Digital downloading and the rotten economy have killed off thousands of record stores in the last few years, from mega-stores like Virgin to small independent shops around the world. But San Rafael's cozy Red Devil Records, which sells mostly used discs and specializes in rare and hard-to-find vinyl LPs and 45 rpm singles, is thriving.
"I sell what I like and what I can recommend. I learned that's the key," says Red Devil owner Barry Lazarus, who opened the swinging little shop at Fourth Street and Lootens Place in 2004. He's passionate about jazz and punk but speaks with equal authority about reggae, blues and classic rock. He'll sell you a rare 10-inch French recording by saxophonist Zoot Sims for a $1,000, or a well-worn copy of the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" for $5.99.
"You really need to have a niche, and mine is used records," says Lazarus, 52. He can order you a Mariah Carey CD if you want, but that's not his métier. If you're looking for the Sex Pistols or Roy Orbison or Miles Davis, this is place.
A genial man with a black-framed glasses, a cropped fringe of hair and a jaguar tattooed on either arm, Lazarus is sitting behind the counter, listening to the classic 1957 recording "Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane." The walls are lined with vintage albums in pristine condition, some of them still sealed. They include a copy of the infamous Beatles' "Butcher" cover to "Yesterday and Today" ($1,200), a sealed copy of The Doors' "L.A. Woman" ($300) and a mint-condition copy of pianist Horace Silver's 1950s "Blowin' the Blues Away." ($250).
"That album was made 50 years ago but looks like it was bought yesterday," Lazarus says. He counts himself lucky that so much good stuff comes pouring into the store, mostly from Marinites who've decided to finally sell the collections they've stashed in their basements and attics for decades.
"There's an old arts and music culture here, and a lot up people grew up with sophisticated musical tastes," Lazarus says. After moving Red Devil to San Rafael from Petaluma, where he'd opened the store in 1998, business got better, as did the quality of the records that came his way. No matter how many rare jazz records he gets in, he can't keep up with customer demand.
"I know what my customers like," he says. "As soon as they walk in the door, they say, "What have you got for me?' And I throw something on and they say, 'wow, that's great.' That's a big reason for our success." Lazarus had his worst year when the recession took hold in 2008, and his best year in 2009. Ironically, because of the money crunch, people were selling off great collections, filling the bins at Red Devil with prized records.
About 60 percent of Lazarus' customers come for the East Bay and San Francisco. Like the local regulars, they like to see and touch the records, and experience that thrill of flipping though the racks and discovering a gem. "If you buy online," says Lazarus, who does about 10 percent of his business on the Internet, "you could get what you want, but it's not nearly the same as going through the bins and saying, 'Whoa! I've been looking for that for years."
That's exactly the reaction that Ronald Jacamo had when he came across a Bob Marley single of "Reggae on Broadway" with the obscure "Gonna Get You" on the B-side.
"I've had that song on my want list online for years," says Jacamo, 26, a music-mad Novato resident who's caring for his grandma. He stops in to Red Devil once a month. "A lot of reggae is hard to get hold of. He has a variety here which is bonkers." Like many serious music fans, Jacamo prefers the sound quality of LPs – the warmth and range -- as opposed to CDs.
Lazarus, who lives in Penngrove with his girlfriend and their two children, feels the same way. "It's been a dream come true that the store has evolved into exactly the kind of store where I would want to shop," he says.