December 1, 2013 – Figueroa Street in the Northeast neighborhood of Highland Park
Graeme Flegenheimer answers the door like someone who is in a fort. He peers through the crack between two doors with, “Can I help you?”
Inside The Church on York Performing Arts Space, formerly the Church of Christ, Flegenheimer is flanked by stained glass windows, an altar with podium and high ceilings. The sound of hammers and power saws whir away, while his shirt is covered in dust.
Built in 1913 the building was erected one year after the area was annexed into the city of Los Angeles. Flegenheimer arrived in Los Angeles about six years ago and lists off the facts of the building as though he’s been rehearsing them for some time now:
- Architects were Robert Train and Edmund Williams.
- The first congregation to meet here were Methodist.
- Over time the congregation dwindled and the building was put up for rent.
Flegenheimer came across the Craigstlist post for the building after a night out, one of those late night internet searches before bed.
On his first visit to the church he saw the ceiling caving in, along with hideous green carpets and plenty of neglect for the century-old building.
A movie geek Flegenheimer always wanted to work in the industry, so he made his way west to Los Angeles, found himself in Highland Park and worked various jobs on sets. Art school didn’t work out for him, he dropped out and cut his teeth with music public relations, first at one firm, then another he started with an associate. His firm signed Frank Ocean, a big notch in any PR firm’s belt. Just like all those public relation firms collect artists Flegenheimer began to make friends with touring musicians as he organized their busy schedules. All of this would somehow lead to the church, to Flegenheimer meeting with the owner and summing up the Craigslist post with, “RENT THIS BEAUTIFUL PLACE WE WON’T HELP YOU WITH ANYTHING,” he says with a sardonic tone.
The building had been sitting empty for some time. 6,600-square foot. Inside acoustics are grand, and a voice can get lost in the din of its space. At the time of its listing the owners were asking $9,000 a month. Flegenheimer along with several others make up the LLC who pursued the lease for the church, now titled The Church on York Performing Arts Space.
At this very moment “we’re flying by the seat of our pants” with regards to a calendar of events, though the church will host a Lummis Day event in 2014.
At a recent Land Use Committee meeting Flegenheimer, along with a consultant and his lawyer, presented his progress to the board. Reactions from the board members were mixed – why are you trying to serve drinks? what time will your music be played till? what are you going to use this space for? what about parking? parking? parking? No one walks in Los Angeles, you’re going to crowd the streets.
Flegenheimer answered: there would be beer and wine, and a Salvadorian menu. Music would not go past midnight during weekdays. There will be parking for bicyclists and for motorists. Flegenheimer seemed upset by the end of his presentation.
Harvey Slater Land Use Committee Chair went onto say, “I think we should really consider the benefit of what they’re trying to do – they’re taking an old underused building and repurposing it for the neighborhood.”
“But what about parking,” another member went on.
In the end the board voted to give a letter of approval to The Church on York, now nominated for historical status by local historian Charles Fisher.
Flegenheimer has summed up his hopes for the building a number of times. Back at the church he says it like this.
“This will not be a nightclub, or a bar. It will be unlike any other type of venue in L.A. I like certain aspects of the DIY culture. Like Jabberjaw or The Smell, places where musicians are part of the workshops, part of the physical labor that’s put on there.”
At the church Flegenheimer’s office overlooks York Boulevard, that corridor of progress and recent boom of boutiques and specialty shops. He sits lurched over his laptop, while other members of the LLC busy themselves on their own laptops.
When asked if there’s any irony in transforming a place of worship to a creative arts venue Flegenheimer nods his head slowly and says, “No. No irony at all. It’s just a beautiful place. After so many earthquakes in California, for this place to survive. If you want to strip it all down it’s just a beautiful building.”
The Church on York
4904 York Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90042
Boutique vinyl shop is an accurate descriptor of Wombleton Records. They’re not tossing doilies or serving tea, but the amount of care that goes into the shop’s selection is a bit daunting. Owner Ian Marshall and wife Jade Gordon have themselves a specialty shop, in which they curate their selection, they comb the mane to a certain direction and if you don’t like it well they hope you’ll come back.
Wombleton’s shop has a plethora of rare, used vinyl, and in some instances the pattern can be found, someone else’s collection was up for grabs and Marshall snatched them up, a rare occurrence in nature as a collector abandons a genre and dumps their vinyl crates.
Most of my purchases at Wombleton’s occur in stages of ‘Wow, I remember this’ to ‘Will I ever see this again if I let it go today?’
Portishead, Miles Davis, George Harrison and a Bob Newhart comedy album were all procured at Wombleton’s, making for interesting conversation when checking out at the register.
It’s not rocket science, but the passion in Marshall’s words makes you think twice about vinyl stacks.
What does it mean to you to sell records?
It’s awkward, because I’m not crazy about the selling part. Hanging out in the shop, chit-chatting, not for me. But I like buying records, I love the records themselves and I’m proud of the selection we put out in the racks at Wombleton. I think we’re filling a void in the market; bringing stuff over from England and Europe. There were not enough originals around to supply the demand which is one of the reasons why I started the shop. I would amble around the local shops looking for something I wanted to buy, money burning a hole in my pocket and would end up seeing the same tired old titles everywhere. It was really hard work and kinda frustrating finding something interesting; which I think is the reason why so many had flocked to ebay for the bulk of their purchasing. It was like the shops were out of step with what their customers were looking for. We’ve tried to fix that a bit and bring back the excitement of seeing something different, unusual, rare or really desirable when you’re flipping through the bins.
Your last job?
I still have it. My primary job is that I’m am an agent for old television footage. Music performance footage primarily. I license it in small increments to new productions. Music-oriented documentaries on the BBC and that sort of thing and shows like Biography or Unsung. The owning a record store thing is a sideline, because I was spending a bunch of my free time on it as a hobby for thirty-some years it was time to “go pro”.
Some people say that records made a comeback recently, others would argue that they never really left. How do you see it?
For used records, I see it as they never really left. They couldn’t leave. There were billions upon billions manufactured between 1950 and 1993 or so, cluttering up attics and basements and old shops. During the “lost years” there still was always a die-hard culture of collectors who wanted vinyl, myself included and lots of my friends. And in regard to dance music and DJ culture, even new vinyl never ever left. I mean 12″ singles- that has been a constant thing since disco right up until today. People forget that somehow. It was hugely popular the whole time, the 90s & 2000s included. Maybe not with wedding DJs, though; they did go all CD mixer! Those years that major record companies stopped producing LPs for their mainstream artists, roughly 1994 through 2006 or something. That’s when the pricing peaked on a lot collectible vinyl like Northern Soul and all of that. In a way it was bigger than ever in that pocket.
What does your personal collection look like?
It’s huge and random, less fancy than the stuff at Wombleton. With lots of novelty music, 80′s teen movie soundtracks, comedy LPs, Huey Lewis grade-dollar bin stuff and classical mixed in with all that; Go-Betweens, Smiths, Joy Division and Krautrock type stuff we specialize in at Wombleton. I also like 45s a lot, and have 25,000 of those. I probably lean more toward 1960s & 70s in my personal collection whereas Wombleton is known for 80s/90s for the most part.
Rarest or most prized record?
I’m sure I’ve sold it off. I treasure the crud, the mixed up junk. Alexi Sayle LPs, obscure Jonathan King productions, scratchy Jamaican rocksteady 45s, off-brand unknown poppy UK new wave singles… That’s me!
What makes your shop unique?
Other than the wallpaper and lack of records and posters being plastered all over the place, it’s that the bins are chock full of stuff we’ve flown in from other countries. We carry multiples of original press UK post-punk, britpop, reggae, prog, European glam & cosmic disco records that you very rarely see at any other shops in LA (or America for that matter). And we keep that stuff coming in by the thousands on a regular basis. It’s not just a few choice things here and there. It may be overkill but it’s unlike the inventory of any other store. People from all over have come in and recognized us for this fact and spent a lot of money and to others it just looks expensive and esoteric and they leave empty handed. We’re not for everybody and we don’t want to be. And there’s fifty other stores around LA, many of which specialize in other areas and do a much better job than us in a given area. Gimme Gimme down the street is a much-better all-purpose used record shop; quick turnover, lots of new stuff, a great selection in all genres. Mount Analog is great for all the lastest and greatest, limited and hard-to-find new releases.And I’m where you go if you want an original by The Fall, TV Personalities, Desperate Bicycles, My Bloody Valentine or Pulp or a pricey Nick Drake record or something.
What is your background in music and how do you think it helps in the record selling business?
It’s been a lifelong obsession of mine, I’ve been spending all of my pocket money on records since I was 5 years old. Then through the ensuing years I worked at record stores, played in bands and DJ’d and eventually wound up in the archival music footage business. I regularly shop for records all over the world and I know what’s out there and where to get it and how much it’s worth. People may knock our price tag on a copy of say, a Neu record or something, but I’ve been all over Europe and have seen what they go for on the international scene at ten shops and five record fairs; really recent up to the minute info. If you think you can just walk into a German charity shop and grab Neu 2 for five euros or something, you’re wrong. I’ve got to struggle and work to get these records at a price with room for some profit. And you can check around at Utrecht or shops in places like London or Tokyo and see a lot of the stuff we carry for double the price. I get my costs down by making quantity deals, buying in bulk. I’m not sitting behind the counter at Wombleton with a Quinzo’s sub waiting for people to show up with tatty Jethro Tull LPs. I’m out there flying around, hustling and negotiating, risking my money, investing my time to get those nice records together in our bins so people can have a safe harbor from the likes of Pablo Cruise at Wombleton.
Could you recommend an album that needs to be listened to on vinyl?
I’m not a big proponent of the “it sounds better on vinyl” theorem, I honestly can’t hear the difference myself; people who go on and on about that are delusional. I like records for the prominent artwork & the textural, hands-on appeal. But, yes, there is an LP that comes to mind. I’d recommend that “closet mix” of the third Velvet Underground album which was accidentally pressed on a lot of early UK copies of the record. I try to bring a few back on each of my trips. It sounds a little more rockin’ and rough hewn and it’s really not that expensive (yet). Anything on vinyl, played loud on a system with not-tiny speakers with a beer in hand is heaven for me. If you’re going to have some tiny Bose system or a light plastic turntable designed for making MP3s, you’d be better off with an ipod, probably.
Now some record labels include a free digital download with their LPs. Do you think this defeats the purpose of selling a physical copy?
No, because the digital copy is intangible. For me it’s akin to radio play. It’s out in the airwaves and it doesn’t exist and you don’t “own” anything. Can you sell your copy of the MP3? Not legally, no. So you don’t own it. People like me, who want to own things, will want the physical copy and the MP3 thing is a handy bonus for the car or listening on a computer in the background while you’re working or something. But back in the 1980s when Billy Idol was on the radio every five minutes I could have been happy just flipping the dial and hearing “Rebel Yell” whenever I wanted for free, but I wasn’t happy with that. I wanted to own it and I bought a copy. That’s how it works for me and many others, I’m sure. People who exist on electronic devices alone will wake up one day wondering where all of their family photos and letters and cards and collections of music, etc. have gone. They’ll be in some dead, outmoded computer and they will have nothing. And sure, most of that stuff is just clutter and junk that we collected over the years and it weighs us down, but on the other hand the computer-y approach is sterile and boring and cold for people like me. Many people today are living in some futuristic nightmare! Your computer owns all of your stuff, you pay computer companies to lease back your memories! Yikes!
Will cassette tapes ever see a rise in popularity?
They’re back already. It’s great for young people in LA with their crappy 80s used cars. And there are many new tape-only indie labels happening, and people making mix tapes again and all of that. Burger Records has sort of made their name doing limited releases and reissues on cassette. For me there’s not much money in selling used cassettes, unless you’re dealing in ultra-obscure DIY originals and some C86 stuff that was only released on cassette initially and that sort of thing. I buy a smattering of cassettes abroad for the shop of the sort of titles we specialize in, like Blur or the Cocteau Twins or whatever just for variety’s sake and to cater to the growing tapehead lobby that’s sprung up.