Hot wax: Crate-digging culture in Cincinnati

For record collectors, aka crate diggers, rare is in the eye of the beholder. Local vinyl vendors know when out-of-town customers make a stop in Cincinnati, they are looking for very personal definitions of buried treasure.

According to Mike Markiewicz, who owns Another Part of the Forest in Over-the-Rhine, collectors from Russia heard about his store through the Internet equivalent of word-of-mouth. They bought a bulk of 70s pop-rock albums from artists like The Eagles, LPs you could probably score at any CD Game Exchange in the dollar bin.

"This place isn't really a record store," Markiewicz says. "I consider it more like a museum of natural history. You never know what people will come in looking for, which is why I carry a little bit of everything."

He isn't exaggerating. Nearly every inch of the one-year-old, 1,000-square-foot store, including the basement, is bursting with records, mostly organized by genres in wooden apple crates and lined in mahogany finished shelves built into the walls.

There's a section dedicated to LPs pressed on the Cincinnati blues and rockabilly label, King Records. Tucked behind a wall is a crate of original Sesame Street soundtracks from the 70s and 80s. One saw table holds a few hundred foreign language LPs that Markiewicz and his volunteer employees painstakingly organized by regions of the world, including a tiny section reserved for Russian rock bands. The 45s, some stacked in old Pringles' boxes, are priced to sell at $1.

Markiewicz, 72, doesn't care much for signage, and customers sometimes have to knock on the door to enter. His design sense could be called shabby-recycled-anti-chic: he used paint and furnishings from his earlier venture on Main Street, the now-closed Kaldi's, the bookstore/coffeeshop that was in the vanguard of Over-the-Rhine revitalization in the 1990s.

"I'm too old to invest in a business," he says. "This is what I've invested in -- the future."

His vision of the future is shaped by a deep appreciation of the past, evident in every carefully placed record as well as in the obscure name of his store. A setting in William Shakespeare's As You Like It, "Another Part of the Forest" symbolizes a pastoral haven where characters can escape the constraints of their daily lives and find freedom and love. Markiewicz's store plays a similar role for vinyl aficionados.

"I get the young, mostly DJ types that buy mostly soul and dance Hip Hop stuff, and I've got the older, jazz and classical connoisseurs that have lots more money, and who buy jazz and classical," says Markiewicz.  "I think I bring in more money from classical music. And jazz would come second."

When New York Magazine predicted in 1984 that CDs would make vinyl obsolete, the editors didn't account for the ever-growing social culture of music collectors and DJs who support the mom-and-pop stores that carry new and used vinyl. Like his peers at Shake It, Everybody's, Mole's and C&D Record Bar in Newport, Markiewicz caters to audiophiles who prefer vinyl over digital recordings, a group that pursues records with near-religious fervor.

Collector and DJ Sebastian Botzow says he buys as much as $400 worth of records a month online and around Cincinnati. During summer trips to his native New York when he was a teenager, he recalls jamming to the area's underground Hip Hop mix-shows such as Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito, and the Chicago house played by club DJ, Tony Humphries.

Locally, he tuned into the 90s DJ scene via WAIF 88.3 FM's B-Boys' Underground and The 1200 Hobos, and met vinyl and sampling enthusiasts like Daryl "Mista Rare Groove" Henderson, whom he cites as an early "crate-digging" influence. These days, he's digging Belgium's dance music, but he finds that music is generally interconnected, "like a web."

"It's more about the kinds of sounds you gravitate toward than a genre of music," Botzow says during a visit to Another Part of the Forest. He flips quickly through a crate with a white card with "Spoken Word" written atop in black marker.

But it isn't just the music that satiates a crate digger's soul. For Botzow, records carry tangible, distinctive personalities, unlike faceless, soulless mp3s. An old price tag still glued to the shrink-wrap reveals where the record originated; the cover art on the jacket tells its own story; and the pungent odor of moldy plastic even lends an emotive quality.

Though he says he doesn't have a problem with DJs who use CDs and mp3s during a performance, he explains why it comes across anachronistic and out of touch with certain music cultures. "Watching someone play Northern Soul on a computer just isn't quite right because the whole culture of that is 45's," says Botzow. "The whole culture of reggae 7-inches -- and the birth of it all -- is 45's. I mean, people pressing records with their bare hands, in shacks making records out of mud. Melting old records down, reusing the sleeves…you cannot match the physicality. Some of those pressings sound dirty, but that's the kind of grit that you want -- the rawness."

Markiewicz stays quiet. He speaks when spoken to and not much otherwise. But his eyes sharpen with appreciation as he watches Botzow and other patrons interact with the vinyl. He can relate to their joy of discovery. With his untamed grey beard and long grey hair, he takes refuge in his downtown Forest, a coffee cup always clutched in one hand, a turntable always at the ready.

"I'm not a collector. I'm a minimalist," Markiewicz says. "I don't even have furniture; but I do have a turntable."

For him, vinyl is one of life's enduring necessities. "Sometimes, I retreat to the woods (to my cabin) with a bunch of my favorite books and a stack of my favorite records," he says. "That's all I need."

Photography by Scott Beseler

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