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By Nathan Smith
Standing between the stacks of merchandise in his whistle-clean record and curio shop, Robert Smith talks about his obsession: collecting. The day before, he'd spent several hours alphabetizing his massive collection of Beatles 45s in a dozen pristine white boxes. Once, he worked twelve hours a day for six weeks organizing 50,000 records. Smith, 61, is a slight man whose suit size hasn't changed in 44 years, and his meticulousness is matched only by a collecting habit he describes as "obsessive compulsive."
Reunion Revolution, Smith's store in New Town St. Charles, reflects his precise nature and serial completist habits. Half the store is devoted to high-quality oddments like vintage military uniforms, Akro Agate home furnishings, Japanese promotional posters and mid-century Americana that reflect the discerning taste of a collector with four decades' worth of acquisitions to his name. The other half is a music fan's heaven, stacked with high-quality used and new records. Smith is a recent St. Louis transplant; when he and his wife downsized from a 5,000-square-foot home in Springfield, Missouri, to a much smaller residence in St. Louis city, the Smiths were left with too many collectables and not enough room, and Reunion Revolution was born.
Smith's boutique shop houses about 20,000 records, and the titles range from obscure rockabilly and forgotten pop from every decade after 1950 to contemporary big sellers like Arcade Fire and Radiohead. Audiophiles and novices alike will find much to entertain them in the immaculately collated stacks. Smith takes great pains to ensure that his vintage albums are as complete as possible, tracking down bonus 45s and fan-club inserts that came with the original releases and are often lost over the years.
For twenty years, Smith ran a mail-order record business called Recordsmith but desired a more personal interaction with buyers. Before that, he worked as a salesman, going door to door literally selling doors. "I learned if I made someone my friend, they'd buy from me," says Smith. "I try to be nice to people and turn them into my friends first." Smith has an encyclopedic knowledge of nearly every record in Reunion Revolution, and selling things is very much a secondary concern to telling people about them.
New Town St. Charles doesn't exactly scream cultural destination; it's more like a Stepford and Truman Show mashup realized in brick and mortar. Smith likes New Town though and says the exurb ideal feels like it has been transported from the era of Mad Men. Recently, a six-year-old from the neighborhood wandered into Reunion Revolution, sent there on a mission from his mother. This tickled Smith; he says you won't find that kind of provincial living elsewhere in the metro area.
Like the majority of record hoarders from his generation, Smith got into music because of the Beatles. He has every single Beatles release as well as every solo effort or collaboration all four of the band's members ever recorded. A few weeks ago, Smith got a record he'd been waiting on — an echt Yesterday and Today with the original butcher cover. The controversial photo of the Fab Four smiling amid slaughtered baby-doll parts, designed as a "comment on Vietnam," led Capitol to recall the album in 1966 so a more innocuous image could go in its place. Smith gave his new prize an $800 price tag, and it comes with a display plaque as well as a letter of authenticity.
Smith's enviable Beatles collection goes beyond records. He owns a suit jacket made by the band's Savile Row tailor — he bought it from a roadie at a Beatles show some 40 years ago. But it was another clothing item that fomented Smith's enthusiasm for collecting, one that comes from a world entirely separate from pop music: European militaria.
When Smith was a teenager, he came across an antique European military jacket. He spent his allowance on it and has been hunting for those sorts of artifacts ever since. There are a few for sale at Reunion Revolution: an Italian captain's jacket from 1910, a German/Prussian one from 1895 and a WWI Russian tunic from 1916, all in perfect condition. Each item costs hundreds of dollars.
A portrait of Franz Joseph I, who would have been succeeded by Archduke Franz Ferdinand, hangs above the jacket display. The superb oil painting was finished in 1880 and carries a price tag of $3,800. Once, an emperor sat for this portrait; now it hangs in New Town St. Charles.
When he doesn't want to listen to music, Smith plays documentary recordings of news broadcasts from the great wars. One of his treasured finds is an early international broadcast announcing that Kaiser Wilhelm II had sent troops to war in 1914. Smith says he owns thousands of hours of such transmissions, and as a student of history, he finds that the reporting offers a human perspective absent from academic texts. "Instead of getting a written history, you learn a lot you didn't know," he says.
Despite earning degrees in history and geography, Smith has learned plenty from his war broadcasts. For example, he discovered that Joseph P. Kennedy Sr., John F. Kennedy's father, fell from grace as an American ambassador to Britain because he attempted to engage Hitler twice in 1940 without approval from the U.S. Department of State. As it turns out, Kennedy's resignation from the post was ultimately triggered by his comments in two important interviews; one was with the Boston Globe, the other was printed in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.