July 20, 2019

Former Webster University students own St. Louis staple Vintage Vinyl

Vintage Vinyl owners Tom "Papa" Ray (left) and Lew Prince (right) pose in their store located on Delmar Boulevard in the Loop. Prince, a Webster alumnus, and Ray, a former Webster student, began selling records together in September of 1979. They opened the store on Delmar in 1980. The two hold the iconic Vintage Vinyl sticker the store has given out for the past 30 years. PHOTO BY DAVID NASH

Lew Prince remembers when he was accepted to Webster University in August 1969. Only a week after applying, he called the admissions office and demanded an answer. Prince was set to leave in a week for the Woodstock music festival.

“Hi, I applied last week, and I need to know,” Prince said he told the woman on the phone.

The secretary of the director of admissions replied, “What do you need to know?”

“If I’m in,” Prince said.

“Well, it doesn’t really work like that,” the secretary said.

“Look, I don’t care how it works. I’m about to leave town, and I need to know. Am I in or not?” Prince said.

Prince said he could hear her ruffling through papers, searching for his file. After a brief pause as she reviewed his application, she said, “Yeah, sure.”

And that’s how Prince found himself at Webster.

Prince is a ’73 alumnus with a degree in philosophy. He is quick to boast, however, that he is also listed as a ’78 graduate because of a clerical error.

Prince and former Webster student Tom “Papa” Ray are the owners of Vintage Vinyl in the Delmar Loop.

Ray studied English at Webster from ’71 to ’76, but never finished his degree.

“As much as I may love to read and enjoy the written word, music was really more of an immediate concern,” Ray said. “I just had that moment of existential honesty when I said, ‘Do you want to be a college professor?’” Ray said.

Prince and Ray met at Webster and began selling records together in September 1979. They started with one stall at the Soulard Market selling only albums they liked — a collection of about 300 records that they sold for $3 each. The two eventually opened a second stall, then upgraded to a storefront on Delmar Boulevard in May 1980.

“We had both worked for nice people, stupid people and mafia people,” Ray said. “We knew that, and we also felt like here in St. Louis we could open a store that was sort of an alternative to a more mainstream corporate model.”

Prince and Ray did not like any of the record stores in St. Louis at the time.

“Lots of them stank,” Prince said of the other stores. “They weren’t set up from the point of view of people who love music. They were set up from the point of view of the record industry, which wanted to sell a gajillion copies of the same six goddamn things, none of which we actually liked.

Tom “Papa” Ray holds one of the records produced by his and Lew Prince’s reggae record label, Soundsystem. Prince and Ray both attended Webster University in the 1970s, and now own Vintage Vinyl Records in the Delmar Loop. PHOTO BY DAVID NASH

“So we set up a record store the opposite way — that people who come in looking for hit records were going to self-select out. What we wanted to deal with was what Tom (Ray) likes to call ‘extremely musically-literate people.’”

Prince and Ray moved their store several times and opened a location in Granite City before settling the store into its current location in the old Varsity Theatre building on Delmar. The store stocks more than 40,000 titles, in comparison to the 300 titles Prince and Ray started with in Soulard. The jazz room in the back of the store alone is bigger than the first store they opened on Delmar.

Prince said when they first opened Vintage Vinyl, they had no intention of making it their careers. He said they just saw opening their own record store as an entry-level job in the music industry. Despite both studying non-music subjects in college, after leaving Webster, they both knew they wanted to pursue something in music. It was their love for music that first brought the two together more than 40 years ago at Webster.

As a student at Webster, Ray held a work-study job as a security guard in Loretto Hall. Prince said Ray would sit at the bottom of the stairway in Loretto Hall with his typewriter.

“Tom was a pretty fine southern poet,” Prince in college, after leaving Webster, they both knew they wanted to pursue a career path in music. It was their love for music that first brought the two together more than 40 years ago at Webster.

As a student, Ray held a work-study job as a security guard in Loretto Hall. Prince said Ray would sit at the bottom of the stairway in Loretto Hall with his typewriter.

“Tom was a pretty fine southern poet,” Prince said.

The two started talking, and bonded over their similar music tastes.

“Culturally, I found him a fascinating little redneck,” Prince said.

Tom “Papa” Ray

Ray grew up in a small southern town near Jacksonville, Fla. His southern values did not always fit well with his deep interest in music.

“I’m a devout musician. Growing up in the Deep South, music had a much greater impact on me, mystically, than any part of being raised in a fundamentalist church,” Ray said. “Church never made me feel an electric current up my back. Something being played on the radio in 1957 did.”

Ray said he saw moving to St. Louis to attend Webster as an “opportunity to get away.”

As his parents dropped him off at Webster, they “darkly admonished” him not to return home looking like the people they saw milling about campus, in the culturally liberal atmosphere of 1970s Webster. Ray halfway heeded their advice. However, his interpretation was simply to not return home.

He quickly became absorbed in the college culture of the ‘70s, and he said Webster was especially liberal.

“I would say that at Webster 1972, you were infinitely more socially shunned for voting for Richard Nixon than coming down to breakfast every morning in drag,” Ray said.

“I do remember a couple of people I knew in my class who let it be known they were voting for Nixon. You would see them sitting alone in the cafeteria, just being totally shunned.”

He recalled the homecoming dance of his freshman year, when for the first time in two or three years, a man was not elected homecoming queen.

Ray was able to find himself in the relaxed atmosphere of Webster, in contrast to his southern upbringing.

“It was a very liberating era at Webster and I found it,” Ray said. “I really did feel like I was breathing free air.”

In 1976, Ray dropped out of Webster to pursue music.

Peter Sargent, dean of the College of Fine Arts, knew Ray during his time at Webster.

“Some of those guys…dropped out and started to do amazing things,” said Sargent, who was the chairman of the theater department at the time Ray was a student. “When you look at that sequence of time, it was not an unexpected behavior. They wanted to find where they wanted to go, what they wanted to do.”

Lew Prince

In contrast to Ray’s southern gentility, Prince grew up in Newark, N.J. He held a steady union job at a Ford plant before being informed by his draft warden that there was a war on. The warden said he either needed to register for the draft or attend college. An avid war resister, Prince chose to apply to college.

Prince entered Webster in 1969, after the college became co-ed in 1962. He said he was the first class of men to live on campus. The men all lived together on the fourth floor of the administration building, which used to be a convent.

“There were pretty much no limits on what you could do at night,” Prince said. “I remember one time we actually bought sod and sodded the entire hallway downstairs overnight. So they walked in and instead of tile, it was grass.”

It was in this building that Prince was first introduced to classical music.

One night during his stay at the dorm, a man with an expensive cello showed up at his doorstep, looking for a place to stay. Prince said the dorm had a reputation as “a place you could crash.” Prince took the man in, who introduced himself as a Cleveland Symphony dropout, where he had been the second or third cellist. He was now just traveling cross-country with his several thousand-dollar cello.

“I remember sitting up all night with this guy, basically smoking dope and he played through all of the Bach solo cello suites,” Prince said. “It was the perfect night. And I baked us a cake.”

Prince said he always kept cake or brownie mixes on hand for such occasions.

Their time at Webster

Sargent said Ray and Prince took full advantage of the educational freedom the Webster of the ‘70s offered its students.

“I have never heard of a school any place with that kind of wonderfulness about the unstructuredness of it,” Sargent said. “You set your course and you learn while you set your course.”

Prince said he was the first student to do an independent study at Webster.  He took his 1960 Volkswagen bus because he “really was an official hippie,” and drove down to Mexico. He  spent a semester attending philosophy seminars at the Centro Intercultural de Documentación (CIDOC), an educational institution in Cuernavaca, Mexico. Austrian philosopher Ivan Illich founded CIDOC and brought intellectuals such as philosopher Paulo Freire and writer Jonathan Kozol to his free university.

Prince spent the semester attending lectures and “did all the things you do in Mexico.” When he returned, he presented his learnings — along with several bottles of wine — to a board of Webster professors. The board arranged for Prince to get 18 hours worth of credits in Spanish, philosophy, education and anthropology for his time in Mexico. Prince was only charged, he said, $50 or $100 in tuition for that semester.

After Prince’s independent study, the university became much more strict on the requirements.

“Someone higher up freaked out,” Prince said. “So then they put in this whole program where you paid by the hour and everything had to be much more structured.”

Ray and Prince are not just music aficionados — they are also accomplished musicians. Ray plays the saxophone and is a vocalist, but his specialty is the harmonica.

“If you know what you’re doing on harmonica you don’t have to play anything else,” Prince said.

He has played harmonica in numerous bands around St. Louis for the past 45 years.

Prince called Ray “the finest musician I know.”

Prince plays numerous stringed instruments and claimed to be “pretty good” at an “archaic Ozark banjo style.”

The story behind the stickers

Perhaps the most recognizable part of Vintage Vinyl today is the pink rectangles peppering cars all over St. Louis. Prince credits himself with the idea for the stickers. Prince said he came up with the idea about 30 years ago and gives away an average of 50,000 a year. He said he often receives photos of the stickers placed on odd places all around the world. He’s seen the sticker on the Berlin Wall, on a stop sign in the middle of nowhere in Cyprus, on a wall with a portrait of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya  and covering the outside of an American tank in Iraq.

Not everyone is a fan of the stickers, however. Prince said he has been approached by janitors and car detailers, claiming Prince owes them a beer for the amount of time they have spent attempting to peel the durable stickers off walls and car bumpers.

A Vintage Vinyl T-shirt has even found its way onto the TV show “Cops.” When police officers apprehended a man suspected of running a meth lab, he was sporting a Vintage Vinyl shirt at the time of his arrest.

In addition to their record store, Prince and Ray also own three record labels: Soundsystem, a reggae label; Sain Sound, a label previously owned by saxophonist Oliver Sain; and Deep Morton, a blues label. The pair also owns a digital copyright protection company.

Prince is a music critic for the Riverfront Times, and Ray has had a radio show called “Soul Selector” on KDHX for the past 25 years.

Prince and Ray continue to keep in touch with other ‘70s Webster alumi. Ray described his classmates as “aspiring to revolutionary models.”

“In our own weird way, we were a successful bunch,” Prince said.

Sargent said the educational climate was different in the ‘70s. He said he thought Prince and Ray were excellent examples of that generation of students.

“That’s kind of the generation they went through. Tremendous positive influence,” Sargent said. “They are running an incredibly successful, innovative business, but they’ve done it at a holistic point of view. That’s what is kind of marvelous about them and …why Vintage Vinyl has become what it is.”

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