[SoundStage!]Paradise with James Saxon
Back Issue Article
April 1998

The Junk Pile

Audiophiles never throw anything away. I first learned this lesson when I went into the stereo business a decade ago. At the time, I was leading a Casablanca-like existence as the proprietor of a bar/restaurant called the Crocodile Club. Night after night, I drank beer, joked with friends, and ogled beautiful girls. Why on earth did I yearn for a home hi-fi system? I was never even home. But yearn I did, and during daylight hours I canvassed Paradise looking for high-end stereo. No luck. The one home-stereo store I found offered only Harman Kardon electronics. Not bad, but back in the USA, I still had tube amplifiers packed away somewhere. Despite confiscatory import duties, I sent for them.

When the boxes arrived, they were heavily damaged. The amplifiers inside looked destroyed. Upon closer inspection, I found they had been partially disassembled. Seems the sender tried to save me a few bucks by taking the sides and faceplates off and shipping the amplifiers as "parts," which they truly resembled to my untrained eye.

I began another quest—this time, to find a person who could bolt the amplifiers back together. Fate led to Don Roberto Herrera, the number one audiophile in Paradise. At the time I met him, Roberto was an audio dealer in remission. He had been badly hurt by a monstrous currency devaluation a number of years earlier, and had reduced his import activities to the occasional pair of Martin-Logan loudspeakers and the stray conrad-johnson amplifier. Conrad-johnson? All right! Here was the guy to repair my tube amplifiers.

I dropped in on the living legend unannounced. Roberto is younger than I, but has been repairing, selling, and auditioning stereo equipment for over thirty years. The man is a walking archive of high-end audio going back to the late 1960s, and his repair shop hasn’t changed since Woodstock. Upon entering the service area, I beheld rows of repaired equipment that had once played Crosby, Stills and Nash in the original. A dozen reel-to-reel tape decks lined one wall. Receivers of every make and vintage filled the shelves, along with cassette decks by the dozen. Graphic equalizers, integrated amplifiers, and direct-drive turntables that time had forgotten awaited patiently the ministering hands of Roberto Herrera and his technicians.

I had found the Promised Land. But Roberto was not interested in my amplifiers. Even after I had lugged the 90-pound boxes into his shop, he avoided them as if they housed deadly cobras. "As you can see," he said, waving a hand over his domain, "I have more work than I can handle. I don’t know when I’ll be able to get to them."

"At least take a look, " I whined. "I’ve been told you are the only person in the country who can put them back together so they’ll work."

Roberto liked the flattery and said so. But he didn’t go near the boxes. "Look, these are special amplifiers," I said. "They were made in England."

Roberto is not an anglophile.

"They cost $4,000 new."

Roberto is not a snob.

"They once belonged to Harry Pearson of The Abso!ute Sound."

Roberto is an audiophile.

"Now, that’s interesting," he said. "Get ‘em up here and let’s take a look."

A few days later, I had functioning amplifiers and a bill for $50. Roberto is a professional. We became respectful of one another. An idea took shape and soon Roberto agreed to re-enter the hi-fi business, as long as someone else took the currency risks. I weighed the odds. What would Casablanca be without risk? The rest, as they say in disbelief, is history.

We began to convert repair-shop space into an audio store. Roberto had a perfect back room for demonstrating equipment. Unfortunately, it was filled to bursting with old loudspeakers, including Altec-Lansing theater monitors, junior Advents, and big Boses, little Boses, and in-between Boses. The world loves Amar’s designs, and apparently sends them all to the shop at the same time.

I asked Roberto if there was any other place we could hide the loudspeakers, at least during the day.

"We could put them out back in the cemetery," he said.

"The cemetery?"

Roberto led me through a fire door into a courtyard that had been roofed over. Three rows of massive steel shelves had been wedged in and were covered with the skeletons of former audio equipment. At last I had found the elephants’ graveyard of hi-fi. It was here in Paradise after all.

"What is all this?" I asked in awe.

"It’s equipment that couldn’t be repaired for whatever reason. After five years, if no one comes to claim it, we consider it dead," said Roberto, brushing dust from his hands. "Look, everything has a tag, just like a corpse."

Sure enough, each piece of equipment was tagged with a date, a diagnosis, and a prognosis for recovery, which said in most cases, "Not repaired. No parts available." The first tag I read was dated 1979. It was on a cassette deck that made no mention of Dolby.

"Roberto, why don’t you call the owners and tell them to come and pick this stuff up?"

"That’s not the way we do things here," Roberto replied. "Sooner or later, the owner will come in asking for his turntable or whatever, and when we show him the tag, he’ll complain about it, take the piece and leave angry. At least, he can’t say we didn’t have it for him."

I fingered the cassette tag, dating from ’79. "Do you really think someone remembers bringing in this cassette deck over ten years ago?" I asked.

"Yes."

"But do you think they care about it now?

"Yes."

"No way, Josť," I said, forgetting the expression isn’t hilarious here.

Roberto shrugged. "Don’t believe me then. But that’s the way it is."

Convinced that we should move the Bose and other loudspeakers from the back room to the elephants’ graveyard, I hatched a scheme before my very eyes. "Roberto, suppose I take full responsibility for the dead equipment. I am so sure that this stuff will never be claimed, I’m willing to make it disappear."

"You mean throw it away?" said Roberto, eyes wide.

"No, no," I replied, thinking quickly. "I’ll haul everything out of here, and store it all over at the Crocodile Club."

Now here was an example of a fine mind at work—Roberto’s. "Great idea. Only one thing. What happens when somebody comes here looking for their answering machine?"

"Send ‘em over to me. I’ll dig out their answering machine, and buy them a beer for their troubles." Ever the gambler, I was confident there would be no free beer for anyone, except me.

At that time, I had built a dog run for the cocker spaniel puppies that were born behind the Crocodile Club. After giving the puppies away, I had an enclosed area that would be perfect for storing the cemetery’s contents. I did not realize how much stuff there was. A moving van carted a full load of equipment over to the Club’s backyard. The resulting pile was three tiers high, four rows deep and about thirty pieces long. The rainy season had just begun and Roberto suggested I cover everything with a tarpaulin, just in case someone came looking for their answering machine. "They won’t be happy if it’s all wet," he wisely pointed out.

For almost a month, nothing happened to the pile of the junk. The daily downpours didn’t soak it. None of the people who used the back parking lot bothered to reach over the fence and look under the tarp (or if they did, didn’t see anything worth taking). Even my employees seemed to leave the pile alone.

Then one morning I received a breathless call from Roberto. "Say, do you recall seeing a pair of tube monoblock amplifiers. The owner just showed up and he’d like his amps back. Says they’re worth a lot of money in Japan."

I was nonplused. "Can you describe them?"

"They’re brown and they say H.H. Scott on them. I remember, they were here for a long time. You must have them."

I was mystified. "No, Roberto. If there were any tube amplifiers in the cemetery I would have noticed them. I like tube amps."

"Well, can I at least send him over to look? I wouldn’t want you to have to pay him Japanese prices for his amplifiers."

I could see I was in this alone.

Since I spent mornings counting money and taking inventory at the Club, I said to send the customer over straight away. He appeared friendly. He apologized for having left his amplifiers for so long, and yes, he understood that they may not be out there. His fault. Maybe.

Within a short period of time, the customer found something. I was mystified. I didn’t recognize the tubeless little slab the customer cradled in his hands as an amplifier. I thought amps had sides and faceplates and tubes already in them. The H.H. Scott was a case of first impression (this was before I saw a picture of a Wavelength amplifier, but even that had tubes in it.)

Uncovering the other channel took a few hours, during which I drank several free beers, the customer declining, even though the work was thirst-inducing. At last, the mission was accomplished to my satisfaction, if not to the customer’s. He was pleased and angry at the same time. Why couldn’t I have just left the amplifiers where they were?

Later, I calculated the odds of the H.H. Scott man showing up at about twenty-seven thousand to one. It could never happen again. The next day, a rumor began: Roberto’s American friend had thrown out hundreds of pieces of equipment. Good equipment. Valuable equipment. Never mind that no one wanted the stuff for years. Now that it was gone, people remembered it and wanted it back, maybe for old time’s sake. Who knows? I was about to face a stampede.

Luckily, almost all the pieces of equipment that people were concerned about were setting on racks in the service area of Roberto’s shop. Because so many people got wind of the rumor and headed for the stampede, Roberto enjoyed a brief windfall. He was able to collect from deadbeats he hadn’t seen in years. The racks of repaired gear emptied out, and everyone was happy.

Then, one rainy afternoon, a gentleman came to the Crocodile Club to look for a turntable cover. Not a turntable, mind you, but a cover for a turntable. "I was told you might have such an item out back."

"I might," I replied. "Do you need it this very moment?"

"I live out of town," he said. "If you’ll show me where the equipment is, I will be happy to look on my own."

I led him out to the tarpaulin-covered mass, which glistened in the rain. He asked if I could hold up one end of the tarp so he could look around underneath. After awhile, I was holding up the other end; then, the middle section. Finally, the man let out a sigh of satisfaction. "This is it," he said, emerging with a plexi-glass cover which he waved like an Oscar. He asked me the cost and I said just take it. A nod of gratitude and he was gone, an aura of happiness wreathing his features. I was soaked to the bone.

Over a snifter of Cardhu, I contemplated this new threat to my peaceful existence. If people thought they could scavenge through the pile of old equipment, I would soon be running a junkyard. I liked being Bogart. I did not want to become Fred Sanford. I resolved to rid myself of the cemetery contents immediately. The next day, I called a buyer of old things to come over and take a look at the stack of equipment before it rained. He waited until it was pouring.

"I’ll take this pile of junk off your hands for two hundred," he said, water dripping off his nose.

"It’s worth at least five hundred," I said, figuring he was low-balling.

"If you want to give me $500 instead of $200, that’s OK," he replied.

"Wait a minute, you’re supposed to pay me," I started to argue. Then I looked at his truck. One trip will do it, I thought. The sooner the stuff is gone, the better. I gave him a hundred bucks as my last offer. Two hours later, the elephants’ graveyard left the Crocodile Club for greener pastures.

For weeks afterward, Roberto waited for another treasure hunter to show up. Secretly, I wasn’t worried. Of one thing I was certain: Nothing of value had been left in the pile. Over several weeks, my employees and I had done our own scavenging and found zilch. Sure, there was probably an old Pioneer integrated sitting in a landfill as a result of my "sale" of the pile. But the book value of a twenty-year-old transistor amp was a manageable number. I slept easy.

To this day, a few people remember me as the rash gringo who discarded a treasure-trove of audio history without making any money on it. Audiophiles never throw anything away, particularly if there is a chance someone will buy it. Nowadays, I invite the elephants to stay awhile.

...James Saxon
jimsax@soundstage.com

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