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Friends come together to help save home of popular Beatles record dealer

Beatles record dealer Ken Barker was facing foreclosure on his St. Petersburg home after the recession and his heart surgery. Crowdfunding saved the day.
Beatles record dealer Ken Barker was facing foreclosure on his St. Petersburg home after the recession and his heart surgery. Crowdfunding saved the day.
Published Apr. 11, 2016

Ken Barker was well on his way to paying off his St. Petersburg house when the Great Recession sent his record business into a tailspin. Then quintuple bypass heart surgery laid him low.

"I got a little bit behind on the mortgage'' he says.

So when the lender began foreclosing last year, Barker, his girlfriend, Laura Brillhart, and their rescue dogs and cats faced losing their home over less than $14,000. Instead, they have managed to save it with a little help from their friends — many with ties to four guys named John, Paul, George and Ringo.

Decades of selling rare Beatles records all over the world had gained Barker so many fans of his own that they rallied to his aid on GoFundMe, one of the most popular crowdfunding sites.

Paul McCartney's stepsister and stepmother donated. So did an ex-girlfriend of Ringo Starr. John Lennon's onetime lover and assistant, May Pang, helped raise money.

Combined with contributions from other friends and former customers from as far away as France and Japan, the "Save Ken's Home & Pets'' page had tallied $14,031 by this week — just enough to cover everything he owed including late fees and legal costs.

A foreclosure sale set for Wednesday was canceled.

"I thought it might work,'' says Matt Adams, a longtime pal who suggested Barker try crowdfunding. "He knows so many people and made so many friends over the years I figured that if everybody would throw a little at the problem, we could take care of it and it worked. It worked because Ken's a nice guy.''

Crowdfunding, which has flourished in the social media age, is the practice of paying for a project or venture by raising money from numerous sources. Donations have helped fund everything from the Glowforge 3D Laser Printer ($27.9 million in prepaid sales) to band tours, film productions, charitable causes and even supplies for public school teachers.

Increasingly, crowdfunding is used for personal expenses like college, medical bills and yes, mortgage payments. And as Barker's experience shows, it helps to have a following.

Now 58, he grew up in Norfolk, Va., where his father, a barber in the Navy, used to complain about the popularity of Beatle haircuts. Barker went on to work as cameraman for TV stations in Sarasota, Fort Myers and Tampa where he remembers, not fondly, long days "outside the federal court building waiting for somebody to be dragged out.''

Then he chucked TV, moved to Atlanta and indulged his true love — vintage records, especially Beatles albums and singles.

Barker opened a record store. He also traveled the world, buying and dealing at Beatles conventions in dozens of cities including London, Liverpool, Amsterdam and one of his favorites, Tokyo.

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"The finest (record) pressings as far as quality are Japanese,'' he says. "They only use virgin vinyl. And in the very first pressing they only did 3,000 of each of the records and that would be in red instead of black.''

Even more than fans of other nationalities, the Japanese embraced Beatles music, partly as a way to learn a new language.

"People used to try (speaking) in Beatles English, like it's 'a good day, sunshine,' "Barker says. "It was kind of trippy at first.''

In 2001, Barker closed the store, and he and Brillhart moved to St. Petersburg to be near relatives. They bought a cozy little place not far from Tyrone Square Mall.

"We moved into this house on Sept. 11, 2001,'' Barker says. "Talk about an omen.''

With Barker continuing to sell records and memorabilia online and at shows, the couple paid the mortgage down to $7,671. Then the recession hit, he needed heart surgery, and the amount they owed swelled to $13,998 early last year with escrow advances, interest and late charges. Although they managed to come up with $3,600, the lender, Green Tree Service, refused to take it and began foreclosing.

That's when Barker's friend hit on the idea of crowdfunding.

"If the mortgage company forecloses, well you can imagine the results: It would destroy my family, my dog and five cats (all rescues) would have to go into shelter and most likely be put to sleep (I can't even think about that scenario),'' Barker wrote in his initial post. "John Lennon sang, 'All You Need is Love' and the Rutles sang 'All you need is cash.' So with that in mind I am asking for everyone's help.''

Donations poured in, as little as $25, as much as $1,000, more than 100 in all.

Now that his house is secure, Barker plans to resume work on a documentary he was making with Paul's stepsister, Ruth McCartney, about their world travels. He still sells on eBay and at the Wagon Wheel Flea Market in Pinellas Park where he is pleased to see that time has not lessened the fervor of Beatlemania.

"There are a lot of teenage kids out there, I see them wearing Beatles T-shirts," he says. "The Beatles are still considered to be very cool.''

Contact Susan Taylor Martin at smartin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate