Tommy Herman on the job at the Record & Tape Exchange

When Tommy Herman, the manager of the Record & Tape Xchange in Fairfax, Va., tries to describe what intrigues him about records, it’s hard for him to find the words to say.

“It’s just so cool. It’s just a really interesting kind of culture. To many people it’s about value, but in a sense it’s just about the whole, I don’t know, something is just so cool about so many different types of things…” He trails off.

But as we sit and chat surrounded by the blood-red walls of the Record & Tape Xchange, The Temptations humming in the background, it’s evident that Herman harbors a passion and knowledge of records that runs every bit as deep as his 3,000-piece vinyl collection.

At the heart of Herman’s obsession is an undying need to be a part of vinyl culture, which, along with digital music, is the only sector of the music market that is gaining in popularity and sales. After a sharp drop-off with the introduction of CDs in the ‘90s and the popularity of MP3s that emerged in the early ‘00s, vinyl is regaining its status as the best way to listen to music.

So despite the stigma that record collecting is an ancient hobby, for the moment, it’s a marketable pastime. Especially for smaller stores like the Record & Tape Xchange, which offers an intimate atmosphere and the sought-after LPs the big box stores like Best Buy don’t.

Located on Main Street, the Record & Tape Xchange is a haven for record-heads, new and old alike, who come in often to peruse thousands of cardboard clad pieces of music history. The Xchange is a curious, chaotic collection of posters and arcane memorabilia looming over a cluster of record bins – sorted first by new arrivals and reissues and then more generally by genre and artist. A wild-eyed Robert Smith glares down from a framed Cure poster toward the dollar bin where poorer quality records and random titles are neatly kept. At the back of the store, an oversized copy of “The Velvet Underground & Nico” accents one dusty corner, and up front, Herman is stenciling bin placeholders.

He is perched on a wooden stool as “Lola” by The Kinks blares throughout the store. “It’s one of the last records that was good from this band,” says Herman, flipping over a white label promo copy of “Lola Versus Powerman and the Money-go-round, Part One,” as he speaks.

For four years, records have been Herman’s passion, and for four years he’s spent more than his fair share on collectables: many still sealed with the manufacturer’s kiss, and even some that cost $200 a pop. As a general rule of thumb, Herman won’t touch records under $30, and spends anywhere between $150-200 a week on records.
Though he tries to fight it, Herman’s a recovering music snob, sniveling at Herman’s Hermits LPs, and barely able to admit his affection for his “guilty musical pleasure,” The Mamas & the Papas.

“My friends who I work with here will give me shit for that,” he says, regarding his love of the band as he flips the Temptations record and settles back onto his stool behind the counter.

Herman is about 5’9, skinny and clean cut, clad in a green plaid shirt with his left arm protected by a mass of rubber bands worn as bracelets. Born and raised in Fairfax, Herman went to W.T. Woodson High School, which is just across the street from the Xchange. Though he only started working at the Xchange four months ago, he’s been a customer since his teens and counts his employees at the Xchange as music-knowledge deities, who harbor all the musical secrets that hide behind the covers of each carefully preserved album in the store.

The 24-year-old audiophile is a senior sociology major at George Mason University and a member of the Army Reserves, “an awful decision” he signed up for to pay for school that never quite panned out.

“I’m a patriot, I swear,” he jokes leaning into the recorder, smiling, as he talks about his dislike of the Army. “I didn’t make a mistake and then join the Army. I made a mistake by joining the Army. I don’t know, it’s just not for me.”

And it’s true, Herman seems in his element as we chat and he talks music with inquisitive customers and twirls 33s on his hands, lightly touching the needle of the record player down on his next choice – usually something from the ‘70s.

Anything that concerns vinyl culture is his passion, so he doesn’t mind sitting and talking with anybody who shares his infatuation. This is how he learned to appraise records and keep his intake of music knowledge going 45 rpm.

As the only independent record store in Fairfax County, the Xchange has its fair share of regular customers and older record collectors who consider the store a veritable landmark.

“Weirdos,” Herman calls them, but he admires their memories and obscure factoids about music.

The past couple of years, Herman says there has been an evident shift in the Xchange’s customer demographics and purchases. Each year, a larger percentage of the store’s music sales are in records and more and more 20-somethings enter the store hunting for vinyl.

According to the most recent Nielsen SoundScan report on 2009 music sales, digital and vinyl sales are on the rise. Last year marked the biggest year for record sales (since 1991 when Nielsen began collecting data), with 2.5 million records sold – a 33 percent increase from 2008.

Nielsen’s 2008 report also showed a whopping 89 percent increase in vinyl sales since 2007, attributing the growth to indie artists and the resurgence in popularity of older bands like The Beatles and Bob Dylan.

“Because all of those [artists] were put out on vinyl originally, if you want to listen to Hendrix, why not listen to Hendrix on a record player?” said Herman.

According to the Nielsen report, two out of every three vinyl albums were purchased at an independent music store, which is great news for Herman, whose life and paycheck revolve around his hole-in-the-wall record shop.

Herman’s personal record collection is littered with rare, sealed records that he saves for a rainy day. When he buys a really expensive record, like his $200 Japanese “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” mono red vinyl in mint condition, he sets a special date to listen to it. He’ll listen to that particular album the day he graduates from college, he says.

“It sounds so stupid – that’s like buying a painting and not looking at it.”

But for Herman and fellow employee Math Horne, not buying vinyl would be their ultimate challenge.

“The feel of it, the atmosphere you create by putting on a record,” Horne says with a far-off look in his eye and vibrancy behind his words. “What’s the ideal way of listening? It’s a quiet room with a nice turntable and a nice copy of a record.”

Whatever it is about records that causes Herman and Horne to constantly spend money on them, one thing is clear – Herman doesn’t have plans to quit his fixation anytime soon.

“I order stuff off eBay too,” Herman says, then stops to reflect on what he’s said about all the money, time and energy he puts into records. “Geez, it sounds like I have a serious problem.”