BEIRUT: John Lee Hooker’s loud, bluesy tune “The Healer” plays on a turntable as Diran Mardirian smokes a rolled-up cigarette, the ambiance of his DVD store’s second floor turning into an almost surreal setting, a long way from modern-day Beirut.
In fact, the entire second floor at film store Chico is replete with vinyl records, from Pink Floyd and The Cure to Patti Smith, The Allman Brothers and Ella Fitzgerald.
Chico, established in 1964 by Mardirian’s father Khatchig, was initially a record store, still located in the middle of bustling Beirut. Mardirian himself has been working at the store since he was 12 years old, when, as he put it, “the grand switcheroo happened,” and the shop turned from a record store into a video store. It was the early ’80s, and videos were gaining in popularity.
Although he wasn’t the eldest, Mardirian took over the business in Hamra, citing his social skills and verbosity as an asset. In 1998, and with another wave of media technology, he began building a DVD collection. A year and a half ago, Diran donated the last of his VHS collection.
But what makes the store unique is the large vinyl collection on the second floor.
Since the ’90s, with the advent of cassettes tapes, compact discs and MP3 players, vinyl records have become a relic of a different era.
That was until recently, when music technology advanced to the point of rebellion. Now a younger generation is breathing new life into vinyl as they search for a more tactile relationship with music than a virtual iTunes library can provide.
“I always had vinyls,” Mardirian explained to The Daily Star. “I had kept from 1982 around 500 to 600 records that just lay there for the longest time.”
The 1980s saw some of the gravest violence of the Lebanese Civil War, and Hamra saw its fair share of the fighting. That led Mardirian to spend long hours and days at home, turning to his record collection to keep him company.
“I just dug into music,” he said.
Then several years ago, Mardirian felt the sudden urge to grow his old vinyl collection. He began importing records from abroad and trying to find more albums in Lebanon, which was not an easy task because music stores normally only stock small numbers of such vinyl records.
Those shops didn’t think of their limited record collections as serious business, Mardirian said. “This is a serious business.”
He took a leap of faith by investing in a large collection, and after weeding through the music, put the records up for sale. As if on cue, Mardirian’s sudden desire to invest in vinyl just barely preceded the massive comeback. Word got out, and the store began gaining new customers.
Since Chico relaunched its vinyl selection, Mardirian has discovered what albums and artists are in vogue on vinyl. He tries to keep popular recordings by Pink Floyd, The Beatles, Led Zeppelin and Bob Dylan in stock. He also has his personal favorites from Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Sarah Vaughan.
In response to demand, Mardirian has resorted to visiting vinyl fairs in Europe in order to expand his offerings. He’s booked a trip to Germany in two weeks for that very purpose.
When you get outside Lebanon, “it’s mind-blowing what you can find,” he explained.
The store now has between 8,000 and 10,000 records. But such a collection needs to be maintained, and the prices need to be affordable, Mardirian said.
“You cannot be stigmatized as an expensive record store,” Mardirian said. “Whatever I buy for cheap, I sell for cheap, even if I could get more for it.”
He also imports classic turntables from Europe, with the prices mostly ranging from $250-$400. He has sold more than 20 used record players in the past year.
Unlike digitized music, which needs only a click to acquire – illicit downloads and lawful purchases alike – record buying leads to another outdated concept: taking one’s time. Perusing is part of the vinyl culture, Mardirian said. He’s even set up a listening station, ideal for both novices and aficionados, where they can sample the records.
“That’s so enriching for the client and so gratifying for me,” Mardirian said enthusiastically. “It’s fantastic.”
“How lucky am I to be dealing, to be working with this stuff?”
Mardirian’s love for music is hard to miss, let alone his love for vinyl records. One’s entire music experience, he explained, can be bettered by listening to vinyl.
“Vinyl sounds better, period,” Mardirian stressed.
“No record is worthless. Every record means something to someone. And it’s just up to me how to get that across.”
While he acknowledged that today’s MP3 music was practical and a good way to make music available to everyone, he added that over-digitizing, what he called “the digital shtick,” had “emasculated music.”
“It [music] deserves our time and attention and respect,” he said.
But Mardirian did not deny that an online presence was nowadays essential not only for his local customers, but also to reach vinyl record enthusiasts globally.
“I’m setting up a little network of record store owners around the world and creating an online digital presence. If it can aid the spirit of this, why the hell not?”
He also said it was this online presence that could lead young Lebanese to listening and experiencing music a little differently by allowing them to find records more easily.
“Let them research, read up on it, the Internet is littered with references, forums, pages,” he said, inviting youngsters to visit his store and experience vinyl firsthand afterward.
“Come by and listen. See for yourself. Just hear it for yourself. See what it means for something to indeed sound better.”