Every three months, hundreds of audiophiles fill up four ballrooms at Weber's Inn to hunt down rare releases, dollar-bin surprises, and a wealth of music knowledge at the Ann Arbor Monster Record and CD Show.
With a curated selection of more than 60 dealers selling just about every genre, the show is known as one of the best in the Midwest. It draws vendors and attendees from around Michigan and neighboring states.
"People find a huge variety of stuff: $1 records up to $1,000 or $1,500 records," says show owner and organizer Rod Branham.
Since its founding more than 30 years ago, the show has survived location changes, new listening formats, economic slumps, and competition from online sales to remain a local institution for collectors and avid fans by keeping the focus on the music and the people who love it.
"You never know what's gonna walk in the door at the record shows, dealer-wise or what people may carry in," Branham says.
The record show was originally started in the early 1980s by friends Russ Rein, Dan Mulholland, and Mulholland's then wife, Marcia Militello.
Mulholland was in his thirties then and had been collecting records steadily since his teens.
"I thought it would be a nice way to make money and share the joy of collecting with other collectors," he says.
The first shows were held at the old American Legion Hall near Michigan Stadium on Main Street and would draw a couple hundred people, mostly seeking early rock 'n' roll, doo-wop, and jazz releases. Among them was Branham, a collector from Chelsea, who starting selling at the show after attending a few shows as a collector.
"In 1984 I went to the record show in Ann Arbor and I'm like, 'Man, I could do this. This would be great!'" Branham recalls. "I just started buying records everywhere and doing the show."
After a few years and a brief hiatus for the show, Branham partnered with its founders to organize and promote it before ultimately taking it over from them. For Mulholland, the business side of the show had started taking away from the music, and he was happy to be done with it, although he never completely stopped attending as a patron or dealer.
Under Branham, the show took off in the late '80s and early '90s, bringing crowds of 800 to 1,000 through the Elks Lodge – then on Eisenhower Parkway – at its peak. Branham also started buying and selling used records at shows around the country for many years while also working a day job. He retired 15 years ago, and today he owns and operates record shows in Lansing and Kalamazoo, exhibits at a few other Midwest shows, and sells used records out of his Chelsea home through his website, RerunRecords.com.
A few years ago, Branham bought a bar, and he temporarily got out of the record business to focus on running it.
"That was the biggest mistake in the world," he says now. "Eighteen months later, I was out of the bar, and I was right back into the records."
In the meantime, he had sold the Ann Arbor show to Ken Price, a regular dealer at Weber's from Indiana who was also running record shows in Lansing, Kalamazoo, and Fort Wayne and South Bend, Ind. When Branham bought the Ann Arbor show back from Price in 2011, he also picked up the Lansing and Kalamazoo shows.
Branham approached Weber's about hosting the show about 25 years ago "just for grins," figuring the luxury hotel would never go for it, but he was wrong.
"They just opened their arms up, and it's been there ever since," Branham says. "They are just phenomenal people to work with."
It probably doesn't hurt to have a fan on the inside. Weber's president Ken Weber says the rental deal helps fill space at Weber's that would otherwise be empty on a Sunday. But the biggest perk for him is browsing the show, people-watching, and picking up a few things for his own collection, which he's been building since the early 1960s.
"It's always a big crowd, and they pretty much look just like me," Weber says, referring to the predominantly male, baby boomer demographic. "I imagine it's a reflection of the era when vinyl was king, and everyone owned a stereo and everyone went to a record store."
That crowd is changing somewhat, if slowly, as a younger generation of record buyers has emerged, thanks in part to renewed interest in vinyl.
Mark Teachout, co-owner of Two Jerks Records shop in Ypsilanti, started selling at area record shows with his friend Mulholland a few years ago. He says shows like Ann Arbor's can be a low-pressure entry point for record novices.
"They're just discovering records and want to start collecting, and it's a good starting point for them to go to the shows," he says. "It's maybe a little less intimidating than going into record stores. Sometimes people are weirded out by them."
Lucas Hollow, a local record enthusiast who attends a handful of area record shows a year, says he's also noticed more women – buying and selling – at area record stores and shows, including Ann Arbor's, in the last couple of years.
Although he lives nearby in Ypsilanti Township, Hollow first discovered the Ann Arbor show from the Record Shows of America website. The long-running site features exhaustive listings of shows across the country. In addition to having more vendors and records, Hollow says the quality of the Ann Arbor show also sets it apart.
"It seems like people bring better stuff to the Ann Arbor show," Hollow says. " It must have some reputation, where it's like, 'You better bring your A-game.'"
That's partly by design. Branham often discourages vendors from using the show to try and move inventory they can't sell elsewhere online.
"You don't bring your eBay rejects to the record show, or you're gonna do very poor," he says.
Ann Arbor's close proximity to Detroit also gives it an advantage in highly sought-after niche markets, including Michigan-based soul, R&B, and garage rock.
"There are so many garage 45s that were put out by bands from Ann Arbor and Detroit that are just incredible that people want from all over the world," Teachout says.
The internet has made it easier than ever to learn about, listen to, and buy these kinds of rarities, but it hasn't yet replaced being able to see, touch, and have a conversation about them in person. If you're nice, you might even get a deal.
"Every time I do a show, I always find one or two people who are really into sharing," Mulholland says. "It makes my day when I have a sweet conversation. I end up giving people records if I have a really nice conversation with them."
The next Ann Arbor Monster Record and CD Show is Sunday, Jan. 21, at Weber's Inn, 3050 Jackson Road, from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. Admission is $3. Early admission at 8 a.m. is $15. More information is available here.
Eric Gallippo is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.
All photos by Doug Coombe.