Murray Gershenz’s 300,000-plus record collection is no bestseller
Murray Gershenz has spent nearly three quarters of a century collecting the albums that fill the dusty wooden shelves of his two-story West Adams record shop. From opera classics to big band, country western, jazz, R&B and rock, Gershenz has lived up to his business credo, “You name it, we find it.”
The problem is he can’t rid himself of it. For the last three years, the 89-year-old has been trying to sell the entire collection, more than 300,000 records, to one lucky bidder. Gershenz’s attorney said a conservative estimate places the value of the collection at $1.5 million; an average of $5 a record despite the amount of rare items he boasts, including original Edison cylinder recordings.
“Every month or so there is somebody who’s interested. But there’s never anybody who’s really interested,” Gershenz says from behind a desk piled with records he’s preparing to ship. “People are biting. But nobody seems to have the money, the place to put them, or knows what in the hell to do with over a quarter million records.”
Gershenz’s struggle to sell is the subject of an upcoming film, “Music Man Murray,” which aired Saturday, national Record Store Day, on the Documentary Channel and NPR's “All Songs Considered.”
Although most octogenarians have long settled into retirement, Gershenz would like to dedicate himself full time to his second career, acting. Having enjoyed bit parts as a character actor in film (“Smashed,” “The Hangover,” “I Love You, Man”) and television (“NCIS: Los Angeles,” “House,” “Parks and Recreation”), he says the burden of the store keeps him from pursuing more auditions.
He apologized when he interrupted the interview for this story to take a call from someone he assumed to be potential buyer. Instead, it was a casting agent inquiring about his availability for a Doritos commercial.
“I have made a lot of money doing the acting stuff, but a lot of it has gone to maintaining this place,” he said.
Gershenz, a former opera singer and synagogue cantor, admits the shop is now hemorrhaging cash. He pulled out a few months sales receipts to prove business isn’t thriving: a buyer in New York paid $25.99 for a record by an obscure violist, another went to a buyer in Germany, and an old 45 of jazz trombonist Grover Mitchell went to a customer in Spain for $11.
His musician son, Irv Gershenz, believes if they were able to get more of their inventory cataloged online, business would pick up. But they’ve had the manpower to log only about 12,000 records.
“Here’s someone in Germany; they are only looking at 12,000 records,” said Irv of a buyer interested in the collection. “Imagine how many they could find if the whole collection was there.”
Director Richard Parks decided in 2010 to make his first documentary about the elder Gershenz after he read about his plight in The Times. Parks shot the film last year, and it had its premiere in January at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival before getting distribution by the Documentary Channel. The picture also won best short documentary at the Chicago International Movies & Music Festival and will screen at festivals in San Francisco and Berlin.
“When I first got into records, my dad [composer-lyricist Van Dyke Parks, who scored the film] would tell me you have to go to Murray’s,” Parks said. “It was like the temple so he brought me here all the time.”
Gershenz would still like the collection to go to a museum or university, but “the trouble there is they want it free. I’m not in a position to donate it. If I was a very wealthy person, I would.” Though he balks at the idea of splitting up the records to different sellers only looking for one genre, he knows he might be forced to do so.
Gershenz’s asking price has dropped from more than $1 million to $500,000 — a bargain considering the 12,000 records in the online inventory alone are worth $360,000.
Gershenz says the monthly operating costs to upkeep the store and three storage warehouses, which contain enough records to refill the shop a few times over, has reached more than $6,000. He said despite a renewed interest in vinyl, the digital age has stunted his business as today’s generation has quicker access to free or low cost music.
“You have to be practical. If it turns out nobody can use the whole thing, then you have to break up the collection. I’m not doing enough business to maintain it,” Gershenz said as he shuffles through some of the rich history he’s also collected: autographs from Mae West and Tiny Tim, memories of talking to Elvis and a handwritten note from Louis Armstrong on Satchmo letterhead.
As of press time, Gershenz is entertaining one offer that he believes is promising. Although he was mum on details in case other offers pour in after the film airs, he says it’s for more than a quarter of a million but drastically less than the $500,000 that he’s asking for.
“I don’t have the money and time, and besides I’m gonna be 90 years old,” he said. “I’m tired.”
— By Gerrick D. Kennedy
Photo: Murray Gershenz Credit: Richard Parks