A talk with Bob Wirtz
By Scott Douglas
Bob Wirtz owns Enterprise Records, a vinyl-only shop on Congress Street.
The Bollard: You’ve been around since ’87. I was wondering if you could give a brief history of the public’s interest in records during that time, given new music technologies, the whole hip-hop thing and so on.
Wirtz: When I first started in ’87, records were pretty much the standard. Records were more popular than cassettes. CDs were a new thing — around here, we call them ‘other formats.’ For the first couple of years, business wasn’t very good, because I was new, but it built slowly, and by about ’89, early ’90s, the whole CD thing really started to take over, and what business I had built up for myself started to taper off. I thought, ‘Well, if I have to sell CDs to stay in business, maybe I’ll sell CDs.’ But then I kind of thought, ‘Well, if they really take off, the whole thing is going to be price-driven.’ And at the time, there were things on records you couldn’t get on CD.
People started bringing in their records to sell, because they were switching over to CDs. It was all common stuff — Beach Boys, Rolling Stones. I sensed that people who were into interesting music didn’t care as much about CDs. So over the course of six or eight months, I checked out the CD thing pretty intensely and decided, ‘I’m going to stick with records and see what happens.’ I started to develop a clientele of real hardcore music people who wanted the records no matter what.
By maybe ’93 or so, some pretty obscure stuff started to come out on CDs. Stuff like rare psych records, where if you could find the original it would be like $800, and here’s a CD from Germany of it for maybe $15. I’d call my guys and say, ‘I can get you this on CD,’ and they’d say, ‘Bob, what am I going to do with a CD? When you find the $800 record, then call me.’ OK, fair enough — I stuck with records.
For a few years, from maybe ’92 to ’95, ’96, things were pretty thin. By the mid-’90s, though, a few people wanted records again. Like Neil Young said he wanted his new stuff available on record. Dylan said the same thing, and Johnny Cash, too — name artists who could call their own shots, and the label had to do it. Also, there were some things that never went out of print that I could always get — a lot of jazz, stuff from the Fantasy catalog, Cannonball [Adderley], things that are still in print today.
By ’97, ’98, things were going OK, and then the hip-hop thing came. Starting around five years, four years ago, the whole thing really had an effect on me. I had a couple of years that were through the roof — I couldn’t keep up with it. This is ’02, ’03. Then, starting maybe a year-and-a-half ago, it leveled off.
When the hip-hop thing was at its peak, did you have to change the sort of stuff that you offer, or did they just take anything?
Well, it was really kind of silly, because all of a sudden everybody and his brother was a DJ. All of these guys who didn’t know jack about records, or even music, all these guys were DJs. And they were coming in and buying everything. They were buying stupid stuff — children’s records, any kind of sound-effect records, whale songs, languages of wolves with Robert Redford narrating, all kinds of movie soundtracks, any kind of African record, anything with drums on it, spoken-word records like poetry records, easy-listening stuff, operatic stuff. These guys would just grab records at random. So I was selling a lot of stuff that ordinarily I wouldn’t even bother with. It was mostly stuff that wasn’t really recognized as worth having — they weren’t buying Miles Davis records. They didn’t want the Miles Davis records for $6 or $8; they wanted the insect-sounds record for $4.
Some of them, I could tell they knew something about music by how they looked at the records they picked up. But a lot of them were kind of blustery — ‘Hey, I’m a DJ’— and they wanted to come back behind the counter and play the records themselves, like, ‘It’s cool, man, I’m a DJ.’ No, it’s not cool. So it was fun while it lasted, and it’s still going on, but after its peak, I wasn’t sorry to see it go away.
A lot of indie bands take pride in putting stuff out on LP. Of the stuff in here, how much was released in the last five years?
Probably 25 titles.
I’m going to say 15,000 records.
Why is that?
Well, a lot of the stuff that’s brand new is also available in other formats, and people prefer it that way. And a lot of new stuff isn’t on record. One of the luxuries of being in this business is that I don’t have to keep track of new stuff, because a lot of it is here today, gone later on today. I haven’t got the energy or even the inclination to keep up with new releases. There are distributors who sell avant-garde, alt rock, indie rock kind of stuff, and I get e-mail updates from three or four distributors every week, and all these updates have 15, 20 titles. I’ll go through some of them and occasionally pick out an item or two, but most of it is stuff for the college radio crowd, and I don’t know what this stuff is. Maybe it’ll sell, maybe it won’t. It’s just not a big part of the business.
What do you mostly listen to?
This [motioning to a shelf behind the counter] is my little stash of records. I often play stuff from stock, or maybe as I’m pricing records. But sometimes if I’m busy or if nothing calls to me from stock, I go in here to my stash. It’s stuff like this. [For the next few minutes, Wirtz pulled out records ranging from Cannonball Adderley and the Pogues to Sun Ra, Steeleye Span, Kraftwerk and a collection of Hungarian folk songs.]
I know you say you don’t get records at yard sales. What are your sources?
Did you see those records out front on the sidewalk?
The free ones?
Yeah. A lot of people bring records in for sale. I don’t buy most of them, and they wind up out there.
They just give them to you anyway?
Yeah. I mean, I buy some of them, depending on what they have. And I go on a lot of calls. Like if people have 150 records, yeah, bring them in here. If people have 600 or 800 or 1,000, I’ll go there. Not all of those are good. If I get one good call out of ten… But I always go, because I figure if you don’t go, you never know. Sometimes it’s really good.
Have you ever had a call from someone who didn’t realize how good their stuff really was?
Oh yeah, sure.
Did you tell them?
Sometimes I tell people, sometimes I don’t. If I sense that people just want to get rid of stuff, I’m not going to set them straight.
Do you do mail order?
No, not really. I do a little bit on occasion. The mail order I do is usually along the lines of I’ll get a phone call or e-mail from somebody, ‘I was in your store last Saturday and I saw you had a copy of Tom Waits’ Swordfishtrombones. Do you still have it? I live in Boston. Can you mail it to me?’ Once in a while, maybe January or February, in the dead of winter, I’ll list a few things on the dreaded eBay. Like if I get a Michael Jackson picture disc, well, who cares about that? If somebody from Philadelphia wants to pay me $10 for it, great. I really don’t like eBay at all. But when it’s six degrees out and it’s getting dark at 4:30, why not?
I imagine that you have a lot of regulars.
There’s one guy, if he’s not here by 11:30 on Thursday, I’m starting to wonder if he’s OK. In fact, last week he didn’t come in until about 12:15, and I said to him, ‘If you’re not going to come in before noon, at least give me a call and let me know you’re alright.’ He laughed, but I was only half kidding.
Someone like that, do you have a sense of what their attraction is to records, to this format?
Not really. I don’t really think about that too much, because there’s all kinds of stuff that attracts people to records. Sometimes people like to go into detail about why they like records, and a lot of those people think they have unique views, and I’ve heard it all 100 times. Not to sound jaded, but, you know, if you like records, I’m glad you’re here.
What is the appeal to you?
Well, I like all kinds of music, and it’s a fun business.
Do you even have a CD player?
Yeah, we have about 15, 20 CDs. Most of them are my wife’s. The ones I have — I have three or four — are music I like that you can’t get any other way. It was recorded in that format, and that’s it.
Do you like the sound better on records?
I don’t have a lot of experience listening to stuff on other formats that was made originally for records. Like the CDs I have, it’s stuff that was recorded for that medium, and that’s the only way you can hear it. Some people say CDs don’t sound as good as records, but I haven’t heard the CD compared to record — I haven’t heard Kind of Blue on CD — so I don’t know.
It sounds pretty good.
I’m not a record collector, either. If I didn’t own this business, I probably wouldn’t have much to do with records. I wouldn’t be out looking for records or whatever. I have quite a few records, but most of it is stuff I’ve picked up along the way being in the business.
How many do you have in your collection?
Probably 3,000, somewhere in there.
When you’re here, you always have music on. Do you ever get sick of listening to music and just want it to be quiet?
Not really. But very often at home now, we have it quiet. Before I was in the business, if I wasn’t sleeping, there was a record on. Now, we usually keep it quiet around the house.