Music

Needle reaches the inner groove for Spec’s

 

Spec’s, a fixture in Coral Gables for 60 years, closes for good in January. Memories come flooding in from loyal customers.

hcohen@MiamiHerald.com

In the end, even the almighty Adele and Taylor Swift could not hold back the inevitable.

Spec’s, one of the last great record stores, will close its flagship location in Coral Gables on U.S.1, thus joining once-favored chains like Virgin, Tower and Peaches, locally and abroad, that have withered from Internet shopping.

With the closing, sometime in January after the merchandise is liquidated, 64 years of history becomes memory for countless people who discovered a love of music in the home Martin “Mike” Spector built in 1948 when U.S.1 was but a two-lane road.

The original store, which sold cameras alongside 78-rpm records, was a few blocks south on the highway in South Miami and is now an Einstein’s bagel spot. The present location, opened in 1953 in Coral Gables, lived through the bobby sox era, Beatlemania, disco, punk, hip hop/rap, grunge, electronic dance music and all the format changes including 12-inch vinyl, 45-rpm, reel to reel, 8-track, cassette, compact disc and mp3.

After the first music industry recession in the late 1970s, Spec’s still managed to double in size by breaking through the walls of two restaurants in 1980 on its north side. The original room on the south side of the building would house, first, Spec’s’ VHS movie rentals and sales — Saturday Night at Spec’s! — and, later, one of the most expansive collections of classical music in town.

“It’s the soundtrack of our lives,” said store manager Lennie Rohrbacher, who spent 23 years of his life working at Spec’s, from Clearwater to Coral Gables

Music sales

At its peak, the Spec’s chain grew to some 80 stores in Florida and Puerto Rico. In 1993, annual sales exceeded $70 million. Spec’s went public in 1985 and, in 1998, the Spectors sold to Camelot Music Group, which was acquired by Trans World Entertainment Corp.

Trans World, which did not return several telephone messages, shrewdly kept the Spec’s name attached to the flagship store as goodwill even though, technically, it operated under the company’s retail subsidiary, F.Y.E. (For Your Entertainment).

But those are the cold, hard business facts.

Spec’s was “not like another Eckerd’s,” a drug store chain that also slipped into oblivion amid changing times, said Rohrbacher. “This was part of the community, part of my life. It’s not another store going under.”

Indeed, Spec’s was, first and foremost, a community gathering spot to share a love of music. In the ‘70s and ‘80s Spec’s resembled a makeshift camp site where people would sleep overnight in the parking lot to get the best shot at concert tickets in a pre-Internet world. Spec’s, a hop-skip from the University of Miami’s music school, served as its own music education outlet thanks to a knowledgeable sales staff.

Music education

“The proximity to the UM is prime real estate. Not to have it there will really be different. Even if they didn’t have what I was looking for, the staff was knowledgeable and you were sort of tapping into this knowledge base of people who could turn you on to new music. That’s what I’ll miss about it and the community around the store,” said Margot Winick, an employee at the Coral Gables Spec’s in the mid-1980s when she was a freshman at the UM.

“That was the place to be on Friday nights. I never minded working there, it was the place to see and be seen and I got paid to work there,” laughed Winick, now an assistant vice president for communications at the University of Miami. “I worked in the movie section and Dave Barry would come in and I’d recommend films to him. As a freshman, that was pretty cool.”

Mem’ries

Later this month, when the shelves are as bare as a Rihanna photo and the store manager turns the key in the glass doors for the last night, the building will be reduced to rubble. Chase Bank will open in its place in the fall.

For local historian Cristina Favretto, head of special collections at the University of Miami’s Otto G. Richter Library, the loss of Spec’s is significant.

“Spec’s’ closing is a great loss to the community,” she said. “Book stores, record stores, hair dressers, are the glue that holds communities and neighborhoods and bind individuals together. These are not just commercial places but they are a meeting place for ideas.

“They had all sorts of shows at Spec’s,” Favretto added. “You could distribute fliers, leaflets, ‘zines. A record store that sells music is a very positive meeting place because who doesn’t like music? This is not like a doctor’s office. You are making a purchase that makes you happy and finding out about other types of music that you may not have known about. When anything like that closes it’s a hole in the community fabric.”

Thanks to a generous family donation of memorabilia that traces the history of Spec’s, the UM library has 38 boxes of material including postcards, photographs, business records and plaques available to researchers and the public. “This is an interesting thing for the music lover,” Favretto said. “Mr. Spector was one of those guys who believed women could do anything men could do so the business went to his daughters.”

Family

Sure enough, two decades before Spector died at age 98 in September 2003, he had placed his labor of love in the hands of daughters Ann Lieff, who served as Spec’s CEO, and Rosalind Zacks as its vice president.

“The love of music was the landmark of the whole thing and taking care of those customers,” said Lieff, who now heads her own consulting company, The Lieff Company, in Colorado. “I’d like to thank all of our customers, the city of Coral Gables, the university, everyone who was so loyal to us for so many years and helped create a company that grew to 80 stores. We were always trying to have the newest and best for our customers. I thought of dad as really the heart and soul but his love of music brought culture to the community.”

Impresaria Judy Drucker, founder of the Concert Association of South Florida, turned to Spec’s to showcase appearances by her classical and opera acts, including Plácido Domingo and Cecilia Bartoli, both of whom drew lines around the block for signings at the Gables store. Drucker mourns the loss of a cultural institution.

“Breaks my heart. Whenever I wanted to pick up a CD I knew nobody else would have, they had the greatest record department and they are the ones who used to save them for me. I relied on them to get the best there was and we became friends,” Drucker said. “You don’t find that with stores where you become friends with the people who save things they know you like. This takes a lot away from my life. The world has become so unaffiliated with other human beings. You don’t have that personal touch anymore. When Martin Spector was sick and dying he saved all kinds of old CDs and 78-rpms and gave them to me as a gift in a big box. That touched my heart. What can I say? The best things in life go away.”

Competition

Spector loved those who loved music, especially his beloved classical, but he could be tough. When long-gone stores like Viscount Records opened at University Centre across from the UM or the mammoth Music Makers, which boasted entire rooms for each musical genre and even sold ice cream, opened nearby in the late 1970s, Spector would pop in to check out the competition. He was especially none-too-pleased when used CD shops like CD Solution started sprouting like mushrooms after heavy summer rains in the early 1990s — one rival opening a mere two doors down.

But he recognized true music lovers, like Rich Ulloa, who ran Miami’s independent Yesterday & Today record shop. Ulloa’s Y&T music label issued the first recordings of The Mavericks and Mary Karlzen. He held CD release parties for his acts inside the Spec’s store in the 1990s.

“Mr. Spector — I always called him Mr. Spector — I always felt a personal connection with him,” Ulloa said. “I’ll never forget when I expanded Y&T and we moved to the Ludlam shopping center. That was a big expansion for me and Mr. Spector came by my store to congratulate me and wish me well. That blew me away. I was stunned.

“I’m very saddened. To me, it means it’s the end. Spec’s was the last link to the great traditional record stores. Spec’s got very involved in the local music scene for most of the ‘90s and they supported local music like no other chain,” Ulloa said.

Adds Lieff: “I’m thinking what my father would be saying, ‘We’ve had a great run.’ I think it’s bittersweet right now. Even though we sold 14 years ago we feel like we’re saying goodbye again.

“And that’s OK.”

Follow @HowardCohen on Twitter.

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