The Ballad of Music Man Murray

Ampex tape and circus discs, boxes and boxes of surface hiss, from Ray Noble to Raymond Scott, sing a song of an unsung bigshot

Photograph by Marla Rutherford

When he was 17, Gershenz bought his first classical recording, a 78 of Swedish tenor Jossi Björling singing arias from La Bohème and Aïda. It shattered into pieces years ago, but he still has the original center label.

“I just wanted to have something from it if I couldn’t have the record,” he says. “That represented me at 17, when my music life started. A lot of collecting is like that, purely emotional.”

There was a time when stores like Music Man Murray weren’t curious artifacts of an ancient age of retail. When Gershenz first set up shop in Hollywood in 1962, he had nearby competition from Stanley Ring’s record store and Wendell Smith’s sheet music shop, and over in Boyle Heights there was Phillips Music Store, an institution that had graced Brooklyn Avenue since the 1930s. In the ’70s, years after Ring and Smith shut down (Phillips stayed in business through the ’90s), the Record Collector opened up on Melrose, and a decade later, Record Surplus debuted farther west on Pico.

Like Music Man Murray, they and a few smaller, more anonymous neighborhood counterparts have stuck around, despite Internet retail stores like iTunes and despite new-and-used megastores like Amoeba. In a sense, their success has depended on their obsoleteness. They are not conventional record stores. They are private collections that happen to be for sale, which means that their relationship to profits is inherently vexed. Gershenz stockpiles vintage recordings knowing full well that his community of buyers is small and particular. There is no “long tail” at Music Man Murray and no virtual shelf space. Records come in and they may never leave, and that is perfectly all right.

You can go to Music Man Murray to buy old records (a mint copy of Winston Churchill: His Memories and His Speeches bound in a metal replica of the prime minister’s tombstone), but you can also go there to pull old records off the shelf in piles, get down on the floor, and spend hours getting lost in chapters of the musical past you never knew existed.

When I was growing up in West Los Angeles, most of my teenage afternoons were spent at a small family-owned record shop on Pico that identified itself only with a neon sign that said records. The owner let me linger for hours at a time, playing records by artists I had never heard of on his in-store turntable. He’d make recommendations based on my choices: If I liked Tracy Chapman, listening to Joni Mitchell was a must. If he saw me studying a Pat Metheny LP, he quickly handed me Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt.

There were plenty of chain stores to choose from, but while they had lots of new releases, there was a limited sense of history. Stores like Music Plus and the Wherehouse were there to sell, not to revel in the joys of idiosyncratic preservation. I usually left my neighborhood store with music (battered LPs, used cassettes), but the true bounty was immaterial—an expanded sense of what the world sounded like.

When Gershenz first opened Music Man Murray, his version of what the world sounded like came straight from his living room, a direct reflection of his own tastes as an amateur collector of opera and classical. He had been an aspiring opera singer when he was growing up in the Bronx (“a would-be tenor,” he says), even briefly landing a spot with the St. Louis Opera, and his affection for Björling, Caruso, and Louis Graveure never left him.

His knowledge of jazz and blues was restricted to what he was exposed to as a roving waiter in ’40s and ’50s Manhattan. He worked at clubs like the Downbeat and the Aquarium and met Louis Armstrong, Gene Krupa, and Lionel Hampton. When Billie Holiday played the Downbeat, Gershenz was given the task of bringing her consecutive tumblers of brandy. “I didn’t know who Billie Holiday was,” he says. “I was knocked out. I had never heard anyone sing like that. Here was this woman telling these stories with this unbelievable voice. It changed the way I thought about music.”

Gershenz made his way to Los Angeles in the ’50s with hopes of becoming an inventor. He had been toying, a little too slowly, with ideas for artificial flagstone and a dashboard light that warned you when you were low on gas. Instead, he ended up as a substitute cantor, even though he didn’t know any of the Jewish prayers (he took a crash course at Hebrew Union College).

This feature was originally published in the July 2007 issue of Los Angeles magazine.