Friday, December 7, 2007

"NJ's King of the vinyl world"

from - by virginia rohan (staff writer)

The first time Craig Stepneski set foot in Hackensack's Record King, he was a 14-year-old aspiring collector of vinyl who owned only three records: the Beatles' "Can't Buy Me Love," a generic version of "Puff the Magic Dragon" and the "Meet the Beatles" album.

"That was about it. I played those things to death," he says.

Thirty-five years later, Stepneski owns the Main Street store, which is stocked with more than half a million 45 records and another few thousand LPs.

He is The Record King -- a vinyl man in a digital world. And there are fewer and fewer of his ilk still around.

"The thrill of going to a record store and buying a record, buying a CD even, is going out the window," says Stepneski, whose voice bears an uncanny similarity to Dennis Miller's. "Nowadays with downloading, I don't know where the industry's going."

Over the years, the music industry has changed radically -- and so has Stepneski's business. Nowadays, he does most of his selling on the Internet, where he's been trading since the early 1990s.

"It went from 80 percent in the store, 20 percent Internet, and it's probably the opposite now," says Stepneski, who has a number of Jamaica-born customers and caters to vinyl collectors from all over the globe. "A lot of British people, a lot of Japanese are into 45 collectibles. Plus, there's all the jukeboxes that used to be in bars. They're now in somebody's house, and they all need records. This is where we come in."

More business online

In addition to his Web site (, Stepneski does a lot of selling on eBay, where you're far more likely to connect with the truly rabid fans than you would in the store.

"Wayne Newton has, of course, a huge following, but he also has a collector's following," says Stepneski, who remembers the time he put a rare early Newton album on eBay and touched off a fierce competition.

"It was one of their early ones, when it was the Newton Brothers, and it was a promotional copy, one-sided acetate or something -- and I got this bidding war going on for Wayne Newton. And I'm going, 'Wow.' I thought it was a good piece, but I didn't know there were so many Wayne Newton fans out there. I think it went for a couple of hundred, which is a lot for any Wayne Newton record. Generally, his records go for four bucks."

Young music lovers may puzzle over such enduring love for a product that can so easily scratch, skip and warp.

"Certain things really do sound better on vinyl," says Stepneski, citing punk rock as an example. "The purity of a CD -- you can't take that away from it. But there are certain things that don't translate. ... There's some warmth to a vinyl recording."

Green Day, he notes, came out with "Dookie" on vinyl, and "it sounded so much better on vinyl than it did off the CD," says Stepneski. One Saturday, when the store was crowded, he played the vinyl and CD "Dookie" back-to-back for comparison's sake. "It was an amazing difference."

Stepneski also sells used CDs and used DVDs -- which is what most drop-ins are looking for these days, he says -- as well as music memorabilia. He does vinyl-to-CD transfers ("very popular"), makes custom CDs for weddings and parties and even sells non-music items on eBay. He also repairs turntables and sells phonograph needles.

"This is actually the best season for phonograph needles," Stepnes-ki says. "People put needles on their phonographs at Christmastime, because they traditionally have Christmas albums. Not everybody has gotten into Christmas CDs, and even if they have, there's always something like the Osmond Brothers Christmas album that you're never going to find on CD."

Fewer 45s produced

According to Stepneski, record companies were still making "choice new 45s" until two years ago -- they issued 12 titles in that last year, he says -- but those sales did not affect chart status and "a lot of the companies didn't feel it was worth it" anymore.

"Only three or four years ago, there were about 45,000 45s that were in print and available, and now it's down to about 14,000," Stepneski says. "This is how it dwindled down over the years."

It's a far cry from the way things were on that fateful day when Stepneski -- who grew up on American Legion Drive in Hackensack listening to the music his three older siblings loved -- walked into the Record King in search of a Neil Sedaka record.

Bill Smith had recently taken over the store, which originally opened in 1965 at 304 Main St.

"He needed somebody to clean up the place and help out," Stepneski recalls. "All the records weren't in categories. They were just in boxes."

Stepneski started working for Smith part time after school -- and he never left. He bought the business in 1992, the same year the store moved directly across the street to its current location, 303 Main St.

On the wall, there's a large framed picture of Smith, who died a few years ago after a long struggle with Alzheimer's disease. ("He was like a father to me," Stepneski says.) The walls also are studded with framed pieces from Stepneski's collections of celebrity photos and "Batman" (the '60s TV show) memorabilia -- and an eye-catching poster that says, "If it's disco action you're looking for, then 'get dancing' with the world-famous Hackensack Record King."

"Back in the '70s and '80s, we were like Sam Goody. People came here for new records, so we had to be on the ball," Stepneski says. "We had a line of club DJs coming in needing all the new 45s. You'd blow through this stuff like water. We always bought every single 45 that was ever released. If it was a major artist, you'd buy 25 or more of them."

Whenever somebody in the music industry died, there'd be a spike in demand for his or her music, and that's still true today, Stepneski says. But nothing could compare with the rush after Elvis Presley died Aug. 16, 1977.

"We sold every single piece of Elvis we had in the store," says Stepneski, who had one Brazilian man relieve him of more than 300 Elvis 45s he wanted to take back home. "I had nothing left, and you couldn't buy anything because the record company was out of it."

Stepneski lives in Clifton with his wife, Melody, and their two children, 19-year-old Nicole and 17-year-old Bryan (both "very well-rounded in music," he says). He is trying to build his used CD and DVD collections and isn't buying much vinyl these days.

"I've got enough merchandise here to never run out," he says.

Spinning memories

As for selling, his 45s start at $4 and go "on up to whatever," he says, and LPs start at $2.99.

Although he has noticed a comeback of vinyl among younger people, the majority of kids will never get to study the kind of beautiful album-cover artwork he cherished as a teen, or "know the thrill of putting on a record."

"They put a CD in a player, and it goes 700 revolutions per minute. You can't watch it spin. There's something exciting about putting a needle on a record and watching it spin," Stepneski says. "Every crackle, every pop -- that's a memory."

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