The air conditioner would drip on your head as you walked in, and you were screwed if you didn’t know who Moonshake was, but for countless indie rockers, a trip to Vinyl Ink’s grubby storefront on Bonifant Street in Silver Spring was an obligatory pilgrimage. Owner George Gelestino, who died last week at age 50 after a long battle with hepatitis C, kept his store stocked with geek-worthy titles and staffed with clerks as passionate as he was about new and underappreciated music. He also kept himself firmly grounded in the fanatical world of record collecting, selling ridiculously expensive rarities both from the walls of his shop and through small-print ads in the pulpy pages of Goldmine.
“I don’t think they have record stores like that anymore,” says Pitchblende and Turing Machine guitarist Justin Chearno, who worked at Vinyl Ink in the early ’90s, along with Bridget Cross of Unrest, Mike Hammel of the Ropers, and Bill Kellum of VHF Records. “The grumpy boss; the disinterested, kind-of-drunk employees; the hardcore mailroom guy; and tons of attitude…Almost everyone who worked there was in a band. [Gelestino] understood the lifestyle. He knew that nobody was gonna skip out on a $6-an-hour job, which was more than we were making on tour.”
Though Gelestino played with local garage-rock outfit Movus Quofe in the ’60s, his love of music stemmed more from buying records than making them. The District-area native was a comic-book collector before, in the late ’70s, vinyl took over his life; his first dates with his future wife, Sali Dimond, were spent combing record stores in Georgetown. Later, the pair once blew off paying the rent to go to a record convention in Philadelphia. Eventually, Gelestino began hosting conventions of his own, called the Vinyl Event, in Montgomery County. In 1986, he opened Vinyl Ink, which was above Compact Discovery on Georgia Avenue before it moved around the corner to Bonifant Street.
The store was a place for local musicians to gather; for fans to see in-store performances by artists such as Sonic Youth, Shellac, and the Wedding Present; and for people looking for major-label releases to be met with quizzical looks. “We were kind of in our own little land,” says former Vinyl Ink employee and Slumberland Records co-founder Mike Schulman. “After Nevermind came out, people kept coming in and asking for Nirvana. We were like, ‘Weren’t they on Sub Pop?’ and ordered one copy. Silver Spring secretaries were coming in on their lunch breaks and asking for it. We were completely oblivious; we were much more involved with our Ride singles.”
Those Ride singles, and many other records on British indie labels such as Creation and Sarah, gave Vinyl Ink a unique niche in the D.C. music scene. “Vinyl Ink was the store to get Postcard and 53rd & 3rd records, Time Bomb and Charnel House, Slumberland and Teenbeat,” remembers fanzine editor Don Smith, who as a teenager used to visit the store with his sister Erin Smith, later of Bratmobile and Cold Cold Hearts. “If Smash had the punk rock for the street kids, and Yesterday and Today had the New Wave and hardcore rarities, Vinyl Ink was the place you’d go for what was superhot on Monday and now it’s Thursday and you got a fanzine that reviewed it.”
Some of those superhot releases were produced almost in-house: Schulman worked on his label from behind the Vinyl Ink counter, and Slumberland quickly became a prominent exponent of what many considered the store’s Anglocentric “sound,” issuing some of the first American releases by Stereolab, Velocity Girl, and the Lilys. “I can’t imagine we would have made a go of it without George,” says Schulman, who moved his label to California in 1992. And though Gelestino adored the jangle- and dream-pop sounds that inspired Slumberland, Schulman notes that he also helped another clerk, Dave Brown, get his straight-edge label off the ground. “And I can tell you,” Schulman laughs, “George was not a fan of straight-edge music!”
Everyone who worked at Vinyl Ink has a story about Gelestino’s legendary temper. Chearno remembers getting dressed down for playing Bad Company in the store. Kellum recalls Gelestino “whaling on me in front of a bunch of people one day because I let a Magic Marker dry out, and then an hour later he gave me a record that had been on the wall for $75 because I told him I liked it.”
Indeed, Gelestino’s generosity was as well-known as his irritability. “I can never think of a time that a band came through on tour that he wouldn’t buy some records off them—no matter how dire the stuff was—so they’d have some money in their pocket,” says Schulman. “A lot of people don’t realize that stocking every local release, obscure import, and underground freakout to please some of your customers was detrimental to the bottom line,” notes Kellum. “But George enthusiastically embraced all those things over and over. He could have made a lot of money doing something else. He must have worked about 70 hours a week.”
In the store’s later years, many of those hours were spent doing mail-order, satisfying a customer base that had spread all over the globe. But the indie boom that Vinyl Ink helped set off in the early ’90s eventually proved the shop’s undoing. A new generation of stores such as Go! Compact Discs in Arlington and DCCD in Adams Morgan siphoned off D.C. music buyers who didn’t want to make the drive to Silver Spring, and the ready availability of hard-to-find records on the Internet ate into the profits of an increasingly low-margin business. In 1999, Gelestino closed Vinyl Ink’s doors and turned his business into a mail-order-only operation.
“He ran the business a lot longer than most businesspeople would, when most people would normally close,” says Sali Gelestino. “Unfortunately, it ran us into some financial problems, too. We had to get rid of our collections, just like he bought collections from other people just ’cause they were in financial straits.” But Gelestino never stopped finding records for his customers, even as his health deteriorated and he ran Vinyl Ink out of his house. “He spent several hours with my wife and I the week before he died,” says Skip Groff, owner of Yesterday and Today Records in Rockville. “Even then, he was looking to find whatever collections of things might be out there that I wasn’t gonna be utilizing.”
Sali Gelestino laughs when she hears that and tells a George story of her own: “The day that we had to take him to the emergency room a week ago, I was just pulling in from the grocery store, and right behind us is a customer pulling up. So I tell this guy, ‘We’re really sorry, but we’re just getting ready to take George to the emergency room.’ He says, ‘That’s fine—I understand. I’ll come back later.’ And just at that moment, George pops his head out the door and says, ‘Hey! I’ve got your records on the table here. C’mon in.’” CP
For information on Gelestino’s memorial service, visit www.vinylink.com.