In the heart of Ocean Beach, roughly sandwiched between two adjacent pubs along the bustling street of Newport Avenue, lies Cow Records. Pleasant tunes from numerous generations of genres fill the crisp, beachside air pervading the establishment. Some 5,000 records almost paradoxically occupy the 1,100 square foot space, lining the floors, shelves, walls and any other crevice that will accommodate them. A handful of vinyls even dangle overhead, suspended by strings mounted to the ceiling above.
Something of a hole-in-the-wall storefront, its success has never waned across store owner’s Greg Hildebrand’s over 25 years of operating it.
BUSINESS IS GOOD
Regarding the store’s success, Hildebrand credits two features: location and acts of kindness. With its position so close to the beachside, the purchases of the veritable throngs of curious tourists who find their way in keep the store’s cash flow alive and well.
“I’m not interested in or advertising. People come to the beach and make an impulse buy – in so few situations people come [to Newport Avenue] to look at records, they just come [for] the beach,” Hildebrand said.
Additionally, Cow Records is often the recipient of donations. The old adage goes that beggars can’t be choosers, but according to Hildebrand, “a few of the best collections we’ve ever received were donated [ones].”
“A man came in a month ago asking if I could take in a thousand seven-inch records. Why not? A few days later, he brings by 650 records,” he said. “[When] I start going through them, I can’t believe what I’m seeing.”
One box in particular contained four copies of the same seven-inch vinyl, “Nervous Breakdown” by the band Black Flag, an album valued at $125 or more according to music database Discogs. None of them appeared to have ever been played, Hildebrand said.
A woman contacted Hildebrand, asking him how much he usually paid for records.
“I told her I usually pay a dollar. When I started looking at the records, [just] 20-30 records into the first pile, I can [already] tell by the fancy record cases and several-thousand dollar turntable there is likely to be some [rare] stuff,” he said.
“I tell her these are rare records. This first edition of Miles Davis is [worth] $35,” Hildebrand said. “’Oh no, it’s a dollar,’ she tells me.”
The woman told him whatever records he didn’t buy off her for a dollar apiece she would donate to Goodwill for free the next day.
“I said OK and [bought] 600 records,” he said.
Another woman reached out to Hildebrand, telling him “my husband just passed away. This store was his favorite. You guys win – I’m giving you his records.”
Hildebrand said these random acts of kindness have not been uncommon during the 25 years he’s owned Cow Records.
“All of these [occurrences] were just in the past three months. People are just so nice to this store,” he said. “With people being so generous, if this store can’t make it, it shouldn’t make it.”
Music is no stranger to argumentation and the tireless dance of human subjectivity. Of those debates, perhaps none are quite so prominent in the music scene as that of analog versus digital recordings.
According to Dave Gans, web manager for Klipsch, “The smooth analog signal matches the recorded sound wave better than the steps of a digital recording.” But “the analog medium (vinyl or magnetized tape) the recording is imprinted on can have tiny imperfections that cause cracking and popping noise,” Gans wrote.
Hildebrand’s favorite record is an untitled album by Christian Marclay, a Swedish-American composer and visual artist. It is an abstract record, its soundscape consisting of a juxtaposition of classical arrangements behind the more prominent sound of crackles caused by hundreds of human footsteps.
This treasured record is one of only 300 placed for a day upon the floor of Leo Castelli gallery in New York City during a showcase of Marclay’s vinyl art. When one of these records is played, the resulting sound occupies the foreground of the music. Hildebrand likens the cracks and pops on the vinyl to the melody in more conventional music.
The record Hildebrand most cherishes is riddled with crackles and pops, the very flaw analog music is most notorious for. He argues this is what makes vinyls unique.
“[Those sounds] are always in the exact same spots, in the right spots,” Hildebrand said. “If I hear someone else’s version of the same record, the crackles and pops would be in the wrong spots – it wouldn’t be my personalized copy, the only copy on the planet.”
THE LEGACY CONTINUES
Hildebrand worked dozens of jobs before acquiring Cow Records, almost all of them on Newport Avenue. He recalls his first job right across the street, among an amalgamation of stores called Trader’s Cove at that time.
“I had a business [there] where I sold lamps, lamp oils, incense, some candles and candle art,” he said. That was how he spent his summer between ninth and tenth grade. Today, the space is occupied by Jungle Java, a garden-themed coffee shop.
Two storms hit San Diego County last year in March, bringing significant downpour to the Ocean Beach area in particular, according to KPBS. During this time, many stores along Newport Avenue were forced to stack sand bags to keep water out of their establishments.
Hildebrand was one of several store owners interviewed by KPBS, and it earned him some publicity.
“My wife and I agreed, if even one of these [interviews] goes on the news, it’s worth being flooded,” he said, quickly attending to a nearby customer’s request.
Going about his business, he sang aloud, “I hope I get flooded again.”
“Someone came in here not too long ago, a guy in his mid-thirties, and he had a couple of teenagers with him,” Hildebrand said. “’My parents brought me here when I was a teenager, and now I’m here with my teenagers! What do you think about that?’ he asked me.”
“I’m old,” he said with a laugh.
Hildebrand will likely be with Cow Records for many years to come. “Even if I were making [enough] money my wife told me I didn’t need to keep working here, I would still want to,” he said. “If I stopped working here, I would be sad if I didn’t miss it.”