Art of Vinyl Collecting: Red Rocker Record Fair at ManaFirkin Brings Back Memories

By VICTORIA FORD | May 15, 2019
Photo by: Chris Fritz

Stafford Township — Growing a record collection is like cultivating a garden. It takes selectivity and know-how, care and maintenance, variety and balance.

The vinyl resurgence of the last five to 10 years has enthusiasts investing in turntables and speakers, and logging their collections on the Discogs app, and marking Record Store Day on their calendars each spring and fall. Started in 2008, Record Store Day is a celebration of the culture of the independently owned record store, held in the U.S. and a dozen other countries, uniting fans, artists and thousands of participating shops, for which special releases on vinyl are specifically pressed.

Closer to home, a new record store called the Vinyl Dinosaur opened April 27 in Bayville. In Manahawkin, the legacy of one particular record shop, Red Rocker Records, lives on, in the form of the Red Rocker Record Fair. The shop was originally located where Exit 63 Seafood Corner is now, and later moved to the building on East Bay Avenue currently occupied by the Philly Pretzel Factory.

“If you’re not a vinyl nerd and you don’t like beer, there’s really no reason for you to be here,” Pete Sullivan of Swing Graphics said at last month’s third Red Rocker Record Fair, a party at ManaFirkin Brewing Co. in honor of the Red Rocker himself, Bruce Ciangetti. Sullivan was being facetious – of course all are welcome, the more the merrier –  but the event does revolve around those two pastimes.

The Red Rocker is a man many remember for his eponymous record shop in Manahawkin in the ’80s and ’90s – a man of imposing height and resonant bass voice, known for his colorful stories, sense of humor, extensive music knowledge and hippie ideals.

Sullivan, a lifelong avid record collector and enthusiast (follow his Instagram dedicated to the art form, and his partner Dawn Simon helped to organize the first record fair as a surprise for Ciangetti, a reunion of sorts, masterminded by Stafford Police Officer Chris Fritz, who worked at Red Rocker Records from 1988 to 1994. Fritz, a self-described music nerd for as long as he can remember, has accumulated hundreds of records in the last year or so, thanks to Ciangetti, who has been gradually bequeathing his collection to Fritz, in increments of a half-dozen or so.

The two subsequent record fairs have been simply good reasons to get together and remember good times.

Fritz attended the party and provided the live entertainment, along with Rick Stankus. Set up outside the brewery were record vendors, including The Rock Shop from the Hamilton Mall (also Plymouth Meeting and King of Prussia Malls – praiseworthy for their savvy and an inventory that’s “beyond ridiculous,” according to Fritz), and Sunny Rae’s food truck.

As Ciangetti recalls, he hired Fritz on the spot because he was a perfect fit for the store as a long-haired high school kid. The two formed a bond that has never weakened. According to Ciangetti, ever the joker, “I used to tell him every day: ‘You’re like the son I never wanted.’”

“The best part about working there was, the customer was never right,” Fritz recalled. He was at liberty to eject from the premises anyone who was disrespectful, suspected of stealing or spreading bad vibes. Another awesome aspect of working in a record shop was, of course, privileged access and first listens to all the best new material – e.g. Seattle-based artists on the Sub Pop label before the grunge explosion – and the unknowns.

“How long did that box of live Guns N’ Roses Like a Suicide independently released EPs sit around?” Fritz asked rhetorically. “A box of them (on CD and cassette). Nobody knew who they were.”

According to Ciangetti, “no negativity” was a store policy. “Check it at the door,” he’d say – “because I’m an old hippie.” Growing up in the Woodstock generation, the guiding principles of peace, love and music have shaped Ciangetti’s life – non-confrontational and mellow.

Back then, record stores were places of acceptance, he said. How can you be unhappy, surrounded by music?

Ciangetti recalled essentially two types of customers: they either browse around and wait for something to catch their fancy or they walk in the door knowing exactly what they want. “Do you have the Beatles’ Abbey Road?” or “Do you have Metallica’s Ride the Lightning on CD?”

Often customers would bring an album to the counter and ask if it was any good, Ciangetti said. They’d be looking for his stamp of approval – some assurance of having made a “cool” choice. “I would always tell them ‘yes’!” he said. The way he sees it, one person’s music preferences are no better than anyone else’s. “Everybody’s taste is different, but it’s all good.”

The kids who worked for him and hung out at his shop were part of a community of music appreciators and self-appointed aficionados who considered Ciangetti not just a boss and a businessman but a friend.

“I was just me. I didn’t know they looked up to me,” he said.

Not too long ago, he ran into a guy at the Mainland who turned out to be Ciangetti’s very first customer when he opened in 1978, when Ciangetti was 29 years old. “He had bought Boston’s first album; he paid me with a $5 bill, signed it, and I put it up on the wall,” he said. That bill stayed with him even when the shop moved.

For Fritz, to listen to music on a vinyl record is to come as close as possible to the artist’s true intent, the way it was meant to be heard. “I always wanted to have a product in my hand, not just press a ‘play’ button. There is no art to that.” Plus, the sound quality is beyond compare, he said – the warmth, that pure analog, a set of well calibrated stereo speakers, and of course the album art. The last AC/DC album that came out on vinyl had a holographic cover, he marveled.

Some collectors won’t even play the rare and valuable ones, but when Fritz buys records he likes to listen to them, without much thought for the collector’s market – although he will purposefully buy a special edition if it comes out, like a splatter or colored vinyl. The only one in his collection he won’t play, the crown jewel, is Led Zeppelin’s 1, a rare pressing with a different colored center sticker.

For Sullivan, it’s not just the sound quality, or the nostalgia, or the album art that he loves – it’s all of that, and more. It’s the whole listening experience. Now he shares the love with his teenage kids, who are into The Police, Joe Jackson and more contemporary music that can still be purchased on vinyl.

But a record collection can be a blessing and a curse, Sullivan explained. Take it from him: he estimates he owns about 5,000. For one thing they take up a lot of space. To say nothing of the painstaking process of organizing, which varies by collector, from Ciangetti’s “randomly grouped in boxes” to Fritz’s “alphabetical by artist and then chronological” (exception: Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, which is of course filed under B for Buffalo Springfield) or any number of more creative strategies, à la the 2000 cult classic film “High Fidelity.”

And if word gets out that someone is a collector, suddenly boxes of unwanted records appear in their life. A bunch of castoff albums were up for grabs at the brewery during the record fair, mostly from the ’50s crooner era, with some jazz and Christmas mixed in, “free to a good home” as they say, and still no one would take them.

Sullivan and Simon hosted Ciangetti and Fritz on their podcast, NJKnowScene, in May and October last year. In those episodes, Fritz mused on the possibility of opening his own record shop in town. “I just think it would be nice to have the roles reversed, if I own it and you run it for me,” Fritz said.

Soon the conversation turned to reminiscing. Sullivan recalls buying The Best of the Grateful Dead album there. Fritz’s first purchase from that shop was Journey’s Escape in 1981.

“I was a Zappa guy, too,” Sullivan told Ciangetti. “I was the progressive rock guy that walked in your store every time.” Camel. Genesis. Emerson, Lake and Palmer. Yes. Rush.

“I didn’t do Rush until I was, like, 30,” Fritz said. “Either you get it or you don’t.”

Fritz said he “held a completely unreasonable bias” against sanctimonious Bob Dylan fans – though he readily admits Highway 61 Revisited was one of the greatest albums of all time. Sullivan said he was the same way, and now he loves Dylan.

These guys can talk music for days. And don’t even get them started on the Dead.

“Not many police officers are self-proclaimed Dead Heads,” Fritz said.

Personally, Sullivan is not one for the 20-minute jams and bootlegs. “This is the Grateful Dead that I know and like: American Beauty, Working Man’s Dead, Aoxomoxoa, Cream Puff War (the first album, as it was called on the eight-track).”

Rocker loves Europe 72 “because it’s more condensed.”

“The ‘skull and roses album is what did it for me,” Fritz said, referring to the second live album’s iconic cover art.

The story of how Ciangetti became the Red Rocker “depends who asks, what day of the week it is and where his mindset is,” Fritz teased. But the way he came to own the record shop was by first working there for the previous owner. By the end of his first day he was promoted to manager, he said. Not long after that he took it over and renamed it Red Rocker Records.

Back at ManaFirkin, Ciangetti contemplated the recent vinyl resurgence, which he suspects is just a fad. “Stuff comes back,” he said. He doesn’t think it’ll last forever. “I don’t see people getting up every 17 minutes to change the record,” he said. “But, it is whatever it is, and if they like it, they like it.”

While the revival may well be “just a fad,” it’s one that appears to have more growing to do before it shrinks again. The number of record pressing facilities is increasing, Sullivan said.

Long live the revolutions per minute.

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