Sean Congdon is the owner of Audioccult, a record store out of Beacon, New York he opened approximately 2 months ago. His collection, before opening the store, was 10,000 strong. According to Congdon, he’s “living the vinyl-lovers dream.”
What do you remember about the first piece of vinyl you either purchased or were given?
It’s one of those flashbulb memories for me – I can remember everything about the moment I was given my first record. It was Easter Sunday and I was in 1st grade, 7 years old, and along with the normal (boring) chocolate bunny and jelly beans was a brand new copy of Michael Jackson’s Thriller. It was a great first record, at just the right time for me – it was gatefold, with the picture of Michael and a white tiger in the middle, and there was a lyric inner sleeve. I can remember spending days upon days listening to that record, staring at that picture, and reading those lyrics.
The first records I bought with my own money were 2 45s purchased together right around my 11th birthday. I bought The Bangles’ cover of “Hazy Shade of Winter,” and Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child O’ Mine.” This was a victory for me – my Mom wouldn’t let me buy Appetite For Destruction because it had a Parental Advisory sticker on it. The Sweet Child 45 didn’t – even though the B-Side had a live version on “It’s So Easy,” complete with plenty of swearing for my eager 11-year-old ears – I used to play the shit out of that B-Side whenever I was home alone.
Was there anyone in particular who introduced you to the world of vinyl?
Not really, but my folks divorced when I was pretty young, and both Mom and Dad had their own records and turntables set up. They could tell I was really into music at a young age and they both encouraged me to explore their record collections. Pretty standard stuff for people their age – my Dad had the classic heavy rock stuff – Cream, Zeppelin, Hendrix, The Who, etc., while Mom had the more pop oriented stuff – America, The Eagles, Kenny Rogers, Linda Ronstadt and the like. So vinyl was always around. I consider myself fortunate to have been born at a time when vinyl was still the format of choice, although I was at the tail end of it and by the time I was a teenager in the early 90s and really “finding myself” in terms of what I liked musically, records were on the way out.
Now, you actually have a pretty crazy journey to share. First off, you were in college, but dropped out to go work in music and in a record store, a gig which lasted 10 years. Looking back, what do you think played into that choice and is it something you’d do again?
Haha – I don’t know. I guess I wouldn’t be where I’m at now if it weren’t for those decisions, so in that regard I would absolutely do it again. I made some pretty dumb decisions though. I was attending a really large state university and was way more interested in playing in bands, going to see other people’s bands, and traveling than I was in actually going to class. I was reading a lot of beat generation literature and was of the mind that I should follow my heart and live pretty impulsively. I was also still naïve enough to think I could make a living playing music. After struggling for a few years, moving back in with Mom, and bouncing in and out of a bunch of crappy jobs, a friend of mine saw a “now hiring” sign at a record store. And then my life changed forever. I fell in love with that job immediately – I had never enjoyed waking up and going to work at a “normal” job, and I couldn’t wait to go into that store every day. It was owned by 2 brothers and those guys became family to me. I thought I had a pretty diverse knowledge base about music before I worked there and it turned out to be ridiculously minuscule compared to what I learned over the next 10 years. Those guys introduced me to a ton of music, from progressive rock to free jazz to obscure psychedelic stuff and everything in between. When I started working there, it’s like I only knew what existed on the top layer of music and those guys peeled back layer after layer, year after year.
Then, you went back to school, graduated with honors and kinda left the record store culture behind. Then something happened. It involved PhDs, a more personal record store quest and probably lots of cash.
Well, here’s the thing – despite loving everything about working in a record store – you can only go so far (especially when it’s owned by a family). Towards the end of those 10 years, there were a few where it was just me and one of the owners there every day. I’d reached the top of their “corporate ladder” so to speak. They couldn’t afford to pay me more than I was making, insurance premiums had gone up so I was uninsured – and I thought to myself “what am I doing with my life? I’m in my early 30s and I’ve gone as far as I could go with this job.”
A lot had changed for me personally over the course of the 10 years I was there, and I knew if I went back to school I’d be successful. I started by taking night classes while still working at the store during the day, but eventually quit the store to go to school full time. I was insanely successful – I graduated with a 3.98 GPA, won tons of academic awards, was a tutor and teaching assistant, and was working in a research lab under one of my professors. It seemed like I had found a “real” calling, but the entire time this was happening I was still buying records non-stop and was obsessed with vinyl culture in general. I was in the middle of applying to a bunch of top-tier graduate schools to get a PhD (a Master’s degree was worked into the PhD programs I was applying for) and I just kind of had a moment of clarity. A few family members and friends, along with my wife, encouraged me to rethink what I was doing. What they were basically telling me was “sure you’re GOOD at what you’ve been doing in academics, but do you really LOVE it? Because to us it’s pretty clear to all of us that all you’ve ever really LOVED in life is immersing yourself in music.” A big part of their opinion came from concern – I had become insanely stressed out, I wasn’t necessarily depressed, but certainly wasn’t happy either. I had figured a PhD would be guaranteed money, prestige, job-security – all the things our culture tells us we “need” to be happy.
There was one night around this time of contemplating my future when I was home alone, sitting on the floor with a portable record player and a pile of 78s. I had an indescribable and overwhelming feeling of joy, it was literally the happiest I had been in months and that’s probably the exact moment I decided to follow my heart and not my brain. Not to mention that towards the end of the 10 years I had been employed at my previous record store, customer after customer was telling me that I should open my own shop. Over the next several months, I was constantly brainstorming and fantasizing about what my ideal record store would be like. Some of the most important elements to me were: making everyone who walks through the doors feel welcome; keeping a clean, clutter-free shop; and giving people who aren’t into vinyl a reason to come into the shop by making the store an experience in and of itself. I knew I had enough vinyl in my collection to stock a store, so I started working though it – sorting and organizing stuff. The hardest part of the process was securing a good location and of course financing the whole thing. I won’t reveal how much I put into the place, but I will say this – I knew that regardless of having around 4,000 used records I was willing to part with to stock the store, it would still cost tens of thousands of dollars to get the place up and running. Well, it cost tens of thousands MORE than my initial estimate. When I start thinking about the money stuff, I start getting stressed out.
So right now, I’m just focusing on going in and trying to sell some records every day. I really am living the dream right now. I’m in debt up to my ears, but it feels right.
You’re about 2 months into this venture. What’s the first couple months been like and what’s your vision for this shop in the future?
So I finally opened my store (Audioccult, located in Beacon, NY) on April 11th. Beacon is a really artsy, small-business oriented community and the local reception has been absolutely wonderful. I’ve already got a bunch of regular customers and word is starting to spread about my shop. I opened without advertising at all (which is something I’m starting to do now) and it’s been cool to see the store grow just through word of mouth and social media. I keep saying this to people in the store, but being in my own record store is literally a dream come true. I’m letting the store grow kind of organically in terms of the direction it takes, particularly with where I focus my attention in terms of new vinyl. I’m listening to what customers have to say, paying close attention to what they buy, and taking their recommendations to heart. I realize that I can’t make everybody happy all the time, but I’m trying to develop a shop that keeps most of the people happy most of the time.
I started off in a pretty small space. I signed a two-year lease and figure I’ll reassess the shop about 18 months in. I hope that I’ll be in a position to expand to another location within the community in a couple years. There is so much more I want to do. I don’t really have room for 45s where I’m at (I’ve only got a couple boxes of new 7” now). And I’d love to be able to buy more new vinyl titles, I’ve got a lot – but I’d love to be in a position to carry even more. It’ll come with time. I just hope that the store is a success, as long as I’m making enough to pay the bills, I’ll be happy. The most comfortable place in the world for me is behind the counter of a record store, and I plan on staying in that place as long as I possibly can. I’d love to be doing this when I’m 70. I just hope that I can provide a place in the community where everyone feels comfortable, at peace with themselves and the world around them, surrounded by music and discussions thereof.
Back to your collection. What are some of the prized possessions? The ones you’d never give away no matter what?
I’ve thought about this many times. A few weeks ago, there was a wildfire behind our property, and it was a pretty scary moment. I was thinking about what I’d grab if it came to that. Quite honestly, it wouldn’t be the most “valuable” records in terms of money – it would be the records I couldn’t live without hearing again – and most of those are jazz records. My favorite horn players – Gene Ammons, Hank Mobley, Sonny Stitt, Sonny Rollins, Coltrane, Miles, Lee Morgan. Bill Evans is my favorite pianist; his entire catalog is flawless in my opinion. A lot of the stuff on the ECM label – that stuff isn’t worth anything but I love it – particularly the guitarists John Abercrombie and Terje Rypdal. There are so many other guys I’d need to have – Walt Dickerson, Sonny Criss, Elvin Jones, Art Pepper – I can go on and on and on. But yeah, definitely jazz LPs. Beyond that, I’ve got a bunch of records by some 90s bands that I love; Truly was a Seattle band on Sub Pop that I can’t live without. The band Paw out of Kansas had a couple of great records that I’d grab. And anything Dean Wareham ever did – Galaxie 500 and Luna – I have those catalogs and would grab those. I have a bunch of rare records, which I suppose are prized possessions, but I could live without hearing that stuff. Just because it’s rare doesn’t mean it’s good. That’s one thing about me. I love everything about vinyl, but I collect records to collect the music contained on those records, I don’t collect records for the sake of saying I have something. I want to consume as much music as possible in this life, and share it with other people.
And what about white whales? What are the records you’re still on the search for?
I’d say my number one right now is Danny Elman’s soundtrack for Edward Scissorhands. I love Danny Elfman’s stuff and I love soundtracks in general. His soundtrack for Beetlejuice left a huge impression on me as a kid and sparked a serious love for soundtracks that continues to this day. Other than that, I’m always psyched to add anything to my Blue Note catalog. If I can have a close to complete first press Blue Note collection by the time I retire, I’ll be a very happy man. And while they are valuable, it’s really not about the money – that stuff from the mid 50’s through the mid 60s is the greatest music ever recorded in my opinion. Those are records that I can listen to over and over and over again — I never get tired of them and I always hear something new.
You’ve got a collection of around 10,000 items. What’s the storage space like and how do you find yourself caring for a collection that large?
I’ve rented storage units in the past, but right now (in part thanks to the store, in part thanks to my wife for giving me the garage and spare bedroom in our house) I don’t have to keep one. I’m a little ashamed to admit that I have a pretty disorganized collection right now. I’ve seen record collections before in what look like model homes, with all of the vinyl in perfect rows, with each and every record sleeved – who are these people? I live in a pretty small house, although it has several rooms – they’re just all tiny. Right now I’ve got 2,000 78s in my garage along with a couple thousand 45s. There are a bunch of records in my guest bedroom, most of which are doubles or triples – all of which are boxed up. And then I’ve got my record room/home office, which has around 2,500 LPs and 1,000 45s. At the store, I clean and sleeve every record I sell, but I’ve just got too extensive a collection at home. Not to mention, my collection got turned upside down while initially stocking the shop – and it’s yet to fall back into place. Maybe if I move in the future and can have all my records in one large room, along with adequate shelving I’d hope to be better organized and sleeve everything. The one thing I will say is that I’ve got an insanely good memory, and know pretty much every record in my collection and where it’s located at any given moment.
Has the collection been incorporated into the store? And when it was at home, or still is, what’s the reaction from friends?
I stocked the store out of my collection to start, and sacrificed a lot of records I only had one copy of in the process. A couple thousand were doubles, and another couple thousand were records I decided to part with, many of which I hope I can replace at some point. I’m trying to see the store like a bit of a living collection if that makes sense – it’s mine now, but if a customer wants it – it’s time to let it go. So far, I’ve been restocking the store from collections I’ve been buying since opening and I’m still pulling records out of my own collection as well, mostly common stuff at this point – but common stuff to me might make a new collector’s day. The longer the store’s open, the more collections will find me and the less I’ll have to pull out of my own stuff. My friends that collect records are usually pretty psyched and somewhat overwhelmed when they see my collection, and I’m constantly giving records away – you can’t be a miser with this stuff and just keep everything. Music is meant to be heard, loved and enjoyed. Then there are the friends that don’t collect records, or my wife’s friends who probably think I’m a hoarder. The boxes in the guest room don’t help.
What kind of sound system are you working with? Do you consider yourself an audiophile….collector…or something in between?
Definitely something in between. I’ve got 3 setups right now for listening to vinyl – one in my office/record room at home, one in my living room, and one at the store. Not a whole lot of thought goes into them, as long as they sound good I’m happy. In no particular order, I’ve got an old Dual 1219, a Pioneer PL-518, and an Audio Technica LP-120 set up right now, and I’m happy with all of them. For receivers, I’m using 2 Luxman R-1030’s from the late 70s and a Fisher 500-T. I’ve got a pair of AR-4x speakers in my living room, a set of JBL’s at the store, and a couple of shitty shelf/boom-box speakers set up in my office right now. Like I said before, I’m all about listening to music – I try not to overcomplicate it. I’m not that into the equipment end of things, and I’m not collecting records for the sake of collecting. I want to consume as much music as possible, plain and simple. Obviously, I love the way vinyl sounds – but I don’t want to be the guy more interested in the technical aspects of equipment than what I’m actually listening to.
Where do you do the purchase the majority of your records?
Everywhere I go I’m looking for records – flea markets, tag sales, craigslist, classified ads, I’ve put up flyers before. I like to travel, and every time I’m in a new city I’ll check out 2 or 3 record stores. I rarely walk out of a record store without buying something. But I would say the majority of what I’ve got have come from buying private collections. I’m actually going to look at a collection of 700 records this afternoon.
Edited: I bought them, it was 600, and I’ve added 3 first press Blue Notes to my collection.
What are some of your favorite brick & mortar stores?
I’ve been all over the country and I’m always in record stores. The Amoeba stores are all good out in California, but the Rasputin store is Berkeley is my favorite in that area. Waterloo in Austin is good, the Reckless stores in Chicago are good, Stereo Jack’s and Weirdo are great shops in Boston, Academy in NYC. Those are the ones that come to mind immediately. The store I used to work at in Connecticut – Gerosa Records, has probably the best selection of used records in New England – and I’m not just saying that. And then there’s this new shop in Beacon, NY called Audioccult that’s pretty awesome too.
If you could ask our next COTM one question, what would it be?
Is vinyl all you collect/the only thing you have ever collected?
A big thanks to Sean for participating! You can apply to be our Collector Of The Month, below.