Before the inferno, Brad Hales' shop, Peoples Records, was a subterranean mecca of second-hand vinyl housed floor-to-ceiling in beautiful old Atlas soda crates. Mountains of remarkably rare records wove a tapestry of Detroit music, rediscovered and ready for the taking. Nestled in the heart of the Cass Corridor in the Forest Arms building, Peoples was an informal clubhouse for musicians, collectors, and local DJs to share records, stories and knowledge. The air hung heavy with the ghosts of old Motown, soul and jazz icons.
The place was deliciously and nostalgically musty; it smelled of incense tinged with basements and attics and alcoves where folks store records, an intimacy that felt as if the place had existed for decades. That tourists and record geeks from the world over came to Detroit to hunt through Peoples Record's attested to the shop's influence.
Then the Forest Arms building went up in flames.
An article in a 2003 issue of Metro Times signaled the opening of Peoples Records. The piece referenced a minor fire that had begun as Hales and his then-business partner were signing the lease. The sad, ironic foreshadowing came full circle this year on Feb. 6, when the structure caught fire again. This time, the blaze destroyed the entire apartment building, including Peoples Records and Amsterdam Coffee Shop. Hundreds of people were displaced and one man died from the fire, whose cause is reported as "inconclusive." Unfortunately, neither the landlord nor the manager alerted Hales that his store was in flames. When he arrived, the building had been burning for five hours, with water pumping into the shop at 5,000 gallons a minute. Hales discovered his record store flooded in four feet of water.
Had Hales been immediately contacted when the fire began, he could've saved his rarest and most expensive albums. Thousands and thousands of records were destroyed, including his mammoth collection of 12-inch singles and 78s. The loss represented years of Hales' daily record purchases (often hundreds a day!), as well as a vinyl almanac of Detroit music history.
Local artist Anibal Gonzalez, a longtime and dedicated record enthusiast who has worked in every major record shop in the area, had an unexpected hand in the preservation of Peoples. A week before the blaze, Gonzalez had completed an elaborate, year-long project of painting lidded cardboard boxes to house the 45s. Because Gonzalez had finished them with an acrylic glaze, the water damage to the 45s was minimal.
In these times of iPods and downloads, our culture is hastily letting old, beautiful things (and shared things) lie forgotten. By contrast, used vinyl carries an evocative, dusty smell and classic aesthetics — scratches and names scrawled on covers are snippets of old stories and music heard in far-off teenager bedrooms decades ago — a testimony to previous owner passions. Ownership of secondhand music provides insight into the untold human experience of an album — life-affirming stuff like Roy Ayers' "Everybody Loves the Sunshine," sliced from the musical timeline that fascinates Hales.
With his polite, soft-spoken demeanor, Hales exudes a sense of calm that's impressive for a guy who survives in Detroit's madhouse of a record industry. He has an inexorable hunger for music and a vast historical knowledge to truly grasp its weight.
Records are Hales' spirit and his career. He opened the shop to offer people an outlet to sell their old records as well as to preserve and celebrate Detroit's musical legacy. His mission is especially unusual because he makes it a priority to sell rare and expensive vinyl in person. Like any good record store, it's about community. He talks of buyers who strip cities of their record treasures to hawk in mass quantities on eBay. Prices set by customers through online bids can reach astronomical sums, generally selling for much higher than in-shop retail. Hales explains that eBay has created a "record mania" that generously sustains sellers while leaving buyers empty-handed, simultaneously degrading the market for old-school, person-to-person record negotiating. What's more, eBay guarantees that most of the stuff will leave the city. Hales prefers to give local buyers the first crack, facilitating the opportunity for rare records to remain circulating locally. In salvaging the soul of the city, Hales sustains a local market for used records, many of which were produced in Detroit.
So how did Hales get started?
"By sifting through hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of less interesting ones," he smiles. He hunts warehouses, attics, and estates sales — unearthing at times records with only a few known copies. (He points out that if anyone can locate a white-label test copy 45 of Frank Wilson's "Do I Love You — Indeed I Do" on Motown's Soul imprint, Hales expects be able to rack in $20,000 for the seller).
Every day yields a steady stream of cats looking to trade or sell. He works hard to maintain a buyer-seller loyalty in a business where that integrity is rare. Dudes roll up in tattered threads on bikes, slinging dumpster finds. Hales gives them no less respect than he does the hardcore, high-end Japanese collectors who fly in to scour Hales' collection. Hales even calls Peoples "our store." It's like a living organism, fed by a fluid network of everyone involved — be it the buyers, the shop rats or the kids who dance to his records till dawn.
After hours, Hales sustains Detroit's late-night dance revelry. He's been spinning records at his now-legendary Funk Night almost religiously for the past decade, fueling insatiable hungers for funk in recesses of art spaces and music venues. Formerly held at CAID, the party now happens the last Friday of each month at Elements Gallery on Michigan Avenue. It's an animal of an after-hours, with Hales and fellow DJ Frank Raines throwing down volcanic tracks of very danceable and often locally produced 45s. In a similar yet more suburban vein, the Ann Arbor Soul Club provides a monthly Northern Soul stomp hosted by Hales and a University of Michigan grad student, "super genius DJ" Robert Wells. Regular fans from as far as England congregate at the revered Soul Club, held every first Friday of the month at the Blind Pig.
Hales is also a musician with a deep reverence of the generally unrecognized musical gifts in Detroit. He's connected with old Motown greats, including the Brothers of Soul and JJ Barnes. And he's inspired many to take the stage again, some who hadn't performed in decades. He plays bass, along with other musicians, with Ultimate Ovation, a three-man, sweet soul vocal harmony group that's existed since the 1970s. He put two years in with the famed Nathaniel Mayer, who, you'll note, began his career in 1962, scoring a hit as a teenager with his first record, "Village of Love," on Detroit's Fortune Records.
Before the fire, Peoples Records entertained many musical luminaries, including '60s activist John Sinclair, Mad Dog and the Pups, local folk-psych legend Rodriguez and early Motown producer Robert Bateman. Northern soul heavyweight Cody Black also visited. Arriving unannounced, Black plugged in his keyboard and began to belt out the Temptations "Just My Imagination" and Al Wilson's "Show and Tell."
Hales explains: "These guys would stop by and reminisce, and you could tell it was exciting for everybody in the room, to know the impact that their records had, oddly enough, several decades away from when they were originally released."
So it is that Detroit record freaks should rejoice. The iconic space is back in biz. Friends from around the city banded together for Hales' cause; several benefits later and lots of elbow grease on Hales' part, Peoples Records has a new home. It's a spacious, two-story place on Woodward, south of Mack Avenue. It's in the site of an old millinery shop — a 2,400-square-foot space twice the size of his former store. Colorful, meticulously organized and well-lit, it feels like an organic extension of the old digs.
For Brad Hales, music unfolds though a timeline that tells the story of our city. In the '50s, the genius complexity of jazz reverberated throughout Black Bottom and Paradise Valley with heat and pathos. Rock bands like the MC5 and the Stooges and the upbeat, cleaner sound of '60s Motown gave way to the raw, hard funk of the late '60s and '70s, as tensions heightened in Detroit. "You can watch historic changes reflected in music," Hales concludes. And Peoples Records is definitely a time capsule of musical history.
Peoples Records is now open at 3161 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-831-0864; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Saturday.Laurie Smolenski is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]