Music for Gary Saxon, known to locals as the Record Man, is like a religion. His first spiritual experience came when he listened to a record by the classic rock band, AC/DC, the sounds from the record inspiring him to throw his arms in the air like a congregation in prayer.
“When I would go to church and I’d see people raise their arms, it looked weird to me because I didn’t feel that way. … [When listening to music] I thought that must be what people were feeling. That’s when you realize how deep these things go and I had an epiphany about people’s feelings towards god,” said Saxon.
Saxon’s connection to music culminated into a business idea and ultimately flourished into The Record Man, a Redwood City-based record store at 1322 El Camino Real. After 32 years of business, the structure and neighboring buildings are slated for redevelopment, challenging Saxon with considering the future of his shop.
“The idea is that hopefully I’ll have a couple more years here,” said Saxon. “If not, relocating in the Bay would be wonderful. … I’d love to relocate and keep it going. There’s been a renewed interest in vinyl that if you told me about years ago, I’d never believe it.”
Redwood City growth
Central Redwood City has seen substantial growth as developers present city staff and the council with large proposals. Owners of the building where the record shop operates have proposed to erect 130 affordable residential units in its place. And nearby, an 8.3 acre development plan has been brought forward to the city with one of its structures, a fully affordable residential building, slated to be constructed just doors down from the music shop.
Faced with an expiring lease, Saxon has negotiated a longer stay at the shop but uncertainty remains around how long he and the record store have in the building. The Record Man is more than a record store to Saxon though. It’s the place where he met his now wife, Angela, a moment he boasts he caught on surveillance. And it’s where he raised two of his three daughters, whom he also takes great pride in for their academic and career successes.
Having grown up in Redwood City in the late 1940s when downtown was surrounded by flatland of empty fields, Saxon felt excitement when he first noticed the city growing, welcoming the boom of big tech companies because of the potential interest it would bring to his business.
“It was always Redwood City and I’ve always loved my town. When the development started happening I thought it was cool but now it’s not really Redwood City. I didn’t really realize what was happening,” said Saxon. “I had it when it was good.”
Tech boom potential
While the regional tech boom brought in more potential customers, it also brought with it greater competition with online marketplaces with which many record shops in the Bay Area couldn’t compete. Multiple San Francisco based shops have permanently closed such as Rasputin Music and 101 Music in 2019 and Tower Records in 2006. The Record Man has outlasted them all.
“That’s the way it is. This is a difficult business and we’ve survived but only because my wife and I put in so many hours. We don’t close over weekends, we greet people when they come in and give them a happy experience. … We show them around, there’s listening stations that fill the room with sound. We’ve managed to make it this far and we’ve proved ourselves,” said Saxon.
When the coronavirus struck the region in mid-March, sending most merchants into economic hardship, Saxon and his family kept the business running through online success. The storefront was closed down but records were being regularly shipped out through online sales.
“My first objective was to keep it going. With COVID, we had to shut down for three months but we sold records on Amazon and Ebay. We had to make it with no walk-ins,” said Saxon, who stressed how important visiting the shop in person is for getting the full Record Man experience.
Saxon has lived a long life, serving in the military at the age of 17 before living in San Francisco’s Haight-and-Ashbury District during the height of the “free love” era of the ’60s. He’s been a scholar, studying to become a journalist through San Francisco State University’s department of Broadcast and Electronics. And he’s been homeless, battling a series of vices. But Saxon said his love for music had always remained.
“I was 45 and homeless when I started the Record Man so I reinvented myself. You can reinvent yourself at any time but you have to have a vision and you have to have meaning,” he said.
Again, Saxon is faced with potentially reinventing his life. Plans to redevelop his building continue to approach, a reality he said he understood and expected, though he was surprised to learn the unofficial Historical Resource statues given to the building during a 2010 Downtown Precise Plan study, was on track to be removed.
The study, conducted by consultant firm Circa: Historic Property Development, was commissioned by Redwood City and was disputed in 2019 by a separate historic evaluation conducted by a petaluma based agency, Past Consultants.
Due to the conflicting reviews, the city commissioned a third consultant firm, Stantec, to conduct a review which confirmed the findings of Past Consultants. During a History Resources Advisory Committee meeting, held June 11, committee members voted 4 to 0 to agree with the finding of the 2020 study by Stantec. Jon Goldman, a member of the committee, recused himself from the vote due to being one of the owners of 1322 El Camino Real.
At 77 years old and with multiple health complications, including battling cancer three times, Saxon recognizes he could retire. Regardless, he continues to dream up possibilities for the shop. Some ideas include passing the legacy on to his daughters or partnering up with other local music lovers and shop owners to open up a warehouse store.
“We’re still here and I’m getting my strength again,” said Saxon. “People still come in looking for something specific and say ‘I looked all over San Francisco and couldn’t find it.’ We’re a resource and people depend on us. That’s cool. We’re the world famous Record Man.”