By Jeremy Dunn
Who can forget that iconic scene from 1983’s Risky Business as a young Tom Cruise glides across the living room floor as Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock and Roll” blares, “Just take those old records off the shelf. I sit and listen to them by myself.” Cameron Crowe’s 2000 award-winning film Almost Famous contains a classic scene with Zooey Deschanel’s character using a vinyl recording of Simon and Garfunkel’s “America” to explain to her family why she’s moving away and then whispering to her younger brother, “One day you’ll be cool… look under your bed. It’ll set you free…” leading him to a vast record collection. More recently, country music star Eric Church’s hit single “Record Year” lyrically boasts, “Slowly plannin’ my survival in a three foot stack of vinyl…” as the musician boldly compares life’s seasons to the experience of listening to a record collection. Wherever you look, our culture is deeply entranced by at the thought of listening to vinyl records.
“There are still people that swear that vinyl gives you a better sound than CDs, but I think they are crazy. I cannot tell a difference between them,” said Perry Township resident Gerald Ruark. His wife, Ann “Nan” Ruark, added, “Well, for the practiced ear, some of the little upper register sounds come through better on vinyl.” Regardless of their opinions on sound, this couple has embraced the nostalgia that is vinyl recordings, leading to a collection of nearly 100,000 records, multiple business ventures and countless memories.
Meet the Ruarks
A southsider since 1936, Nan was raised near University Heights and then off Bluff Road among the German truck gardeners. She is an alumni of Southport High School and graduated from Indiana Central College, where her grandparents were instrumental in the development of the school. Gerald Ruark grew up in New Castle, graduating from Dana High School before attending Indiana Central College. The couple went on to spend most of their careers in public education, with Gerald working as an elementary school teacher and audio visual consultant in Perry Township and Nan teaching high school English, computer and library since for 46 years before retiring from Decatur Central High School in 2002.
Growing up, Gerald enjoyed listening to the music on the radio and eventually learned to play the drums. Nan’s family was incredibly passionate about music, always listen to the radio, records and playing a variety of instruments. She recalled, “I played the clarinet. Older sis played the cello, second sis played flute and piccolo, the youngest played violin and brother who was older than me played the bugle. He was the bugler for the Navy.” It was no surprise the couple was destined to make beautiful music together, accumulating a personal collection of over 1,000 records and a warehouse of over 100,000 additional vinyls.
Adventures in Alpha Records
In 1982, the Ruarks entered the vinyl business, sponsoring monthly music collector conventions. The events allowed dealers and customers to interact along a circuit that included larger cities like Indianapolis; Dayton, Ohio; Cincinnati; Louisville and Nashville. By 1983, riding the momentum from hosting the conventions, the Ruarks opened Alpha Records off the corner of Madison Avenue and Southport Road. The building served as their brick-and-mortar home for record sales for nearly 10 years. Unfortunately, a trend was fading and a new technology was on the rise causing a major decline in sales. Nan shared, “We had the store in the late 80s and early 90s when vinyl was still big.” Gerald added, recollecting, “CDs came out about three years after we opened and I thought, ‘Man, we are dead.’” Foreshadowing the building’s fate, Gerald and Nan closed its doors in 1992, leaving the couple with a massive amount of vinyl records to sell.
Changing with the times
After closing Alpha Records, the nostalgic pair found a warehouse property to store their collection of over 100,000 vinyl records. Inside the building is a remarkable sight, with aisle upon aisle of boxes, storing what-would-be a jukebox’s ultimate fantasy. “Basically, most of it was brought to us,” Nan stated, regarding their massive inventory. People have reached out to the Ruarks for decades offering them records found in estates, storage units and family collections. The inventory has gotten so large that a 40-foot extension was added to their warehouse property to accommodate their storage needs. Nan jokes, “The place could be an obstacle training course for Marines.”
Without a storefront to sell their inventory, the Ruarks have turned to the convention circuit and online groups to interact with customers. Nan explained, “At one time, when GEMM.com was operating before being cut out by Google and Amazon, I had 16,000 items listed for sale. Now, I only have 2,900 items on discogs.com. Sales are steady, but very slow since there is much competition.” On a positive note, online sales allow the Ruarks to reach a global market in comparison to a limited convention crowd. “I send to Australia, Japan and Europe on a regular basis,” Nan pointed out, as Gerald interjected, “The more expensive sales are from overseas… especially with the shipping fees.”
Veterans of the convention circuit, Gerald and Nan have cut their involvement to 10 shows a year. Even with the limited number of events, the Ruarks still value the opportunity to meet other collectors and vendors face-to-face. One standout included hiring Elvis Presley’s stepmother, Dee Presley, to attend a convention they hosted. Gerald reminisced, “We hired her to be a guest and sign autographs and take pictures and so forth in Nashville. It was so expensive to have a special guest.”
A collector’s dream
Even if Gerald Ruark cannot distinguish the sound quality between vinyl records and modern music technology, he will still tell you there is something nostalgic and romantic about dropping a needle onto vinyl as the sound resonates into one’s ears like a beautiful symphony. It is hard to ignore the magic and mystery associated with a collection as vast and deep as the Ruarks. Among the countless aisles and boxes of history gathered in their warehouse, there is the possibility of that one rare unique recording hiding in the masses just waiting to be found like a mythical needle in a haystack. Just waiting for that fateful moment to be uncovered and shared with the honored ear.
5 questions with the Ruarks
- What is your greatest accomplishment? We really can’t identify a single greatest accomplishment.
- If you could only listen to one recording for an entire year, what would you select? Gerald’s one record would be Spike Jones’ “Cocktails for Two.” There are too many great jazz records to pick a favorite, but Dave Burbeck’s “Take Five” would be one of my top choices.
- What life advice would you offer younger married couples? Our advice… keep collections small.
- What would your perfect day look like? Every day is a great day for us.
- What is your favorite lyrics you’ve heard on vinyl? I really can’t identify just one set but Ger’s favorite lyrics are definitely from “Cocktails for Two.”