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Going for a song: Store to shutter

With one hand, 47-year-old Randy Wade flipped though the old records, searching for his youth.

In the other, he held a pile of albums by Golden Earring, Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles.

There was also one by Alice Cooper, the Greatest Hits record.

"This is the stuff I used to have as a teenager," he said. "Recently, I came upon a turntable, so I thought I'd better start another collection. (Records have) a lot of sound you can't get from a CD."

But he won't be able to get his vinyl fix at Park Ave. CDs anymore. After serving up records and compact discs for 18 years, the store is scheduled to close next week

"Upset is not the word," said Clearwater police spokesman Wayne Shelor, a longtime customer of the store. "It's more of a mourning. The staff knew the kind of stuff I like. Contrary to popular belief, it's not just Pink Floyd. I'm a big blues collector. Motown is my favorite sound."

At Park Ave. CDs, Shelor said, "you could browse for hours. There is something about having miles of vinyl to look at."

The store's original owner, Peter Dunn, moved to the Clearwater area from Syracuse, N.Y., more than 30 years ago with his family. Dunn left in the '70s and opened his first record store in Toronto.

Then in 1986, he opened the Vinyl Museum on Missouri Avenue in Largo. That record store was managed by Dunn's brother, Jim. In 1989, the store was moved to Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard across the street from Clearwater High School. Within a few years, Jim Dunn took over ownership.

He changed the shop's name to Planet Grooves because "too many people were stopping in to ask, "Do you sell any CDs?' " he told Billboard Magazine in a story on the store in 1997.

The store sold new and used CDs, cassettes and records and bought and took trade-ins.

Jim Dunn said the store's glory years were from 1990 to 1993.

"There was a big switchover from records to CDs," he said. "All the music stores were doing great."

Then, discount stores such as Target started competing for customers, and Dunn said he "lost heart and soul with the music offered and the way it was distributed."

So he sold the business to Sandy Bitman in the fall of 2002. Bitman changed the name to Park Ave. CDs.

Jim Dunn now works for Lannar Financial Services in the mortgage division and lives in Clearwater with his family.

He said when he heard the news the store was closing, he was "saddened it didn't work out for them."

But he understands why it happened.

"The retail climate has changed so much it's harder for independent stores not attached to a mall," said Jim Dunn.

Through the years, the store became a popular hangout for music lovers who gathered to talk music with longtime employees such as Bethany Souza, who has worked there for 10 years.

"We have people who come in here and buy so many albums I don't know where they keep them," she said, watching customers pick through stacks of albums that were 50 percent off. "There is still something attractive about big packaging, a big cover. I have 500 to 600 at home."

By his estimate, Robert Hudson of Clearwater has about 700 in his collection. He got many of them from Park Ave. CDs and its predecessors, where he has been shopping since the late 1980s.

"I've very upset (it's closing)," he said while picking over the discounted records. "This is an independent business, an independent record store. It's very sad these independent businesses are getting shut down. I feel like a vulture."

Park Ave. CDs isn't exactly independent. Bitman owns two other stores by the same name in Orlando. He said they are doing well, but the one on Gulf-to-Bay just couldn't make it.

"We just can't pay the bills," he said. "It's because of a variety of issues. CD burning, file sharing. We can't compete with Circuit City, Wal-Mart and Best Buy. The cost of doing business in going up."

He said the decision to close the store was "not easy."

"It's a place in the community, a place to hang out," Bitman said. "And not just for vinyl heads."

Bitman, 32, moved to the Clearwater area in 1976.

He said he bought the store to give "this side of the bay" a great music store. Now he's sad to close, to put his seven employees out of work.

"We tried to make it work, but it just didn't happen," Bitman said. "When Jim owned it, it was on its last legs. So we tripled the inventory, started to bring in bands for performances and autograph signings."

The place filled up when Frank Black, All American Rejects and Iron and Wine played.

He also said he made a point of carrying a variety of T-shirts, DVDs, LPs and CDs, especially "the hard-to-find stuff."

But it wasn't enough.

"Kids are coming in saying, "You're the only store that carries my band _ what are we going to do?' " Bitman said.

For now, they are sifting though records trying to find a good deal.

All-new vinyl releases like Survival Sickness by the (International) Noise Conspiracy and Bedtime for Democracy by the Dead Kennedys (their final studio album) are 35 percent off.

Some CDs are going for a dollar each. Used vinyl is 50 percent off.

Vinyl heads like Shelor will tell you the sound of an album is superior to anything else.

"With the proper stereo system, they sound richer, warmer and better than CDs," Shelor said.

Many album lovers say they have big CD collections, but are buying record players because they miss the old sound, pops and all.

"I just got a new record player," said Dan Lajoy, 40. "I'm just starting to get into it. This is the only place that has new vinyl."

Kris Tucker, 18, a college student, also buys vinyl at Park Ave. CDs, but not for himself.

"My mom has a record player back home in Connecticut," he said. "I buy them for her."

_ Eileen Schulte can be reached at (727) 445-4153 or schultesptimes.com.

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