A standard vinyl single spins at 45 revolutions per minute on a turntable. As the needle hits the groove and, with each revolution, makes its way around the disc, listeners are treated to the weathered sounds of music as history — every scratch, bend and pop. In the 45 years since House of Records’ founding, its been through just as much.
In June 1971, when “Brown Sugar” by The Rolling Stones topped the charts, Gary Haller, a University of Oregon student, and two friends founded their own record shop. The trio acquired inventory via road trips to San Francisco and brought it back to sell out of Haller’s garage. The store they would visit in California, the Record House, was how their location got its name.
Although it’s always been called the House of Records, the stockpile of vinyl moved through two more locations — operating from card tables and orange crates — before finding a permanent home in the quirky, old blue house on 13th Avenue in 1973.
The charm of the odd building may be part of why it has stuck around. The structure, a nearly 100-year-old-house-turned-storefront, attracts immediate attention streetside. Red trim highlights its stark, blue exterior, and the windows and entranceway are plastered with posters for performances past and future.
Haller, still the owner, now takes a backseat in the day-to-day management. Greg Sutherland, who has worked at House of Records for 30 years, maintains the collection of music, which now contains CDs and cassettes, in addition to vinyl. When he first came to Eugene as a journalism student at UO, Sutherland would take a day a week to shop for records around town or in Portland. House of Records was always his favorite.
“There were bigger stores, and stores that had way more new product. But the House of Records was interesting,” said Sutherland. “It had an atmosphere, immediately. It was unlike any other record store then.”
Today, in the same house he once frequented as a customer, Sutherland floats between the back office and the front counter, decked in a green suit jacket, filing through an endless backlog of records. A few young clerks huddle near the front desk.
One of them is Levi Sager, a customer who stuck around long enough that he started getting paid — not an uncommon route to employment at House of Records. He described the relationship between staff as familial, saying it made the house feel almost like the set of a ‘60s sitcom.
“Everyone who comes through the door is a guest character,” he said. “We always have our door open to new people to come in and participate in a new way.”
This familiarity comes through in every sale. Unlike big-name electronics stores like Best Buy, the small shop provides a sense of care tailored to each music enthusiast’s needs.
“I think that a lot of people that come to the House of Records are searching for something. They’re looking for that sound or that album, kind of just the next thing musically for them,” said Sager. “I think that part of our job here is helping those people in that quest, in as much as we’re able to.”
That passion for building a connection between customer and curator is a big part of why these little shops still matter, according to the guys behind the counter. Despite that, there’s been an obvious decline in the popularity of vinyl since the store opened its doors in 1971.
“The only way you could get music was to go to a store and buy it. That kept record stores of all types alive for decades,” said Steve Knopper, a contributing editor for Rolling Stone. “The demand for physical units of music is not comparable between now and the ‘70s.”
When Sutherland arrived in 1983, Eugene held 12 unique shops. The city now boasts only two that specialize in the medium. House of Records’ primary competitor today is Skip’s Records & CD World on 11th Avenue.
Rather than celebrate the demise of competition, Sutherland considers it a loss that those other stores closed down. In his experience, vinyl stores each develop their own niche in a way that supports each other.
“Anyone who goes to this place, goes to Skip’s too. If you love records, it wouldn’t be any other way. I wouldn’t believe you,” said Sutherland.
As far as Skip Hermenn is concerned, two record stores in one town is pretty good.
“It doesn’t happen in America that often anymore,” he said. “There are so many towns the size of Eugene, if not bigger, that don’t even have one record store left.”
His shop, which has been around for about 30 years, carries a larger stock of CDs than House of Records. That specialization helps them separate themselves from the other shop, but the two share a focus on knowledgeable staff. Hermenn showed pride in the edge this gave his store over the corporate world.
“We don’t hire anybody here that doesn’t have knowledge,” said Hermenn.
As powerful as good customer service can be, at Skip’s and House of Records alike, many agree that what has kept vinyl alive is what lies on the shelves. In an industry that pushes more and more toward digitization, shops like these turn music into a physical experience.
“It kind of reminds you that there’s so much out there, and you get to look through it,” said Shawna Gray, a first-time customer on a road trip down the West Coast. “I appreciate that there’s a library still available.”
The feeling is mutual for visitors new and old. Will Lee, who has been coming to House of Records a few times a week for 43 years, can still find something new when picking methodically through the neatly organized shelves.
“I like to take my time, because there’s always something you’re gonna miss,” said Lee. “You should always have a list.”
This archival feeling isn’t necessarily available in digital music. In research for Rolling Stone articles and a lifetime of visiting record stores, Knopper has decided this physical history is one part of why the independent shops still exist.
“They’re like a museum in a lot of ways: Here’s the old format that’s really warm and cool and here’s the old artists and here are the employees that can tell you all about it,” said Knopper. “I miss record stores. I miss searching through the racks.”
Although the classic match-up pits technological progression against retro media, Sager thinks that the new-age world of downloading and streaming services provides a wider view of music that actually supports retail shops. He compared the necessity of both to the trend of online dating — a photo of a potential partner will only take you so far, eventually you want to meet them in person.
“You can have the idea of something, or you can have the artificial substance of something, but you want to have the flesh and bones reality of that thing,” said Sager. “That’s what makes it complete.”
Even if Sager is right, and services like Spotify and Apple Music don’t spell the end for the long aisles of forgotten vinyl that line the House of Records, no one can say that the future is certain. But for Sutherland, and those that frequent the big, blue house on 13th Avenue, the era of vinyl will never die.
“All of us feel deeply that that is a medium that cannot be perfected or surpassed. It’s a remarkable thing, it’s a romantic story,” he said.