This column makes Mike Garber’s Zero Street Records sound like it only deals in rare vinyl. Not true. Garber sells all kinds of stuff. In addition to foreign pressings of, say, a Beatles albums or an early copy of Captain Beefheart’s Strictly Personal, you can also find a nice, clean copy of your favorite Jethro Tull album, on vinyl of course. Most of the stuff in the bins is only a couple bucks — these are the records that he isn’t going to bother putting on eBay even though he could get more for it there. When I first approached this column, I wanted to focus on why anyone would want to open a record store in the first place, what with the advent of downloading — legal or otherwise. But one look inside Zero Street and you realize downloading won’t touch a place like this. The target audience is strictly vinyl junkies, most of whom would never consider owning an iPod. Garber insists that it’s the economy, not technology, that’s been killing record stores. “If the economy was better now, people would be buying the same as when Clinton was president,” he said. “We’re in a time when we’re paying an arm and a leg for gas. You can’t buy stuff like you used to. Some people are doing well, but generally people are struggling. It’s a lot harder to have that expendable income to buy stuff.”
Column 47 — Biography of a Digger
Zero Street is more than a store, it’s a way of lifeMike Garber is a reformed digger.No, I’m not talking about a guy who makes a living preparing final resting-places. Diggers are record collectors (not CD collectors) who think nothing of flipping through a few thousand pieces of vinyl at record shows, garage sales or places like Zero Street Records at 65th & Maple in Benson — Garber’s new shop — to find that hidden, elusive side that’s been haunting them all their lives.Garber’s quite familiar with the digger’s lifestyle. He was one for years. He speaks of his early record collecting days like a reformed junkie recalling a bleary-eyed life on the street desperately looking for a fix, living off Ramen noodles to save every dime he could scrape together. Not for drugs, for more records.“I scored some great stuff back then,” Garber said from behind his store’s counter. “Every penny I had went to pay off records. A thousand dollars for one 45 meant nothing to me. I loved owning this stuff. I recognized the beauty and value in it.”So much so that after earning his degree in Fine Arts at UN-L, Garber dashed any thoughts of a career in graphic design when he was offered ownership of his first record store, Lincoln’s original Zero Street Records, named after Alan Ginsberg’s poetic dig on “O” St., where the store was located. Growing up in Omaha, Garber spent his youth digging through stacks of sides at The Antiquarium. He wanted Zero Street to be Lincoln’s version of that classic record store, selling not only used, but new music.So dedicated was he that he gave up one of the most important things in his life — his record collection. “I sold it at market rates and took the money and invested it in the store and the building it was in,” Garber said. “I recognized life is more than a record collection.”But it only took five years of sitting behind a counter all day and trying to keep up with stocking new music before Garber burned out on Zero Street. He closed the Lincoln store last August, and just like he’d done before, someone stepped up and reopened it — but it didn’t take long before the store closed for good.Garber spent the next year traveling to record shows and buying private collections. One New Jersey collection of fewer than 100 records set him back six grand, but included two ultra-rare singles — one by a ’70s Connecticut punk band called Tapeworm, another by a Texas punk band called The Rejects. Never heard of them? Neither had I. Regardless, each fetched more than $1,000, thanks to the wonders of eBay, the 21st Century diggers’ hunting ground and Garber’s new field of dreams.So why open another store? Garber said he got tired of the road and being stuck in his apartment eBaying all day. “I wanted that social interaction again that I got from running a record store,” he said. After considering Chicago and Minneapolis, he was drawn back to his hometown and the low-rent storefront in the heart of Benson.Things are going to be different this time, however. Zero Street sells no new records or CDs, only used vinyl. Step inside and there’s not much to see — freshly painted blue walls, shiny aluminum heating ducts, and lots of waist-high wooden crates filled with record albums.“Half the people who come in to check out the store think it’s a novelty,” Garber said. “When you walk in, it doesn’t look like much, but if you’re a record person, you’ll recognize it. If you’re a digger, you’re gonna come in and think there’s some really great records here.”The proof was right before our eyes. While chatting, a mustachioed guy worked his way through a stack of rare R&B 45s, playing them on a small turntable behind the counter before buying about 50 bucks’ worth. Meanwhile, another guy laid a 2-inch-thick stack of albums and singles on the counter — again consisting mostly of R&B sides — which ran him well over $100.As important as guys like these are to Zero Street’s success, Garber says there’s one clientele even more important, and it could include you: It’s people cleaning out their apartment, house or garage looking for a place to sell those old records that have been sitting around unplayed for so many years.“The only way this store will survive is if people sell me their records,” he said. “I won’t last long without them.”Spoken like a true digger.
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