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The “Collector Geek” – Humble Wisdom from a Curator of All Things Music

Horizon – n.  (həˈrīzən) 1.  the line at which the earth’s surface and the sky appear to meet. 2.  the limit of a person’s mental perception, experience, or interest.  Spend ten minutes with Gene Berger of Horizon Records in Greenville, SC, and one can’t help but recognize how aptly named this iconic and understated retail venue is.  Was it purposeful when Gene was a mere 20 year old retail entrepreneur hanging his first “Horizon” sign in 1975?  Well, the “collector geek,” as he so humbly refers to himself with a grin, would probably say he had no such foresight at the time.  But almost forty years and three locations later, Horizon Records (on the corner of North Main Street and Stone Avenue in downtown Greenville) certainly seems the self-proving edifice of the Nostradamus-esque accuracy of Gene’s little ‘ole record store.  But make no mistake, there’s nothing little about Horizon’s impact on the South Carolina upstate’s musical “scene” nor Gene’s passion, knowledge, and service he has provided these many years, tightly gripping a desire to share musical wisdom and years of collection with anyone who walks through the door to browse.

Horizon and Gene seem to be wonderful reflections of one another, or perhaps Horizon is a visual representation of its owner’s way of thinking, and doing.  Walk in Horizon Records, and if you are old enough to remember when record stores ruled the world, you’ll immediately know that you are standing in one of the special ones – one that was never franchised and nationally marketed to push out as many top 40 albums per day, where store managers in uniform scurried about to push daily sales to the home office while pushing the slow movers off the racks to make more room for the song du jour.  No, you find yourself in a place of musical relevance, a place housing history, a place housing quality.  Now, you aren’t going to find 8 tracks and cassette tapes anymore (though Gene is one of the few around that has passed through every generation of musical formats in his retail life).  But you will find every genre from every decade, and you find them represented in new and used CDs, as well as new and used vinyl (yes, I said NEW vinyl – more about that in a moment).  And the selection is hardly discriminatory.  There really is something for everyone, and if you have a specific desire, whether brand new or something vintage and difficult to find, don’t worry – just ask Gene or his staff, and they’ll be glad to get it for you.  And if you start that conversation, beware!!!!  Because there is a very good chance you will discover other artists that will become forever favorites.  In fact, to jump forward to our technological age of instant gratification and speed of transition that boggles the mind, Gene is sort of the human version of Pandora radio.  Give him an artist you like to listen to, and the algorithms of his mind will translate into face to face suggestions of other great music he thinks you will also fall in love with.  And from personal experience, take a chance on his suggestions, because he’s usually right.  As traditional record stores have seemed to be on the verge of extinction, never fear – this one’s going nowhere.

But there’s much more to Horizon and its founder.  As I met Gene on a mid-afternoon in March at his adjacent neighbor, the Bohemian Café, for coffee, it was immediately apparent that I was in for a learning experience and that I had far more questions for him than we had time to discuss.  And so we began….First, the softball. “How did you get into this business, Gene?” “Ohhh, I guess it’s the way anyone does anything.  You get into something enough as a collector, you end up becoming a dealer!”  Gene came up in the sixties and seventies…”rock ‘n roll, psychedelic…you know, The Beatles, Steppenwolf.”  In fact, when Gene got his license and found a car to drive, he headed to Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1969, and saw Steppenwolf as his first concert, with Bubble Puppy opening.  “It was a dump of a sports arena, and a wonderful experience,” he says.  I couldn’t help but giggle a little, because I think all of us audiophiles have a similar tale to tell.  After that, like everyone else, he says, “I just started buying records and I wanted more.  You lead from transistor radios to I gotta have that single and then you realize there are albums out there and you have to have that album, and then came Woodstock.  Then it’s Oh My God I want in.”  Of course I had to ask Gene if he was a musician.  I almost shot coffee out of my nose when he answered.  “I had a brief career with clarinet in grade school, which didn’t go well.  And then I got together with some rockers and had a Fender bass a while, but it pretty much went up in smoke, and I was best advised to not plug that thing in again.”

So that’s the early story.  So what about the music business?  Well, there’s making a record, which was obviously the artist’s music combined with the record label, but then you had to get it out there.  Enter distribution.  This word, distribution, meant the same thing for a long time, but it sure doesn’t today.  Historically, Gene had multiple distributors driving around in trucks popping in with samples of recordings, singles, lps, etc…. “It was a whole ‘nuther world, I can’t describe it, very much more mechanical and simplistic.  Now the major labels are monolithic in one sense and a dinosaur and has-been in another, and the world has gone digital, electronic, and DIY.”  And the digital revolution, the access for any and every artist to the world through the internet (let’s see…hmmm….Youtube, Reddit, Spotify, Twitter, Facebook, and the list goes on….) truly has turned the traditional music business on its ear.  In fact, as I write, I have just returned from this year’s SXSW in Austin, the largest music industry conference in the world.  And though I digress, if any reader cares to participate in five days of 4000-6000 bands doing 45 minute sets in 100 venues in a beautiful downtown that is a combo of Asheville, Charleston, Greenville, and Atlanta, then please…take advantage.  Which leads me to a comparison.  Waterloo records in Austin.  Study it and what it means to the music business.  Because Gene and Horizon are the Waterloo of Greenville, and that means something.

Still, I have to go back to my promise regarding vinyl (more about that in a minute?).  Vinyl is back, and artists around the country are ordering brand spankin’ new records to be pressed.  There are vinyl pressing companies alive and well that had all but vanished for many years.  Why?  Because the power truly is in the people and the artists, and there is a sound present that has never captured the “live” essence quite as well.

Gene has known this a lot longer than I, and thus he carries the torch, not only for the collector geek of his own desires, but for us, the consumers, the lovers of music that seek the best of it like treasure hunters.  Vinyl isn’t everything and it’s not the point of this discussion.  But maybe it’s the best reproduction of the musical soul we have seen thus far.  Just maybe its resurgence is because it’s the reproduction of that soulful, possibly life changing, experience that IS a live show.  Regardless, formats will change, and yet we have guards to protect the best of the best over generations of change, and to protect the historical beauty of what has come before. Gene, and Horizon Records…they will celebrate the past, showcase the best representations of the present, and keep an eye on the future, because the collector geek is at the helm of a well-traveled seaworthy ship that will not sink, and he will keep guiding us lovers-of-listening, and you don’t have to have a computer give you the answer or the source.  There is a homegrown curator of all things music in Greenville that would love nothing more than to share his love and yours in bringing music to your ears.  And though Horizon speaks of a limit of perception, experience, or interest,  we may have a new definition in play.

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