Foraging: Cambridge, Mass: Cheapo Records

November 20, 2005 | By AUSTIN CONSIDINE

For the serious music collector, a quality mom-and-pop record store is almost a kind of temple, a calm sanctuary where the patient and persistent seeker reaps the greater reward. Cheapo Records, on Central Square in Cambridge, is among those few places that sell long-playing records and even 45's.

The location of Cheapo, one of several record stores in the area, illustrates the uneasy place it occupies. Flanked by a Walgreens and a Starbucks, the store has been selling records in Central Square in one form or another since 1948. It once occupied two floors, but now has just one, under a bank.

The view to its entrance is further obscured from street traffic by a steel and glass subway entrance. And as if to reassure passers-by of its abiding relevance, a sign in the window exclaims, "Yes! We have CD's!"

Cheapo's longevity says much about the tenacity of its customers and the quality of its collection. Employees estimate the store has more than 100,000 vinyl LP's and about 100,000 45's, with hundreds of thousands more in storage. Many, both new and used, are highly collectible. Recent acquisitions included a first pressing of Jimmy Smith's "Root Down" (1972) for $30 and an original copy of "Mississippi Blues" by Bukka White (1964), $25.

"If you happen to be through here and you collect New Orleans, Cajun, zydeco, country, blues, this, that we probably have as good a selection as you'll ever see," said Allen Day, the store's owner since the late 1970's.

Mr. Day is as much a fixture among local audiophiles as his store is. One half expects the owner to resemble Jack Black's character in "High Fidelity," kicking out customers for daring to buy records they aren't deemed worthy of. But Mr. Day is as affable as one could hope for in a place with such a collection, treating customers to anecdotes and histories behind their purchases. In turn, customers, notoriously reluctant to betray gaps in their own knowledge, acknowledge that Mr. Day's expertise is a major reason they come back.

Recently, John Williams, a longtime customer, flipped through the record bins the same way he has been doing there for about 30 years. "You can't shop anywhere else," he said. "There's just no place that can compare with it."

Cheapo is at 645 Massachusetts Avenue, (617) 354-4455. It opens at 10 a.m. daily and at 11 on Sunday.