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Where Our Ancestors Bought Phonographs and 78s

By Tim Gracyk

I collect not just phonographs, 78s, and cylinders. I collect information, including dates for machine models being introduced, biographical facts about industry giants, addresses of manufacturers and major dealers. I learn all I can about the phonograph industry, especially as it evolved in Northern California.

Knowing where people used to buy phonographs and recordings helps me imagine what it was like to walk into a shop long ago and make a purchase. Every phonograph has a history, and it began at the shop where it was sold for the first time. It was an exciting day when a family bought a phonograph fresh from the factory. Most phonographs were sold during the Christmas season. Summer months seemed good only for selling portables.

Old newspapers and phonograph trade journals say everything we might want to know about the industry in the Bay Area decades ago. I’ll share facts about where people made purchases. I know a shop name and address for most towns in Northern California, but my research stops at 1929.

San Francisco was first in the West to sell equipment. Peter Bacigalupi was a prominent phonograph dealer in California from the mid-1890s until the 1906 quake. He was 40 when he operated in 1895 a shop called Edison’s Kinetoscope, Phonograph and Graphophone Arcade. This was at 946 Market St. in San Francisco. The fire following the ’06 quake left his phonograph empire in ashes. At this time Bacigalupi had three places of business: 786 Mission St., 840 Market St. (the Pacific Coast’s first penny arcade), and 805 Kearny St. All were destroyed. He describes the fire’s destruction in the July 1906 issue of Edison’s trade journal.

With friends’ loans, Bacigalupi started again at 1021-23 Golden Gate Ave. Two sons took on many responsibilities, and at this time the firm was Peter Bacigalupi & Sons.

Original cylinder boxes bearing the name Bacigalupi are worth a lot of money even if they are empty. Actual brown wax cylinders made by Bacigalupi are rarer. Bacigalupi recorded artists on the business premises, including Billy Murray in 1897. Murray was later the nation’s most popular recording artist.

The Victor Talking Machine Company succeeded the Edison Company as the industry’s leader. Suppose it is 1907 and someone in San Jose wished to buy the best disc machine—perhaps an outside horn machine such as the Victor VI or an early Victrola, the XVI model. The Victor agent was the J.V. Christy shop, located in downtown San Jose at 125 South First St. It sold machines, 78s (they weren’t called “78s” then), new steel needles, pianos, organs, and sheet music. Richard Jose, a local singer, was so popular that his discs in our area sold nearly as well as those of Enrico Caruso or Sousa’s Band.

Let’s skip a decade or two. The firm of Sherman, Clay & Co. became increasingly important to San Franciscians who loved Victor machines and records. The firm, founded in 1870, has always been associated with pianos but by the World War I era was also the West’s distributor for Victor products. The wholesale departments were in various locations, including the ninth floor of the store at Kearny and Sutter until a five-story building was erected at 536 Mission (at Ecker). It was finished in February 1924.

By the mid-1920s, Sherman, Clay & Co. had stores everywhere in the West— Oakland, Sacramento, San Jose, Fresno, Stockton, Santa Rosa, even tiny Watsonville. The only year in which the firm suffered an operating loss before the Depression was in 1906, the year of the quake and fire.

In the ’teens and ’twenties, perhaps no one store carried products made by Victor, Columbia, Brunswick, and Edison. The bigger chains were agents for perhaps two or three companies. If in downtown San Francisco, most people thought of Wiley B. Allen for Brunswick items, Sherman & Clay for Victor, the Starr Piano Co. for Gennett.

If one wanted records made for the “race” market, one could buy Okeh discs of blues artists at Walter S. Gray’s shop at 926 Midway Place. Odeon discs featuring great classical artists were also sold here. The Pathe Shop was operated by Charles H. Fyfe at 470 Sutter in 1921. Are descendants of Gray and Fyfe living in the Bay Area?

The Emporium in the mid-’20s offered perhaps the best selection of combination phonograph and radio consoles. The City of Paris also sold many. To buy a Sonora machine, one could visit the Magnavox Co., located at 616 Mission. It moved to 274 Brannan St. in 1924.

By the 1920s, Brunswick was America’s second most important phonograph and disc manufacturer. The Brunswick phonograph headquarters for the entire West Coast was established at 980-982 Mission Street, with a phonograph department on the mezzanine floor. By 1924 C.P. MacGregor was the manager of the Brunswick division for the San Francisco territory. This was probably the same MacGregor who later made custom records issued by the MacGregor and Ingram Recording Laboratories, a firm listed in San Francisco’s 1930 and 1931 phone books. From 1932 to 1937 the company was MacGregor and Sollie.

In downtown San Francisco, Wiley B. Allen was famous for elaborate window displays. When Al Jolson became a Brunswick artist in early 1924, the store set up a display showing the Pacific Ocean as well as the Golden Gate (no bridge, of course). This publicized the release of Jolie’s “California, Here I Come.” In 1924 the stores installed Audak record demonstrators. Customers often listened to records before making a purchase, and entire listening rooms were sometimes provided. Few stores had space for many listening rooms. Since the Audak was a machine with only an earphone as amplifier, many customers could sit at these demonstrators and listen to records without the store becoming cacophonous.

Across the bay was the elegant Olin S. Grove Phonograph & Radio Shop in Oakland. Here one could buy Cheney talking machines. The store’s lobby was so beautiful that a photograph of it appears in the April 15, 1924 issue of a phonograph trade journal, The Talking Machine World.

Oakland was home to a large Victor record pressing plant, where discs were pressed for Western distribution. The first Oakland disc was pressed on May 6. Taken from a positive shipped to the plant, the disc featured Coon-Sanders’ “Oriental Love Dreams.” Artists that recorded at the Oakland plant include Art Landry, Kane’s Hawaiians, and Horace Heidt, with Leroy Shields supervising most sessions. Labels indicate Oakland pressings with a tiny “o” above Nipper’s head. All other Victor discs were pressed in Camden, New Jersey. Thanks to the Oakland plant, California music lovers could buy new titles without the delay of shipment from the East. The plant was managed by George Hall.

In Richmond, the most elegant store selling Victrolas was operated by Adolphe Winters. Located at Eleventh and McDonald, the building was called by a trade journal “one of the finest in the State devoted to music retailing.”

Edison products were sold in every town. One could patronize the Garrett Owen Music Stores in Oakland and Berkeley; the Modesto Music Store; the Santa Rosa Furniture Co.; Petaluma’s Nielsen Furniture Co.; the Ellas Marx Music Co. in Sacramento as well as Marysville.

In Sacramento, one could visit the John Breuner Co. (today known as Breuner’s) for Brunswick, Victor and Sonora products.

One could buy Columbia products at the Redewill Piano Company in Turlock and at the Dietz Drug Store in Manteca. The only music dealer in Salinas was R.D. Logan. Marysville and Yuba City residents bought Victrolas and Columbia Grafonolas at Marysville’s Melody Merchants at 422 D Street. In Napa, one went to the Kohler & Chase Music Co. in the Empire Theatre Building for Sonora and Brunswick phonographs.

I often wonder what buildings still stand and if music shops are in any today. Naturally I would enjoy hearing from descendants of those who ran Northern California music shops during the phonograph’s Golden Age.

Tim Gracyk lives in the Sacramento area. He collects Victrolas, cylinders, and 78s. If you have questions, write or e-mail Tim Gracyk at 9180 Joy Lane, Granite Bay, California 95746-9682. Or call 916-784-1929.

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