Toward the end of our conversation with Christopher Mazeika -- proprietor and high priest of Philadelphia's badass new temple of all that is extremely extreme, Vinyl Altar -- we inquire how closely his life resembles what we saw/read in High Fidelity. It's kind of an offhand, silly question, but what Mazeika gives us in response is pure call-to-arms. "High Fidelity is only a movie," he says. "I never experienced that elitist music bullshit in an actual store. If a place I went to shop at was anything like that I wouldn’t support them. We are real people. Vinyl Altar is real. Music is my religion and this is my church. Service is twelve to eight daily. Come worship with us. Hails and Horns!"
What follows is the rest of the story...
If Vinyl Altar had a mission statement, what would it be?
Vinyl Altar’s mission is to be both a place to purchase Heavy Metal music on vinyl and a destination/gathering place for fans of that genre of music. We primarily sell Metal and it’s related genres on vinyl, but we also sell books, DVDs, posters, patches and other related merch and memorabilia. We do have some CDs but adding more is an ongoing debate. I’ve always hated going into a music store and being told that they either don’t have the artists I’m looking for or if they do, then they’re just mixed into the Rock section. I think it’s almost worse when they say they have a Metal section and it’s ten LPs stuck somewhere and a third of them technically shouldn’t even be in there. I hope people come here to purchase their music because of our amazing selection and because they realize I’m a true Metal fan just like them. I tried to create a store and environment that I would love to shop in. When people come here for the first time and tell me that they’ve always dreamed of finding a store like this, that’s when I feel like I made the right choices.
Talk to me a little bit about the history of the space and how Vinyl Altar came to occupy it.
How we wound up where we are is I used to shop at various general and specialty music shops in the South Street area in Philly. Back when I was in High School there was one called Rock N Roll Plus. It was real small and owned by a guy who smoked his cigars in the shop and couldn’t care less about the music he sold. Thankfully, his employees did. Later, Relapse Records had a retail store in the same area with an equally dedicated staff. Sadly, neither store still exists. I also shopped at a Goth/Industrial music specialty store which changed names, locations and owners over the years. It was those memories of my youth that drew me back to the area. The South Street area in Philly has always had various music stores but now only two others exist. One is primarily punk and the other is general music. It seemed only natural to try and open a store in an area with so much retail music history. We spent two years trying to find a space with no luck. The owner of that aforementioned G/I music store was going to close his shop but instead an Indiegogo campaign was started and the guy running the day to day operations bought it out. The new owner was a friend of mine and he knew I was still looking for a space. In the end we agreed to share his space as long as it had the look and feel that I had wanted for my own store. In reality there are three businesses sharing the same address. Vinyl Altar, our Metal speciality business, currently takes up a little over half of the space. The other two specialize in G/I music and Magic gaming supplies. You would never know there are separate business entities here just by looking, and that’s thanks in part to my design of the interior. I have two degrees in Art and I put them to use creating the look and layout. The general motif is clean and black, but we are still adding little touches and aren’t above having a little fun. I try to think of us as the Bloomingdales of Metal, if that reference makes any sense. The store technically takes up the ground floor of two different properties. The result is a large spacious sales floor which gives even more importance to what we sell. You won’t find records jammed in a junky milk crate here. The notion of bigger equals better also helps in this instance. Having a vast inventory of current and back stock titles doesn’t hurt either.
If some fan of underground music/media was to walk in the store right now, what are the five dark jewels you would offer up to them for perusal?
Music is such a personal thing. That’s what makes it so beautiful and complicated. Different things move different people for different reasons. When people ask me to recommend something I first try and find out what type of “sound” they're looking for. Then I can recommend some bands that have similar sounds and go from there. One person’s trash is another person’s treasure as the saying goes. My current tastes range from Stoner/Groove to Old School Death Metal but I’ve been on a Black Metal kick for awhile now. I also absolutely love the old Hair Metal bands that I could only like in secret back in High School. I guess the real answer is I would offer up five different titles to five different people based on where they're coming from. We’re a store full of all kinds of rare jewels, you just have to come in and dig for yourself to see what you’ll find.
What makes Philly a great town for this type of store?
Philly has had a rich history of music from Philly Soul in the late 60’s to the Hair Metal explosion in the late 80’s. I was raised to be proud of my heritage and regardless of where I’ve been, Philly is always where I’m from. I feel like a lot of people here share that same passion for this city and it’s that passion that spills out into their musical followings too. Philly has been seen as a Punk town for some and a place for hippies according to one song. I’m here to help bring the Metal back, even though it never really left.
How has business been so far?
Business has been moderate at best. We are still struggling every month to cover rent and have something left over to order more records but I’m not really complaining. Most businesses struggle their first year and we are no exception. The good thing is we’ve had tons of positive responses to our opening and businesses with local ties such as Decibel and Season Of Mist have done all they can to help push our store and show their Philly Pride. We are in this for the long haul, so I’m not going anywhere without first putting up one hell of a fight.
What's playing over the store audio system today?
What we play in the store varies from hour to hour depending on our moods and what’s new that week. As I write this Weedeater is playing and earlier we had on the Cancer Bats and At The Gates. Sometimes I just flip through the stacks to find something I’m not familiar with and put that on. I just put on Ironsword because it had a cool cover and I wasn’t familiar with them. It’s a shame most people these days don’t have the opportunity to just take a chance on something new simply based on the cover art. It used to be the cover of an LP told you a lot about a band without you ever hearing them. MP3s and online crap tried to kill the visual art connection to music but luckily you can come to Vinyl Altar and fight back. I also get obsessive about listening to music I like. For a couple of months I couldn’t be in the store without playing Necrophagia’s, “White Worm Cathedral” at least once, in regards to what gets played.
Tell me a little bit about you. What's your history with music, as both a fan and a purveyor? Is VA the fulfillment of a longstanding dream? A sort of unexpected detour? A good time?
The first album I ever bought was Beastie Boys Licensed To Ill on cassette back when it first came out. I kinda used to breakdance. The first Metal LP I bought was a cassette of Metallica’s Garage Days Re-revisited from Kmart in 1987. It totally blew my mind and I was hooked on it like crack. What drove me nuts was that it said the songs were all covers and not to take it them too seriously. I loved it and couldn’t wait to hear what “serious” Metallica sounded like. Since that time I’ve explored ALL genres of music, been to countless numbers of live shows, worked at a record store in High School (which no longer exists), been the singer for a few bands that went nowhere, and I did a stint for roughly five years as a bouncer for Electric Factory Concerts in Philly at the TLA, Electric Factory, Tower Theater, Spectrum, Core States(? now Wells Fargo) and even the Troc. I have enough stories from those years to fill a book and I’ve met a lot of my musical idols. I’ve been buying records since I was in grade school but buying for a store has been, and still is, a very different animal and I’m still working on getting it right. I still love music with a passion and I still attend tons of shows for both local acts and larger signed bands. I was lucky enough to attend Wacken Open Air 2014 for my 40th birthday thanks to my amazing business partner and girlfriend Annmarie. My last full time gig was teaching Art in the Philly Public School system. Owning a record store is something I always sort of dreamed about. I have degrees in Art but music refused to play second fiddle. When I decided that teaching Art wasn’t cutting it, I decided this is what I needed to try and do. With the encouragement and support of Ann we started trying to make this happen. It took two years and is a constant daily struggle, but here we are. Even on my worst days I’m still surrounded by what I love. Everyone should be so lucky.
What are the most and least fulfilling parts about running a record store?
The most fulfilling part of running a record store is connecting to people as passionate about music as I am. That includes everyone from bands and musicians that I meet either in the store or at a concert to the fans who may be looking for that album with that one song that changed their life. The least fulfilling part is trying hard to pay my bills on time and still have money leftover to buy new product. There are the occasional music snobs but they’re easy compared to dealing with the tax collector. It’s also impossible to have every title in stock all the time, so having a potential customer leave because I didn’t have that particular title in stock and they wouldn’t accept any substitutions hurts both monetarily and spiritually.