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Conversations with Vinyl Collectors: Bear’s Den Records and Sheets of Sound

Al Rivera and Charlie Laureta give an insider look at a record collector’s life, from acquiring rare tracks, meeting your music heroes, to sharing the love for anything vinyl

March 2018, Legazpi Sunday Market. Vinyl record collector Charlie Laureta was packing up his wares when he noticed a stylish woman standing at the back of his stall. The mystery guest eventually approached the crates chock-full of LPs and started browsing intently.  

Charlie and the woman chatted as she narrowed her selections down. He learned that his customer was from Atlanta, and she has frequented the Philippines before. She also had a gig as a DJ at The Fort last night. (Charlie admitted that he was clueless about the scene at BGC.)

The intriguing customer settled on a New Wave Collection record—she cannot leave without it, she said. Charlie mentioned that her purchase was his treasured personal copy; she assured him that it will be cherished and handled with care.

As the woman prepared to leave, this unexpected exchange happened:

Charlie: Wait! I didn’t get your name. 

Woman: My name is N’Dea Davenport.

Charlie: (thinking out loud) I know that name. Damn! I should know that name. Where did I hear that name before?

N’Dea: Yes, N’Dea Davenport. I had a band some years ago… It’s called the Brand New…

Charlie: ….Heavies! Jeez! Can I hug you, please?!

N’Dea: Sure! Show some love.

Charlie: Please come visit the Philippines again.

N’Dea: I promise, I will definitely be back.

The mystery customer turned out to be N’Dea Davenport, an American artist who used to be the lead vocalist of UK band The Brand New Heavies. Their successive successful singles in the 1990s cemented their status as one of the best and most influential acts within the genre of acid jazz.

Charlie was over the moon. He never imagined that an artist as famous and renowned as N’Dea Davenport would ever grace his stall, let alone buy his records and share a brief yet wonderful moment together. “How cool is that? I didn’t have to worry about a bodyguard or bouncer to get close to her,” he quips. 

Al Rivera, Charlie’s business partner at the Sunday Market, also had his own mind blowing collector’s moment years ago—one that involved unwittingly buying an extremely rare record and receiving a transcontinental cold message. 

Two years ago, Al and Charlie visited an expatriate who was looking to sell a record collection belonging to her deceased husband. The old lady’s condo unit was full of jazz tracks, oldies, and albums by black female artists. 

Al wasn’t keen on buying all the records, but a particular cover caught his eye: a headshot of a Brazilian woman striking a glamorous pose, wearing bold black eyeliner, thin brows, full bangs, a topknot, a cheeky smile, and chunky earrings. Beside her image, the word “dila” stood out in bright red. Al bought this particular record for 200 pesos. 

When he got home, Al looked for more information about his new purchase. His discoveries left him dumbfounded—not only was the record exceedingly rare, but it was also fetching prices of up to $500 in the reseller market. Al discovered that this was the first and only album of Dila, a Brazilian vocal sensation who unfortunately died in a car crash after the release of “dila” in 1971. 

While little is known about Dila—most online record stores use the exact same bio and information about her in their websites—surviving accounts attest to her soulful Samba sound and powerful voice:

The liner notes on the elusive original LP, written by composer Arnoldo Medeiros attest: “Friend, look out! Because when this girl starts to sing, you’re in trouble. Hold the railing so you don’t fall down the stairs, because she’s coming this way and shaking up everything.”
Arranged and produced by Durval Ferreira, alongside his studio band affectionately known as “Os Grillos” (The Crickets), Dila (1971) is a rare glimpse into the authentic soulful Samba sound of Rio’s favelas in the late sixties and early seventies. 
—From Far Out Recordings’ page, but the same text appears in other sites. 

Dila’s legendary status meant that the record could fetch an even higher price. After cross-checking with other collectors, he put up the album for sale online and waited for buyers to check it out. 

Two days later, Al received an intriguing inquiry from UK-based Far Out Recordings. They were planning to repress (reissue) “dila” and they needed the cover art of the physical record. Far Out offered Al a generous amount in exchange for a high-resolution scan of the album he had in his possession.

Seeing that the message was from a renowned company in the cultural scene, Al decided to push through with the deal. Shortly after this, a Japanese collector finally took Dila away from Al’s collection. Luckily, once Far Out was able to repress the record, they were kind enough to send a copy to Al. 

These previous accounts are just some of the memorable moments that Al and Charlie have experienced throughout their respective collector’s journeys. Both as co-managers of a stall in the Legazpi Sunday Market and as individual business owners, their record collections and the tales that come with them are nothing short of eclectic and exciting.

Al Rivera: The Audiophile that Struck Gold

Al has been a music lover for as long as he can remember. His younger years saw him collecting CDs and filling up his MP3 player. He also used to be in a band with his close friends who would fondly call him “Al the Bear” because of his beard and build. They would always jam in his bedroom, which they started calling “The Bear’s Den.”

Vinyl figured into his life after he inherited twenty-two records from his grandfather’s personal collection. From there, he got hooked. “I went into selling records so I can expand my personal stash. It’s that classic saying of ‘getting high on your own supply,’” he quips. 

Bear’s Den Records (now the business, not the bedroom) began when Al saw an ad for vinyl records in a now-defunct online selling website. It was posted by a lady selling her deceased husband’s entire collection. “That night when I saw the posting, I couldn’t stop thinking about the lot. However, I was still in school then and I didn’t have enough money to buy it, so I asked my girlfriend if she could lend me some cash,” Al recalls.

The next day, Al went to the lady’s place to check out the collection. He was surprised to see five sacks filled with records—he estimated the lot to have around five hundred tracks. He learned that the former owner was once a radio DJ who collected a variety of records. This got Al excited.

“After pulling out a few, I didn’t bother looking at the other sacks because I already knew what I was going to get. The collection had a lot of what I was into at that time: classic rock, blues, blues rock, OPM rock, and the like. I immediately decided to buy everything,” Al recalls. The lady was pleasantly surprised with young Al’s enthusiasm that she gave him a good discount. Half of Al’s haul that day went into his personal collection. He sold the rest online, which led to the creation of his Facebook Page.

Bear’s Den Records carries a variety of genres, ranging from rock, jazz, blues, soul, funk, and the like, to cater to different types of collectors. “In our experience at the Sunday Market, pop sells like hotcakes. Titles from ABBA, Bread, The Carpenters, and Michael Jackson are also popular.” He also notes that many people are currently looking for Japanese city pop, a genre that Al admits he isn’t familiar with, but is keen on looking into soon. 

In his personal collection, Al considers a couple of original pressings of OPM records—Juan Dela Cruz, Maria Cafra, and the like—as some of his precious finds. Though not as rare, one of his most treasured records is a copy of Batman: Exclusive Original Television Soundtrack Album by Nelson Riddle. “Yes, that’s the one with Adam West from the 60s. The record means a lot to me because, as a kid, I used to watch the series on TV with my brothers. Then, my dad would read the written sound effects to us: ‘KAPOW!’ ‘CLASH!’ ‘CLANK!’”

When asked about a “holy grail,” Al believes that it’s the collector’s perceived value of a record that matters, not an objective standard. “Before, one of my holy grails was MuteMath’s self-titled first album. Luckily, they reissued it a few years back, so I was able to get one. Holy grails tend to change, really—one day, you like a particular record; the next, you want a different one. That’s why record collecting never stops!”

Charlie Laureta: Jazzed Up Tales and Collections

Understanding Charlie’s lifelong love for music requires a trip down memory lane to the 60s. “When I was around five, I remember listening to ‘Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf’ by Barbra Streisand and a particular Tchaikovsky movement. That was probably my first exposure to music,” he shares.

At that time, his father owned a record collection that Charlie wasn’t allowed to touch. Curiosity got the better of him, however, and he would sneakily browse through his dad’s records whenever the elder Laureta would go to his clinic. “Dad had a copy of ‘Time Out’ by The Dave Brubeck Quartet and ‘Monk’s Dream’ by Thelonious Monk, which I would play on his Garrard turntable. Those were probably the first two jazz LPs that I heard when I was around twelve.”

Determined to buy his own record, Charlie saved up his allowance to purchase a Deodato album for only 13 pesos. “I was twelve then, and Deodato was very popular during that time. He performed at the Araneta Coliseum for two nights. I was unable to watch any of those concerts because I wasn’t allowed by my folks. I would eventually watch him perform at the SMX Convention on July 31, 2010,” he shares. 

After that first purchase, Charlie’s personal collection took shape during his college years in the early 80s when he was able to afford more records. He would end up selling his modest collection in 1995 to date the woman who would eventually become his wife. “From the time I married her until the present, I would just collect CDs. At that time, I felt like collecting vinyl was cumbersome. Only in 2013 did I return to collecting vinyl, thanks to a friend who gave me her entire collection,” he admits. Like Al, Charlie decided to go into business—Sheets of Sound—in order to sustain his rekindled hobby. 

“I named my business after a term coined in 1958 to describe the unique improvisational style of one of jazz’s greats, John Coltrane. I likened the term as a reference to the different genres of vinyl available at my stall. Does that mean I’m a jazz fan? Absolutely. But my taste is eclectic. I need variety too, depending on my mood,” he shares.

At the Sunday Market, Charlie observes that artists like The Beatles, Michael Jackson, Tracy Chapman, Tears For Fears, Spiral Staircase, Cascades, The Smiths, Bread, Basia, Swing Out Sisters, Hendrix, and Bob Marley are still in demand. He notes, however, that there isn’t such a thing as a “seasonal demand” for albums or artists. “We get a lot of new customers on most Sundays who have varied tastes. We can never tell what our customers will purchase unless they tell us outright.”

“I think some buyers are becoming more exposed to other types of music and artists. This is great for the market, since albums that usually fly under the radar are now getting attention. I’d like to think that our inventory is curated; in fact, we get nice compliments from customers who notice the great titles and artists that we carry. It’s a sign that Al and I are addressing the needs and wants of our buyers,” Charlie affirms. 

When asked about his personal favorites, Charlie cites songs that carry much sentimental value. Like most teens of the late 60s and 70s, Charlie got hooked on rock music. “The first rock album that piqued my interest in the genre was Led Zeppelin’s fourth album, Led Zep IV. The songs on that album that transfixed me were ‘Black Dog’ & ‘Stairway To Heaven.’ The first record player that I owned during this time was a Sharp portable player which was given to me by my mother, God rest her good soul.” 

“‘Ikaw Ang Miss Universe Ko’ also defined my preteen years. The song—one of the popular singles in the album ‘Unang Kagat’—is Manila Sound’s anthem, penned and performed by Dennis and Rene Garcia and their band, Hotdog.  I met both brothers for the first time in 2018 and I was lucky enough to have their debut album signed before they passed away.”

Charlie has long passed that phase of always being on the hunt for holy grails, rarely buying albums unless he’s absolutely sure that he likes them. “Whatever albums I have at the moment are considered essential titles for me. However, one record that I own which I can consider as a holy grail is Bong Penera’s ‘A Samba Song.’ It’s a memorable album that had most Manileños grooving to the bossa nova craze back in the 70s. Most nightclubs or bars were packed when Penera and his band, Batucada, performed. This album is no longer in print and is hard to come by, with pristine copies fetching prices of up to PHP 17000. I was lucky enough to get my present copy from a good friend who turned over his whole collection to me.” 

Sunday Market Symphonies

“Charlie was one of my first customers, actually! I remember we met at SM Makati because he bought a copy of Pat Metheny’s ‘As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls’ and ‘Falcon and the Snowman OST (1985)’ by David Bowie and Pat Metheny,” Al recalls. 

Their partnership began in 2015 when Charlie, wanting to keep himself occupied as a retiree and keen on sustaining his hobby, asked Al if he was interested in getting into business together. 

“When I first thought of setting up a stall selling vinyl in the Legazpi Sunday Market, I knew right there and then that it would be practical to invite a partner that I wouldn’t need to pay to watch over the stall and who can share the rent with me. I invited Al out of a gut feel that I could easily get along with him, without any trust issues getting in the way,” Charlie recounts. 

They opened their stall in late-September 2015, taking it one Sunday at a time as they weren’t sure if the Sunday market customers would give their records a spin. “Surprisingly, sales on our first day were pretty good! It’s been close to six years now and we’re still there, so I guess we made the right decision. No doubt, I’ll be forever grateful to Charlie for considering me as his partner there,” Al says. 

Al and Charlie’s dynamic at the Legazpi Sunday Market is as harmonious as it gets. Charlie, a natural conversationalist with many stories to tell, loves to attend to customers, take their photos alongside their newfound purchases, and make new friends every Sunday. (He’s admitted to getting swept by lengthy conversations with customers.) On the other hand, Al prefers managing the prices and bundles, sealing the deals, and keeping track of records. 

Sealing the (Record) Deal 

At the heart of the business of vinyl collecting is record grading—assessing the condition of an album to help determine its appropriate selling price in the market. Al notes that while stores adopt varying standards (he makes use of the Goldmine Grading Guide, one of the most widely used guidelines for vinyl grading), the differences aren’t that stark. “I learned about grading from fellow sellers as well. Whenever I’m not sure how I can price certain records, I consult fellow collectors,” he shares. 

It’s that combination of grading and assessing market demand that help determine prices for collectors and make the business profitable. That keen awareness of a record’s changing value allows Al and Charlie to purchase albums and resell them at a fair price. 

“Whenever people sell their collections to us, we ensure that we get that balance between their asking price and our final offer. Of course, to sustain our business, we need to buy records at a cost lower than their market value to sell them at a profit—whether we buy in bulk or per piece, the negotiations continue until both parties agree on a final sum,” Al shares.

The different grading standards also compel collectors to follow stringent maintenance procedures to keep their records in pristine condition. “Don’t stack records up! Store them upright in a place away from direct sunlight to prevent warping. Learn how to operate a turntable properly, and get a good record cleaner and brush,” Al recommends.

“To be fair, there are many instructional videos on YouTube on how to clean vinyl. Just adapt one that you’ll be comfortable with,” Charlie adds. “The use of the right stylus or needle is also important.”

How do You Keep The Music Playing

Two things have kept Al and Charlie’s business afloat amid the challenges of the pandemic: social media and passionate audiophiles. “Social media has played a great deal in the business. Remember, I started selling on Facebook, included Instagram, and then moved to a physical store as well,” Al shares. (Aside from the Sunday Market, Al rents a space inside Spindle Community Store together with a few friends from the vinyl community.) “Amid the pandemic, social media has helped us to continue providing collectors the records they want inside the comfort of their homes. Besides, we get to reach a wide audience.”

While Charlie isn’t as active online for Sheets of Sound, he is grateful for the support of fellow collectors who keep buying from home. “There are quite a number of collectors who still purchase vinyl, even if it’s supposed to be a non-essential item. Since more people are working from home or unable to go out as often, listening to vinyl is a means of keeping themselves sane during this dark period. But yes, the way to ride out this pandemic is to be active online like most entrepreneurs.”

Even if the world becomes increasingly digital, both collectors are confident that vinyl records will keep on spinning. “Vinyl records have a different appeal. By owning a physical album, not only are you able to appreciate the music, but you are also able to hold it and appreciate the artwork, liner notes, among others. With record collecting, it’s loving the music first and enjoying the format next,” Al shares.

“Also, one of the most addictive parts of record collecting is the hunt. It’s exciting to find a record inside a crate after years of trying to look for it! The decision you’ll have to make if you’re gonna get it now ’cause you might not find another copy of it for a while or pass on it in hopes of finding one in a better condition or in an earlier pressing,” he adds.

Liner notes and artwork aside, Charlie reiterates that the sound quality of vinyl is simply incomparable, making it an indispensable collectible. “Vinyl never went away, and it will be around even when we’re all long gone or if other platforms come up in the future. After all, a few collectors remained true to their passion of collecting vinyl even during the heyday of the compact disc. There’s nothing like an object that you can identify with because it brings back great memories. Music has always been the best time machine bar none.”

For those interested to begin collecting vinyl, Al encourages first-times to just go for it, but to stay within your budget. “The first turntable that you buy doesn’t have to be a fancy one right away. Just upgrade when you feel that you’re not giving justice to your records—and believe me, you will inevitably upgrade,” Al quips. “For records, it’s better to buy pre-owned ones for older artists and new/sealed ones for newer artists.”

“New collectors are lucky because they have the Internet to check albums or artists out first. After all, you just don’t buy an album outright without knowing if it’s worth your money or not,” Charlie emphasizes. “Listen before purchasing, and read up on artists or albums as well. I myself have references that help me decide whether I should buy a record or not.” 

So if you want to give a few records a spin to jumpstart your vinyl journey, the Sunday Market’s where it’s at. Al and Charlie—and maybe another music legend, who knows?—will be there to keep the music playing.