“So I happened to be looking at this real-estate magazine I’d never seen before. ‘Large storage space. Great deal.’ Something like that. I came here one night, and the weeds were six feet tall, the place was covered with really bad graffiti, the windows broken — people were actually living in the building. It scared me to death, plus, I couldn’t really see in; the windows were boarded up. I completely dismissed it.
“Then I woke up, bolt upright, one night. This is months later; I’m still laying out thousands a month for storage. I couldn’t remember where this place was. I contacted this real-estate person I know. I got the address. The owner let me in, and the first thing I see is all this dental equipment. Stuff everywhere. The second floor was a dentist’s office, where, plainly, several dentists once inflicted oral hygiene and necessary barbaric procedures.
“Turns out, the place was sold to a condo developer. But they gave me a year. I didn’t figure I’d open the doors to the public, just wholesale out of here. With my retail background, I had an eye on University, and I thought, Hey, we’re not that far.
“I’d looked into zoning, to see if we were okay for retailing, which we were. Furthermore, I decided to open three locations at the same time.”
An aside here: Clark is one of the most energetic men I know. Aside from his commercial enterprises, he has his Ten Sugar Coffee CDs, and a solo country album (all of which he gave me free, and which I accepted as a scofflaw of journalistic ethics). I now listen to them for pleasure, not research. Each CD indicates much accomplishment and studio time. A Van Morrison instinct, influence, or both are apparent in Clark’s voice on each recording.
“Let me take you in the back, then upstairs. [We’ll go up to] the roof for a while and chat.
“The entire building is 27,000 square,” Clark says as we enter the sporadically lit back area. There are 33 rooms back here — which our customers don’t know about. Most of the stuff that you’ll see in this building, about 90 percent, was brought in over the past four years. Of course, a good lot of it comes from the old Music Trader days. We think we have about a million records.
“A lot these rooms represent Big Buys [a retail chain which is now defunct], after they bought large quantities and then sold out. We got a lot of [their stuff]. We also buy from wholesalers. We’re completely open-minded.”
Clark pointed to seemingly countless boxes of CDs. “There was a guy I know who had a store, and I used to buy CDs from him, back when CDs still had a pulse. He had ’em stored in a kind of makeshift structure in his backyard. I bought four or five hundred CDs. So, when records started getting a real pulse again — records are our number-two category, clothes being first — ah, anyway…once again, much later, I tried to remember where this guy’s place was. I drove the streets in the area and knocked on doors. I found it, and it turned out the guy had had a heart attack. Everything was still there. But there was another structure in his backyard. It was tragic. He had built a structure and the covering was tarps and garbage bags, and 40,000–50,000 records were lost from rain and exposure.
“The good news is we were still able to salvage 60,000 records. In great shape, incredible titles. There are 30,000–40,000 cardboard-covered DVDs in this room here. Back in the time that CDs were huge, we were so blessed at Music Trader to have these incredible contacts for outside buying. About ’96, ’97, I bought about a half-million CDs on the theory that we would put them out in a case for a dollar or two. We had tons of Pink Floyd, for example. We used to buy a lot of overruns and returns from, like, Best Buy — even lost mail from the record clubs, after we discovered the postal auctions.
“I remember I went to the San Francisco postal auction and bought 8000 CDs for 50 cents [each]. It was all, like, Bob Marley and Offspring or the record of the month or whatever. Like, the military would order a lot of these and then move on, and these things got lost, but nobody knew about it. We had great radio connections, too. We were incredibly blessed, beyond any explanation.”
We continued our discussion on the roof. We talked of obsessive collectors. “Real obsessive vinyl people,” Clark said, “they don’t mind moving boxes and getting underneath stuff. Every box has something interesting in it. That’s the beauty of it.”
I heard about the good old days at Music Trader, and indeed, there were some stories there, and also more tales of uncanny luck, all worthy of writing down some other day.
We adjourned with a handshake and an invitation from Clark to come back any time, and he would “take care of me.” I reluctantly recited the journalist’s vow of poverty, and the shame, ostracization, and dishonor that accompany the accepting of gifts, or even discounted merchandise. As already noted, I did accept his own band’s CDs and a rare copy of The Most of the Animals, to confirm his claim of quality. Still, I listened to the thing less than two dozen times. I believe I detected no flaws.
As I headed to the parking lot, I reached out to steady myself. I felt an episode of ABM coming on.
Beneath my right hand was a CD of Muddy Waters’s album Got My Mojo Working. An image of a man at the top of a ladder and holding a paintbrush assailed my inner eye. The man was wearing a white jumpsuit and painting the ceiling of Chess Records studios at 2120 South Michigan Avenue. A young Marshall Chess was rattling the ladder. Laughing. The man upon it was Muddy Waters himself. What was he doing painting the studio, the very one where he’d recorded such classics as “Baby Please Don’t Go” (another Van Morrison cover), “Baby Rock and Roll,” and “Long Distance Call”? Surviving songs that everyone from the Beatles and Stones to my own garage bands played and recorded.