If you find yourself driving through Alabama, up or down I-65, you might notice three exits leading to a little city called Prattville, part of the tri-county River Region area that also encompasses Montgomery and Wetumpka. If you’re a fan of Gabriel García Márquez’s masterpiece, One Hundred Years of Solitude, the name might tickle some faint memory buried deep in your brain. But if you’ve never heard of the place, what you’re most likely to notice first is that right off Exit 181 on the north end of town, there exists the most southern of all conjunctions: a Waffle House right next door to a Cracker Barrel Old Country Store.
Drive a few hundred more yards to the southwest—past the Dairy Queen, past the little Mexican restaurant, but not quite as far as the Chick-Fil-A—and you’ll find a surprising little musical paradise named Classic Audio & Records. Here, on the last Sunday of every month, oodles of enthusiasts young and old congregate to spin LPs and CDs for one another, eat some hors d’oeuvres, dig through the close-out bins for something they might have overlooked in their last visit to the store, and just generally enjoy the fellowship of fellow music fanatics.
On August 27, I traveled up the road to Classic Audio & Records in search of a story. Instead, I might have found a community I didn’t know I was looking for. And I definitely found some gear I didn’t know I needed. But we’ll get to that.
I showed up early, maybe 15 or 20 minutes before the event commenced, to chat with owner Stephen Rich, his partner Denise Baker, and their greeter, Xena, who obviates the need for a chime or bell on the door. Although Classic Audio & Records has only existed in its current form with its current name in its current location for about a year, Stephen’s love for audio goes way back.
“I’ve been into it since I was a young child,” he told me. “My uncle used to have a good stereo, and I’d listen to it with him when I visited my grandparents. And when I started making some grass-cutting money in high school, I’d come to Montgomery and visit what’s now Cohens Electronics—it used to be called The Record Shop—and I’d drool over all the gear I still couldn’t afford. But I met a guy who taught me the trick of going to pawn shops and yard sales and buying old gear, then getting it serviced at a good repair shop and selling it in The Bulletin Board, so I could trade up and earn enough money to buy the really good gear I wanted. Then into the ’90s and 2000s I started doing the same on eBay.”
The Bulletin Board, by the way, was a regional publication that was effectively a classified ads section on steroids. You’d find it on racks at gas stations and grocers. It was eBay before eBay existed, so there’s a good chance I bought some used gear from Stephen decades ago, but neither of us remembers it if I did.
“At any rate, I also got into the cell phone business in 1998 over in Millbrook,” he told me. “But starting around 10 years ago, I decided to start putting some of the vintage audio gear I was flipping out for sale in the cell phone store instead of throwing it on eBay, just to see how it would go. And it just took off from there.”
I asked him why he decided to start having listening parties once a month, and frankly the answer was a lot more direct than I was expecting. “You know, when you’re in business, you’re always looking for what works,” he said. “What grabs people. What engages them. When I go to other record stores, I’m looking for ideas of what to do in my store. And I know other record-store owners do the same in my shop. We get ideas from each other because we all have the same goal: trying to create a better experience for our customers. We want to create a cool environment.”
So what does that mean? I asked him. How do you create a cool environment in a two-story strip mall? “One of the things our customers tell us they love about coming to the store is that they get to listen to their music—and other people’s music—on a system that’s way nicer than what a lot of people have at home.”
When attendees of the monthly listening party approach the counter with their records in hand—most of them brought from home, but a few purchased on the day of—they have to pay a little tax. Twice, actually. First, they have to greet the aforementioned Xena, the beautiful blue pit bull terrier who also helps guard the till. Then they have to pose with their LP or CD for a photo that’ll end up on the Classic Audio Facebook page.
When they hand over their discs or platters, the music is played over the house system, which includes a pair of gigantic Klipschorns in the far corners, powered by a vintage H.H. Scott tube integrated amp that used to belong to Hartley Peavey himself, connected to a Pro-Ject 6 PerspeX turntable (“with a very nice Audio-Technica cartridge,” Stephen told me) and a Simaudio Moon CD player that I couldn’t quite identify.
One cut might be from Bob Seger, the next a Guns N’ Roses rocker, and what follows is just as likely to be a Judas Priest anthem as it is some obscure jazz ditty that neither SoundHound nor Shazam can identify.
While the music was playing and the barbecued sausages were warming in the Crockpot, I mingled a little (a shocking revelation for anyone who knows me personally) and met some really groovy cats and kittens who welcomed me with open arms. I met Tommy Kelley, a genuinely gentle soul whose band HJÖRSE (spelled just like that, in all capital letters, with a J and an umlaut and everything) just released a new album, although he wasn’t there to self-promote. He was just as happy to talk about Phil Collins and what turned other people on, musically speaking.
I also met Eli (“I just turned 16 in June,” he said) and Sawyer (“I’m turning 15 next month”). I asked them what kind of music they’re into, and Sawyer grinned and said, “I call myself polyjamorous. I’ll listen to anything from the ’60s to today. I’ll take the Beatles off my turntable and throw on some Carcass right after.”
I asked them both why they’re into vinyl instead of streaming, and they were quick to point out that it’s not either/or.
“Spotify is great,” Eli said. “But it’s also nice to have a tangible thing to hold.”
“It’s yours. It’s uniquely yours. Nobody else has exactly this record, even if it’s the same pressing,” Sawyer interjected. And I could tell these two were in the habit of completing each other’s thoughts.
Eli didn’t miss a beat: “Yeah, with a digital file or a stream, it’s really convenient, and that’s great. I love the convenience. Especially given how complicated vinyl can be. It’s tough to skip tracks. You can’t really just listen to one song. Or at least I don’t think most people do that. But that’s sort of the appeal, isn’t it? It forces you to drop the needle and let it play through the whole album, or at least one side of the album.”
“It just makes sharing more fun, too,” Sawyer added. “And honestly, I think I enjoy the act of sharing music with my friends as much as I enjoy the music itself.”
When I asked them both what gear they had at home, neither could really think of brand names or model numbers for anything other than their turntables: They both rock the Audio-Technica AT-LP60X. I asked them whether the gear is simply unimportant or if it’s just a matter of budget—whether they aspire to own better gear or they just don’t care. I also asked them for their thoughts on super high-end audiophile components—five-digit amplifiers, six-digit speakers, etc.
Sawyer shrugged. “I just don’t see the point.”
“I mean, if the super-expensive stuff makes you happy because it’s nice, then you should do what makes you happy,” Eli said. “And if you have screw-you money, go for it. But I hope nobody is going into debt to buy this insanely expensive gear. There’s no way it’s going to get you any closer to the music than my thrift-store CD player and my A-T turntable.”
As I was wrapping up my chat with Sawyer and Eli, I heard a familiar voice from behind me say with a mischievous cackle, “Just so you know, they were corrupted before they started coming here.” I turned around and saw my old friend Price—former roommate, former colleague from my land-surveying and civil engineering days, the person I’ve probably argued with about music more than anybody else. We hugged and did the whole “Long time” thing, and then we fell right into a conversation as if we’d last seen each other yesterday instead of ten years ago. I asked him about what the event means to him, what this store means to him, what the renewed interest in vinyl means to him.
“This whole vinyl resurgence, whether it’s contrived or not—and yeah, I think we can thank the hipsters for it—what it’s doing is taking a younger generation and introducing them to the concept of physical media and all that comes with it,” he said. “The details in the art. The liner notes. The album jacket is, for me, a huge part of the experience of the music.
“One of the best ones, whether you love them or not, is Iron Maiden’s Somewhere in Time. That cover has so much going on, not only related to the band, but also what was going on politically and culturally at the time. So that starts a conversation that might lead to some cultural perspective. If you’re just streaming a song, you’re not getting that.
“Also, to actually hold it in your hands and read the lyrics and know who produced it—it’s like seeing a name on a movie poster. Who produced it? Who directed it? Knowing that kind of stuff can lead you to movies you might not have watched otherwise, and it’s the same with music: you hear a record you love, you wanna hear what else the producer or engineer worked on. And sure, you can hunt down that information online, but with physical media, it’s right there. It’s part of the listening experience.”
Meanwhile, Stephen had noticed my huddle with Sawyer and Eli and let me know they’re far from the only young people who regularly attend the monthly listening parties. “A lot of the younger guys and girls show up later in the afternoon. But they’ll be here.”
I made an offhand remark about what a great opportunity this was to pass on our love of hi-fi and share our music with such a young crowd, and Stephen kindly pushed back at my framing.
“The thing is, I’m not thinking about young or old or what have you,” he said. “I’m not thinking of this as the old generation indoctrinating the next generation. I’m trying to reach everybody. And I’m trying to help them reach each other. I think it’s just as important for the young kids to share what they’re into with us old folks as it is for the old guys to school the young’uns. Everyone has the opportunity to be exposed to things they’ve never heard before. To expand their horizons, so to speak. To talk about what music means to them, why they love this album or that song. That’s what it’s all about.”
It’s pretty hard to deny, though, that no matter how Sawyer and Eli might feel about it, for us old fogies, the gear does hold a sort of magical sway. As I wandered around the store, I kept returning time and again to the northeast and southeast walls, each of which is lined with old stereo receivers, integrated amps, and separates from the 1970s and ’80s.
I told Stephen I planned on coming back for a gorgeous Pioneer SX-850 in the hopefully near future, maybe after I get my next big check from The New York Times. Five minutes later, I’d forgotten the Pioneer and set my sights on a pristine Sansui G-6000. “Why the Sansui over the Pioneer?” he asked me. “Wait, don’t tell me. It’s because it’s got more meters, right? Meters sell amplifiers, man. Give me one amp with VU meters and one without, and all things being equal, I’m gonna sell the one with the VU meters.”
When I asked him how he ended up with this distinctive mix of gear in the shop—brand new Audio-Technica and Pro-Ject turntables and accessories, a variety of cartridges, sold alongside amps and preamps and tuners that hit store shelves before Knight Rider went off the air the first time—Stephen admitted that some of it was personal history, personal preference, and the organic way his business developed. But value was also a big part of it, too.
“I think the older electronics were engineered better. But a bigger thing is, every piece of gear I’ve sold my customers in the past ten years has increased in value after they bought it. If I’d sold them a brand-new integrated amplifier ten years ago, it wouldn’t be worth nearly as much now, if anything. If I sell them a re-capped Pioneer SX-series receiver, though, not only does it keep that great vintage receiver out of the trash heap, but two years later it’s worth more money than they paid for it.”
Stephen admitted, though, that circumstances have affected his vintage-gear business a bit. Sadly, one of his technicians passed away in December of last year, doubling the workload of his other technician.
“I’m struggling to keep gear on the shelves because we’re selling vintage equipment faster than we can replace it,” he told me. “Brandon hasn’t had a lot of time to repair gear we have coming into inventory because he’s trying so hard to get caught up on customer repairs. So we’ve got plenty of equipment; we’re just struggling to get it repaired and ready for sale and out on the shelf, you know?”
That said, he’s really excited about a new website at myclassicaudio.com that was in the works while we were chatting and should be live by the time you read this. He plans to sell new vinyl gear, along with records and smaller components, but when I asked about shipping vintage receivers and separates, he drew an emphatic line: “We won’t be shipping speakers or larger vintage gear. I’m over that. Shipping heavy gear sucks. That’s one of the reasons I started putting it in the store, because I got tired of UPS and FedEx busting gear, then denying claims, then making me fight for three months to get my money back. But for everything else, we’re real excited about the website.”
He also told me this new interstate-adjacent location has been a big boon to the shop and a constant source of new customers. “We get a lot of out-of-town customers, which we never did in our old location. A lot of people find us the way Lenny [Florentine] from Just Audio did. He did a big video about the shop a while back. He was coming up 65—from New Orleans to Atlanta—and just found us on Google Maps. We get that a lot: people who are headed to the beach from up north, or they have to be in Montgomery for a conference, or they’re headed to Birmingham from down South, and they just happen to see us on Google Maps, since we’re so close to the freeway. So we get a lot of business that way.”
I know this for sure: Classic Audio & Records has a new customer in me. I don’t know if I’ll be attending the listening party every month, since I’m more of a social caterpillar than a social butterfly. But I’ll definitely check in from time to time, because I felt immediately welcomed by this giant group of people who all seemed to know each other already. And that’s a rare feeling for me.
The overall vibe of the store is chill incarnate, and in the couple of hours I spent at the listening party, I’d say I got to study about a tenth of the gear I wanted to really check out. And maybe I shouldn’t be sharing this part, but Stephen and I are also talking offline about the possibility of having me learn to repair some of the old stereo gear, just to help him out on the side. I’ve never recapped an old Marantz, but I figure if I can repair an HDMI board in a modern A/V preamp, those skills might just possibly translate. I guess we’ll see.
Either way, it feels nice to have a new musical home away from home. I really haven’t had that since the heyday of used CD shops in the 1990s, and I honestly didn’t realize how much I missed it.
. . . Dennis Burger