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Record player repairman keeps tables turning

Record player repairman keeps tables turning

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Jerry Saunders was 11 years old and about to get the shock of his life. This was in the mid-1950s in rural North Carolina. He was tinkering with a radio in his family’s 1949 Chevrolet, trying to figure out why it didn’t sound right.

“I was piddling with a car radio and it shocked me,” Saunders said, remembering the jolt more than 60 years later.

He had been shocked by the radio’s vibrator, a high-voltage electromagnetic power supply used to operate old-fashioned radios. He wondered why that had happened.

“Well, I found out why,” Saunders said. “You’re not supposed to touch it, that’s why.”

That shocking discovery led to a lifetime spent fixing electronic gadgets, from radios to record players. Years ago, Saunders opened his own shop in Botetourt County, only to close it as consumers embraced throwaway electronic gadgets that were more easily trashed than fixed.

“People started disposing of everything,” Saunders said. “So, I closed her down.”

Now, more than a decade later, Saunders is busier than ever, repairing broken radios, speakers, record players and any old piece of analog equipment that people would rather keep than discard. He works on commission at Lee Hartman and Sons in Roanoke, where he has a six-week backlog of repairs.

Recently, he stood in his cramped workspace, surrounded by the guts of amplifiers and turntables, with wires, oscillators and phonograph styluses within reach. He almost has more work than he can do, because even in the high-tech, digitized world of 2020, folks want the old equipment fixed.

“It sounds better,” Saunders said of the old record players. “Digital clips all the highs and lows. It’s all zeros and ones. I hate it with a passion.”

Lee Hartman and Sons repairs digital equipment, of course. Other technicians work on digital recorders and players. Not Saunders, though. He’s the analog guy.

The boom in old-school technology repairs is happening hand-in-hand with a resurgence of vinyl record albums. According to the Recording Association of America, vinyl albums are on course to pass compact discs in sales revenue for the first time since 1986. Of course, streaming, digital downloads and other modern music services account for 90% of recording industry revenues, so it’s not like records are going to dislodge Spotify or Apple Music anytime, well, ever.

But for a technology that was considered passé back in the waning days of the Reagan administration, record players have proven to be profoundly resilient. And when they break, Saunders can usually fix them.

In fact, because most of the problems with old analog equipment are mechanical in nature and not due to buggy software or other computer glitches, the fixes are often simple. Usually, a new belt or a dab of grease keeps the platters spinning.

“Most of the time with turntable, it’s dried-up grease,” Saunders said, citing a common problem with record players. “You reassemble it with new grease, it’s good as new.”

Stacks of radios, record players and reel-to-reel players sat near his workspace, ready for repair. The collection of equipment had all the hallmarks of modern art — a Zenith radio that looked like it belonged in a 1950s kitchen, a BSR McDonald 4800 turntable that screamed 1980s college dorm room, a 1918 RCA “coffin-style” radio, so called because that’s what it looks like. Saunders will fix them all, in due time.

Saunders has repaired hand-cranked Victrolas and other 78 rpm record players. The older record players truly are things of beauty. Saunders was preparing to work on a 1959 Silvertone Syntronic record player, manufactured by Sears, that had a lid that opened like a suitcase. The Silvertone played records at four speeds: 78, 45, 33 1/3 and even the rare 16 rpm, used mostly for educational recordings played in classrooms back in the day.

“I think it has sentimental value,” Saunders said. “I reckon I’ll live long enough to get it done.”

Saunders, 76, was born in Mount Airy, North Carolina, and piddled with sound equipment from an early age. When he was 14 years old, he and an uncle built a crystal radio set, made with a crystalline mineral that received and played radio signals without electricity. He served in the Air Force, training as an engine mechanic, and later the Marines. He studied through a correspondence course with the National Radio Institute in Washington, D.C.

These days, he works from 8 a.m. until 3:30 p.m., as the work piles up.

Lee Hartman and Sons president Steve Hartman, whose family has been in the electronics business since 1936, said that more people are bringing in old-school equipment for repairs.

“We’ve definitely seen an upswing in people wanting things fixed and wanting to keep them,” Hartman said. “People are looking at yard sales [for old record players and other equipment], getting them fixed and putting them in family rooms and living rooms.”

In fact, some of the old record consoles look like pieces of furniture. Made of solid wood, resembling cabinets, the old consoles were as aesthetically decorative as they were acoustically sound.

“There’s still a lot of dependable electronics in the older equipment,” Hartman said, adding that many new electronic gadgets are built to be replaced and thrown away. “New products are just more disposable. They don’t make things the way they used to.”

Saunders agrees.

“Most audiophiles prefer high-class turntables,” he said. “They have better sound. Acoustics are a lot better than that digital crap.”

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Ralph Berrier Jr. has worked at The Roanoke Times since 1993. He covers the City of Roanoke and writes the Dadline parenting column.

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