Darren "Drak" O'Connor, right, the owner of Vinyl Solution Records, helps his customers Cory Heskett, left, and Patrick Pescador at his store in Huntington Beach on June 4. (SCOTT SMELTZER, HB Independent / June 6, 2012)

The late Doc Watson wailed over the speakers at the tiny record shop on Beach Boulevard, and like many a bluesman on the road, he was in the midst of a journey.

Watson, one of America's most prolific roots musicians, died at the age of 89 a few days before Darren "Drak" O'Connor put his 1976 album, "Doc and the Boys," on the turntable at Vinyl Solution Records.

The LP was in excellent condition — no noticeable pops or scratches — and the jacket showed just minor signs of wear.

A longtime customer, before flying to the South in April to see Watson at a folk festival, had asked O'Connor to find some vintage recordings. With help from one of the store's freelance assistants, who had a small Watson collection at home, O'Connor stocked a few and sold them to the buyer. "Doc and the Boys" was the last left, and O'Connor was reserving it for the next time the man stopped by.

As the bluegrass chugged along, O'Connor got curious and reached for his Goldmine Magazine price guide — one of the many objects that pack the shelves behind the counter, where photos, books, rolls of tape and CD box sets compete for space.

"I will bet it's worth a lot more now that he's gone," O'Connor said, flipping through the guide. "But let's find out."

The answer turned out to be $12, but O'Connor cared little for that. He routinely offers albums at one third the listed price, or, when he relies on his assistants to price them, he bypasses the guide altogether.

"'Cause he's such a good customer, Troy's probably gonna give it to him for $10," O'Connor said. "We want to keep the customer happy. If we told him $20, he'd probably pay that, but that's not how we work."


A thriving niche market

Vinyl Solution, which resides in a strip mall between a nail salon and a florist, puts more stake in retaining customers than making a few extra dollars on a sale. Some of O'Connor's clientele have frequented the shop since it opened in 1989, occasionally coming to spill about divorces or other personal woes.

And the phone rings constantly throughout the week — sometimes with customers asking for records or, just as often, offering to unload their collections for free.

With music stores dwindling in the age of iTunes, Vinyl Solution and its counterparts — which, locally, include Mr. C's Records in Orange, Creme Tangerine Records in Costa Mesa and Amoeba Music in Los Angeles — occupy two niches. On one hand, they cater to those who view the local record shop as a hangout, one where the owner knows their names and scrutinizing cover art is part of the experience.

On the other hand, business owners like O'Connor work like antique dealers, preserving bits of the 20th century that might otherwise disappear into basements, garage sales or landfills.

Keeping vinyl alive isn't just a labor of love, however — it's also a thriving enterprise. According to Nielsen SoundScan, the entertainment industry's data information system, 3.9 million vinyl albums were sold in 2011, slightly more than 1% of all album sales. Two thirds of those were bought at independent music stores.

"For those of us who love vinyl records, we're doing the happy dance," said Goldmine Editor Susan Sliwicki, who believes vinyl has a warmer sound than digital formats likes CDs and mp3 files.

The more than 10,000 LPs and singles that line Vinyl Solution's bins come mostly from members of the public who sell their stock to O'Connor.

Once they arrive in the store, a Darwinian process takes shape. Those deemed collectible enough stay in the main bins, while the rest land in the 99-cent rack. If those don't sell after a month or so, O'Connor donates them to thrift stores or charity.

The owner has just one credo, though — he'll never throw a record away.