Posted by: Bill Tracy | November 13, 2017

The Record Shop

I have my ship and all her
Flags are a-flyin
She is all that I have left
And music is her name

-Southern Cross

Crosby, Stills & Nash

It was a Monday, that November 19, 1945. A 34-year-old Howard Clements Horne had finished his Navy gig with the CBs. World War II had ended, and “the boys are home again all over the world.” Howard joyously trekked from the Philadelphia Naval Yard, where he was formally discharged, to his wife, Edna, and six-year-old son, Joel, in their South Philly neighborhood around 24th & Tasker. Then he got about the business of making a living in a newly peaceful and prosperous United States.

When the lights go on again all over the world

And the boys are home again all over the world

And rain or snow is all that may fall from the skies above

A kiss won’t mean “Goodbye” but “Hello to love”


-When the Lights Go On Again

written by  Bennie Benjamin, Sol Marcus and Eddie Seiler

Sung by Vaughn Monroe in 1943

Record ShopIn short order, Howard had himself a janitorial business. One of his clients was a center-city Philadelphia jewelry and novelty shop owned by Nancy Ferraro. Nancy and Howard both liked music; they talked about records. Being business oriented they both saw that records were a bright spot in the retail landscape, so they teamed up to get their share of the sales. For some years, they worked a circuit of flea markets, one-day musical events, etc around the Delaware Valley area. One of these flea-market sites was the Berlin Farmers Market. Things were going well in their little business. In 1948 the long play (LP) vinyl came to be, and that would be the mainstay of retail music sales for many years to come. The 45 RPM record was introduced in 1949. A new “youth marketing” was developing out of that. Howard and Nan hustled, but they dreamed of a day when they’d have a permanent retail location of their own. That day came in 1952, and Howard & Nan’s Record Shop became a reality inside the Berlin Farmers Market. Today, 65 years later, Howard and Nan are gone — but the record shop is still sailing — with all her “flags a-flyin.” And we have one man to thank.

Joe DiPietro had spent the summer of 1962 working on a cesspool cleaning truck. At summer’s end, he was starting his senior year at Sterling High School in Somerdale, NJ, and he was looking for cleaner part-time work that fit his school schedule. He wasn’t the most desirable looking candidate when he walked into Howard & Nan’s Record Shop — blue jeans and a white T-shirt with a pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes rolled up in one sleeve. Maybe it was because his Mother worked in another store at the Market. Or maybe they sensed he would be a good worker. Whatever it was, they hired him. Joe works there still, 55 years later. His long journey through the Record Shop has been quite an adventure.

DSCF6060sDuring his senior year, Joe was working 25-30 hours each week at the shop. A lot of records were being sold in the sixties, and his job was mostly keeping the shelves stocked. After graduation, he kept working there in addition to another job. Joe was a hard working kid. In those times, a young man’s life in this land was not his own. In the summer of 1965, Uncle Sam came calling. The military was building up for the Vietnam war, and they wanted Joe to join their team. Instead of being drafted into the Army, he chose to enlist in the U.S. Air Force. After basic training and technical school in Texas, he was assigned as a jet fighter aircraft crew chief at Andrews Air Force Base, just outside Washington, DC. He worked the night shift, and his weekends began on Friday morning. He had to report back for duty on Sunday night. This left him free to work — yes, in the record shop! He could drive back to South Jersey in two hours and 20 minutes so by Friday afternoon, he was at work unpacking new records, stocking shelves and whatever else was needed to keep the store humming. This worked well for everyone until September, 1967 when Uncle Sam said Joe was needed in Vietnam. “Believing in the mission,” as he said, Joe went to Vietnam. He extended after his one-year tour, doing a total 18 months in the war. He was discharged directly from Vietnam in May, 1969.

Joe working with a customer

Joe working with a customer

Joe had not intended to come back to the record shop. He had found that he liked the Air Force. He was good at his aircraft maintenance job, and he liked the work. But Howard and Nan made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. They wanted him to participate in managing the record shop, and they promised him an increasing ownership share in the business for each year he worked with them. It wasn’t an easy decision, but Joe took the offer. The following year, December 6, 1970, Howard died. Although the store name never changed, from that point on, it was functionally the Joe and Nan Record Shop.

Through the years the “record” store rode a roller coaster of audio format changes. The LP album had appeared in 1948 and became a mainstay of the music business. The next year, the 7-inch 45 RPM came along and fueled the youth market through the fifties and into the sixties. The compact cassette came along in 1963. Two years later, the infamous eight-track tape became the rage. Meanwhile, the LP album sustained the business, especially for hard-core music enthusiasts. In 1982, the compact discs revolution began, and things slowly started changing in a big way. This really started the end of the vinyl record business. The record shop did well making all these transitions through the years.

DSCF6231sIn 1990, compact disc and cassettes each had 46% of the sales market. The vinyl LP had been eclipsed. Over that decade, compact disc sales rose, and cassettes fell. In October, 2001 Apple introduced the world to their new iPod, digital music player. And that changed everything. Since then the music world has been mostly compact discs and ripping songs for portable digital devices, downloading music directly, etc. The idea of a “record” is a distant memory for most people. And the Record Shop had to adapt to this new world.

Around the time Apple was emerging as a dominant force in the “record” business, Nancy Ferraro died, age 86, on May 6, 2003. Since then, Joe DiPietro has soldiered on alone, still running the Record Shop at the Berlin Farmers Market. Today, the store still sells records, almost exclusively used LP records. Musical instruments are also a big part of the store. Electric guitars, violins, ukuleles, harmonicas, horns, etc. are all available. But today’s digital online world is no longer the world of a 1952 Record Shop. And such a record store will never be again.

Joe immersed in a repair job

Joe immersed in a repair job

Howard and Nan would hardly recognize the Record Shop today. In some ways, it is more music museum than supplier of modern music. In the 1950s, the store was flooded with young people looking for the hot new tunes, disc jockeys grabbing the latest music for their gigs, audiophiles shopping for the best new jazz, classical and other genres. Today, collections of used music are purchased; this keeps the shelves stocked. A lot of regulars come in looking to add to or complete their collections. Many have known Joe for years. With the new resurgence in vinyl music, a lot of new people are coming in. They’re looking for records they cannot get any other way. High schoolers come in looking for instruments they can play in their bands — horns, stringed instruments, percussion supplies. And no one escapes without explaining to Joe exactly what music is happening in their world. It’s a personal service and experience that cannot be found anywhere in the online world.

A customer makes a concert

A customer makes a concert

Selling a new instrument to a young person, Joe will invite them to come back and play for him once they’ve learned their instrument. Some actually do. If you buy a new guitar, you don’t leave with a cardboard box and a “best of luck.” Joe tunes the instrument, teaching the buyer, if needed. A guitar sale can easily take an hour. Regular customers offer updates on their bands — and their aspirations for bands. Music teachers seek out Joe for counsel and good deals on instruments. When something stops working, Joe’s Air Force technical skills come in handy. Horns, guitars, turntables, amps, etc. can all be diagnosed and fixed like nowhere else in this modern world.

DSCF3430sFor those willing to listen, Joe can tell them what music was like in the days of vinyl. One of his favorite topics is how a record album in the seventies was so much more than just a vinyl disc and a sleeve to store it in. The cover art was labored over as intensely as the music it was depicting. Inserts had stories about the origins of the songs, the band, etc. None of that comes with today’s digital downloads. But at the Record Shop in the Berlin Farmers Market, Joe DiPietro is keeping it all alive.

The Record Shop is a ship still sailing — and “music is her name.”



Posted by: Bill Tracy | November 1, 2017

Reality — at a Distance

Maybe it’s wishful thinking nestled in a hidden part of a man’s mind, or maybe it’s the last stop in the vast design of things—or perhaps, for a man who climbed on a world that went by too fast, it’s a place around the bend where he could jump off. Willoughby? Whatever it is, it comes with sunlight and serenity…
-A Stop at Willoughby
Twilight Zone, May 6, 1960


Do you grow weary of scripted television “reality shows”? A “reality” requiring the old “willing suspension of disbelief”? If so, return with us now to those not so thrilling days of yesteryear…small town America. The view is not exactly Our Town, but then it’s also just a stationary street camera broadcasting video and audio to the Internet 24/7. Tuning in requires only an Internet connection and access to the YouTube Web site. But the magic is real — and although the pace is slow, no TV “reality show” can match it! Ashland, Virginia (population 7600) is not the Willoughby of “Twilight Zone” fame, but it’s as close as we get in 2017 (and you don’t have to die to go there!). Take a quick peek:

Ashland Live Cam

Crossing guard clearing a school bus across the railroad tracks.

Crossing guard clearing a school bus across the railroad tracks.

Tuning in you’ll see two railroad tracks crossing a main street (England St. carrying Virginia State Route 54). Center Street (north & south) runs one-way on each side of the tracks (also known as Railroad Avenue). A block north is the Amtrak station (upper right on your screen) where regional trains pick up and discharge travelers. I’m told it’s more museum than active rail station at this point, but it is the anchor for train stops. CSX Transportation runs over 20 freight trains through here on a given day; some as long as 200 cars. While the trains are interesting the real treasure to see here is the life lived by people on the street.

Highlighting the broad spectrum of humanity is the daily presence of “Jingles.” This is a man, Ken Hale, around age 60, with a beard and feminine clothing (cute little skirt — and great legs!) riding a bicycle up and down the streets virtually non-stop. He and his bicycle are festooned with bells, hence the nickname “Jingles.” You’ll hear him coming. He’s well-known, respected and well loved by the folks in Ashland. He and wife, Gina, have been married 40 years and have two grown children. She supports his fashion preferences. Also on wheels is probably the best unicyclist I’ve ever seen. Unlike most people on a unicycle, this young man does not look like he’s about to fall down. The other evening I saw him riding through the rain, and he had to be doing 15-20 miles per hour. Once in awhile a truly operatic voice shows up on a bicycle — a young woman riding up and down Center Street bellowing out anything the fat lady could produce — and just as good!

The camera is mounted on a storefront overlooking a small grocery store, Cross Brothers; over time you’ll see a parade of regular customers and their comings and goings — by car, bicycle, on foot. Across the street is a cafe, the Iron Horse Restaurant. They have sidewalk seating and sometime professional entertainment. You’ll hear locals yukking it up over after-work drinks many evenings. On weekends, the music can get loud (and usually not bad). For good or ill, the camera is not positioned to see them, but the sound does tell a story. After closing time, the town goes quiet, almost eerily silent sometimes. The deep stillness may be broken by a slow-rolling police car on patrol. And every hour or two the crossing gate bells ring out while red lights flash and illuminate each car of a freight train passing at 40 miles per hour. There is a prohibition on train whistles in the town both night and day, but if you keep ears tuned to the rail frequency you may hear horns in the distance beyond city limits.

Amtrak train at the Ashland station.

Amtrak train at the Ashland station.

Rail activity is the focus of the Internet feed. The company Virtual Railfan, caters to train enthusiasts. They install and maintain the cameras and Internet feed from all over the country. Most sites don’t show much more than rail traffic, but Ashland is different as it shows the rail activity in a downtown scene, complete with all the bustling life of a small town downtown.

YouTube has a continuous “chat” feature you can turn on — if you’re into that sort of thing. At my age, I don’t have much tolerance for the gasbags and blockheads bleating childishly much of the time. However, there are folks there who know a lot about train movements and rail history in this country. Much can be learned by listening to them. People are continuously watching from all over the world. One regular is from New Zealand. An especially knowledgeable rail fan from Seattle volunteers as a helpful moderator, going by the appropriate screen name “Rainier Rails.” A frequent comment is made about how peaceful it is to watch this little town with the odd nickname “Center of the Universe.” One recently said, “Ashland is rapidly becoming my spiritual home.” Another said, “It’s sort of like the basement train set come to life. All I have to do is watch and enjoy. Don’t even need to imagine the people and cars moving.” Or, you can leave the “chat” off and just watch the doings in a small town, minute by minute, hour by hour and day by day — and weather event by weather event. I’m looking forward to stopping by on a snowy night this coming season. Should look pretty magical with Christmas decorations in place. And I won’t have to shovel a flake!

Each weekday morning and afternoon a “crossing guard” shows up. He’s really a traffic expediter though. Around 30 schools buses cross the tracks at this point. By law, each bus is required to stop before the tracks, open the door and look and listen for trains on the tracks. Even in a small town, this volume of buses could create a traffic bottleneck (and perhaps delay the scholars from their studies) so the town places a man in the intersection to watch for trains and clear the buses through without stopping. The law has a provision for such a “crossing guard.” He usually parks in front of the Ashland Coffee & Tea shop, and they provide him with beverages and such.

Amtrak passenger train on a rainy night in Ashland.

Amtrak passenger train on a rainy night in Ashland.

Geographically centered as it is, Ashland seems to have a sizeable population of retirees. But it also has Randolph-Macon College. The 116-acre campus is behind the trees in the upper right of your screen. And it puts lots of young people on the streets — walkers, runners, bicyclists and folks heading to the coffee shop for socializing and perhaps music.

Behind the Amtrak station is the Henry Clay Inn. The colonial mansion style inn was built in early nineties. With 13 guest rooms of various sizes it is a replica of the original Henry Clay Hotel that burned down in 1946.  Accommodations are a bit pricey by small town Virginia standards, but the charm is probably worth every penny. You could do a lot worse than taking an Amtrak train to Ashland and spending a night or two in the bosom of small town hospitality.

Ashland is also 20 miles north of Richmond, Virginia’s capital city with lots of history to learn about. Northern Virginia (Alexandria, e.g.) and Washington, DC are about 100 miles off in the distance. Charlottesville (and Jefferson’s Monticello) sit about 60 miles west-northwest.

Ironhorse Restaurant (image courtesy of Ironhorse)

Iron Horse Restaurant (image courtesy of Iron Horse)

And if you happen to be one of those folks who actually like to watch trains… There are 50 or more trains running through town day and night. The highlight for most folks is the Amtrak Auto Train. Amtrak has claimed it is the longest passenger train in the U.S., and it may be the longest in the world. It’s an impressive sight, nearing 50 cars and almost a mile long. The first 15 to 20 cars carry passengers, and 20 to 30 “autorack” cars carry automobiles. Passengers drive their cars to the Amtrak station at either Lorton, VA or Sanford, FL (near Orlando) and take a seat on the train while Amtrak workers load their cars. It’s a non-stop train usually taking about 16 hours. Favorite freight trains include coal trains typically bound for shipping export out of Norfolk, VA, the Tropicana temperature-controlled cars carrying Florida orange juice north — and refuse containers being hauled south from New York to southern landfills. Sometimes trains can tell us a little more than we really want to know about our country/culture.

If this all sounds rather boring, this rail crossing is not without some drama. In the few months this site has been active, exciting moments have been captured. A car passing through early morning drives non-stop into a light pole. Another car misses a turn and ends up on the railroad tracks — and is hit by a train while police and onlookers stand helplessly by. Trains take a long time to stop; by the time a locomotive engineer sees something on the track and applies the brakes, it’s usually too late. The reality of reality is that you never know what can happen — in real life!

To celebrate the town’s railroad origins, this Saturday, November 4, there is a street fair scheduled, Ashland Train Day. If you can’t attend in person, you can watch on the Youtube feed, compliments of Virtual Railfan — 10 AM to 4 PM.

Finally, this “Willoughby” experience may not last forever. State government seems intent on running a high-speed rail line through here to accommodate travel between D.C. and Richmond. This would require an additional rail line — and if it follows the current railroad right of way, it will probably decimate the downtown business area. So, there will be more trains to see — but a lot less of life, and what makes life worth living, and watching! Check in while we still have the “light and serenity.”


A Stop at Willoughby

A Stop at Willoughby

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