow and the speakers were in the back. After about ten minutes, he picks up the horn and puts it on and walks back there, standing facing the back wall underneath the speakers and he just starts playing. And it was perfect. It was just soul-wrenchingly perfect blues. I remember flipping the record, and he stopped when I flipped it and he played all the way through the other side and walked back up to the counter. He put the horn on the counter and said, “Thanks, man. I needed that.” That was my favorite musical guest.”
Is there anything you’d like recorded for posterity for our readers to read? Anything I haven’t covered? Any deep dark secrets or words of wisdom?
I’ve got to think about that one…If you die, and you haven’t had any fun, and you get to heaven or hell and figure that out, they don’t send you back for a second chance. So do it now. Whatever it is that you’ve been wanting to do. That’s it. That’s the only wisdom I have.