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NORWALK – Richard Snead was a freshman in high school when he went to work for Auction City Records.
“It was always busy, it was great,” said Snead. “All there was was vinyl. We sold Top 40 stuff, whatever was on the radio. Frankie Avalon, Elvis, Jimmy Dean.”
Snead worked at the music store from 1958 until 1965 when he was drafted into the army, but little did he know he would return one day and expand the humble music store into one of the premier music retailers in Los Angeles County.
Founded by Arthur and Lillian Walker in 1958, Auction City Records, now known as Norwalk Records, started on the southwest corner of Studebaker Road and Firestone Boulevard.
Once a skilled electrician in Los Angeles, Arthur Walker was inevitably influenced by the nearby record industry and desired to open his own music store.
Every weekend, the couple would welcome hundreds of people to their music booth inside the grand carnival and zoo named Auction City, which hosted many local vendors who would auction off everything from clothing to flatware and furniture.
As sales began to grow, Arthur bought the former Bank of Norwalk building on Front Street in 1962-63 and reopened it as a warehouse to house all of the overstock records.
However, when Auction City closed down in 1965, the warehouse was renamed Norwalk Record Sales and it became the primary location.
“When I came out of the service in two years, they were divorced and I went back to work for her,” said Snead.
By 1967, Robert Snead and Lillian Walker were married and together determined to take the record shop into the 21st century.
During the years between 1966 and 1996, the couple opened other locations around LA County but ended up closing them down. According to Snead, they also sold records at swap meets, car shows and flea markets as far as Colton.
Norwalk Records slowly evolved with the times. Starting out with an inventory of 45 rpm singles and 33-1/3 rpm long play albums, they eventually adopted both four track and eight track tapes.
When cassettes killed the eight track tape in the mid-1970s, it dominated sales for several years until the compact disc arrived in 1985, said Snead.
Snead soon took the word “sales” out of the store’s name and it thereafter became Norwalk Records, located at 12142 Firestone Blvd.
However, in 1987, the building was damaged as the Whittier Narrows Earthquake forced the store to relocate to the Firestone Plaza, one block west at 12023 Firestone Blvd.
“Business picked up there, in fact we started with one building and ended up with three,” said Snead.
For the next eighteen years, Norwalk Records remained at its new location inside the Firestone Plaza and welcomed new customers as vinyl recordings and oldies regained popularity.
“In the 1970s, 90 percent of our customer base was Hispanic,” said Snead. “When we moved in 1987, we advertised on the radio, on 92.3 and Blacks started coming in. The music we carry, it’s for everyone. We’re selling the same stuff we did in the 1950s.”
However, after years of success, Snead began to noticed a shift in consumer treads.
“In 1998, I felt something wasn’t right. Rent was going up and sales were going down,” said Snead. “We had to do something, we couldn’t stay over there. So I took out a loan to fix up the first location.”
In 2005, Norwalk Records moved back to its former building off of Front Street and Clarkdale Avenue as Lillian Walker-Snead retired leaving the daily operations to Snead.
Today, with more than 10,000 CDs and vinyl recordings in stock, Norwalk Records continues to sell a variety of music from R&B classics and Pop Rock anthems to Latin Rap hits and Jazz standards.
“We have everything from Aalon to Zapp. I’ve got the same Mary Wells now as in 1959 and 1961,” said Snead, 69, who admits he’s a big Elvis Presley fan. “But life wouldn’t be the same without Al Green and James Brown.”
Although the nearly 55-year-old record store remains open seven days a week, it continues to struggle as a growing majority of music buyers favor MP3 formats over traditional compact discs.
“I’ve cut everything I can cut. We had 22 employees at our peak, now we’re down to four,” Snead said soberly. “I thank God for Social Security and Medicare or I don’t think I’d be doing this.”
In an effort to keep up with the times, Snead launched a website for the store and even began offering some of the store’s expansive inventory on Amazon.com.
Although Snead is unsure about the future of the store, he is hopeful that there’s still a place in the music industry for the local music store.
“The rumors that we’ve closed down have been highly exaggerated,” said Snead with a laugh. “I’ll go as long as I can – we’ll drive it to until the wheels fall off.”
Published: February 16, 2012 – Volume 10 – Issue 44