Last Collector Standing: Jean Haffner of the Record Exchange on Audiophiles and His Near-Miss Playing with Buddy Holly

Aug 19, 2010 at 4:09 pm

The number of chain record stores nationwide has dwindled. However, St. Louis has become an unlikely safe haven for indie record shops as well as for DJs who prefer to spin the black circle instead of scrolling their iPods. In this weekly column, we'll focus on personal portraits of St. Louis' record aficionados and the rooms where they store their treasures. Meet the last collectors standing. (Know a collector who deserves the spotlight? E-mail us. Miss any previous ones? Read 'em all here!)

click to enlarge Jean Haffner of the Record Exchange - Jon Scorfina
Jon Scorfina
Jean Haffner of the Record Exchange

Jean Haffner is the owner of a St. Louis institution: The Record Exchange. A literal library building full of cataloged LPs, the record store is a perfect place to get lost in the experience of vinyl. We caught up with him late one August afternoon -- and in between ringing out customers and listening to Sweet and Joan Jett on the store speakers, we chatted about audiophiles, High Fidelityand a missed chance at playing with Buddy Holly.

Last Collector Standing: There has been a lot of debate lately as to whether vinyl is making a comeback for a younger generation. Given your experience, would you agree that vinyl is making a comeback? Jean Haffner: Based on my customer base, which ranges anywhere from teenagers to retirees, I would say yes. The younger generation is learning about vinyl, and they're realizing it's still the best sound. With vinyl, if you have a good record, good system and good ears, you get the full sound. You don't get the full sound on CDs. You get a sampling [of the] sound. The audiophiles for years they never did go for CDs because they realized it wasn't the best sound. Vinyl survived because of the sound it gives, and even the younger generation realized that.

Vinyl has its problems. It gets dirty. It gets cracked. It gets scratched. But if you have a good record, a good system, and a good machine to play it with, it's still the best sound.

Is vinyl your preferred format of listening to music? Well, it's always been my preferred format, and it always will be for that reason. CDs are convenient. I do play CDs in the store -- don't get me wrong. I still prefer the vinyl sound. It's a warmer sound, a truer sound and a much richer sound than CDs. CDs are dead and quiet. Some people like that, but I didn't grow up with that, so I don't.

How did you get into the record business? My dad told me to go get a college degree and then go find the biggest company I could find to work for. I did that, but then after working for the big company and the military for about eight years, I asked myself who I was really working for: myself or my dad. I was working for my dad. I was making a lot of money, but I wasn't very happy. It was very competitive, and I wasn't having very much fun. So I decided to fall back on my hobby, which was records, and make a business out of it. I'd never owned anything used in my life at that point of time. I figured I'd be disowned for doing it and probably was.

My dad said he was disappointed in me for giving up a career. I opened my first store in 1976. About 1fifteen years into the business, after I'd sold millions of dollars worth of records, he gave me the biggest compliment he ever gave me. He said he thought I might make it. [ Laughs]

It's been fun since. I'd do it again.

So your hobby before starting the store was collecting vinyl? I didn't ever really consider myself a collector. I bought music. In high school, I was the record guy. I took all my records to parties and wrote my name on them three times so I didn't lose them. I don't know why I wrote it three times. I was always the record guy.

If the truth was known you wouldn't believe it, but I'll tell it to you anyway. I never bought a 78 for myself. I never bought a cassette for myself. I never bought a CD for myself. I never bought a DVD for myself. All I ever bought for myself was LPs and 45s.