We are family

Damon's Record Center, on Plymouth just west of Evergreen on the city's west side, has not only weathered the digital age so far, they've done so as a specialty store for 35 years, focusing specifically on soul, funk, jazz and blues CDs and cassettes, the old-school classics that the owners refer to as "catalog" music.

Damon's is literally a mom-and-pop business, started more than three decades ago by Fletcher and Helen Parkman, both 58, but at the time young parents who named the place after their infant son. Now, Damon is 35 years old and helps manage the store. The three of them, along with Helen's sister Willistine Keller, are the store's only workers.

Fletcher was only 18 when he opened his first record store on the corner of Roselawn and Fullerton on the west side, selling records and also repairing TVs and radios with his father. His store remained open a few years, until he went to work at Chrysler. He met Helen in 1970. "From day one it was there," she says. They married soon after, and two years later Damon was born.

The couple first opened Damon's Records in May 1973, on Seven Mile and Gilchrist, east of Southfield Road on the west side, selling 8-tracks, 45s and LPs. Residents of the neighborhood, which was still mostly white at the time, were not thrilled. "Back then, music stores did not have the best reputation," Helen says. "I guess they thought music stores were dark places, had drug activity or just unsavory characters hanging around. But we had to support our family; we didn't deal in anything that's not up-and-up. We didn't even think about that when we went into it."

Neighbors demonstrated their disapproval by repeatedly smashing out the front windows and sending hate mail, some of it racially tinged, which drew involvement by the FBI. "I think every month we had our windows broken," Helen says. "They didn't want us there. And we had invested everything we had into it, so we were not ready to go." Eventually their insurance company, fed up with paying for frequent window repairs, canceled their glass replacement coverage.

Nevertheless, they rode it out at that spot until the early '80s, when a would-be burglar used a blowtorch to try breaking in, but instead set the place on fire. "Everything was gone," Helen says. The fire melted all the records. "Everything was vinyl back then, so it was a big loss." The family restocked and reopened at the same location, only to have the building sold to a new landlord, who told them they were being evicted. "We were totally devastated," Helen says. "If we had known that, we wouldn't have put it all back there."

They left and put everything into storage until they found the shop on Plymouth, where they've been ever since, selling Tamla/Motown soul, Westbound funk, Stax/Volt urban classics, Blue Note jazz, and blues from the Mississippi Delta and Chicago. "We probably have the biggest blues selection that you can find," Helen says. "I don't think anybody else in the city has this many blues CDs." Customers come from all over the country — and occasionally from as far away as England and Japan — for their selection of roots music.

An entire section features DVDs of TV performances by legends like Marvin Gaye and concerts by Bobby Bland, Johnny Taylor and Smokey Robinson. Long shelves contain comprehensive jazz and gospel selections, and DVDs of Good Times, Sanford and Son and What's Happening!! are behind the front counter. Another wall is devoted to CD compilations featuring obscure soul and funk tracks.

"Old school, that's what we call 'catalog,'" Helen says. "We get all ages that come in for it. A lot of people sample the old stuff.

John Lamar Lee, 34, has been shopping here for years. "They're like family," he says. "I can still come and get my old school. People forget how to make music now; they don't want to have the patience."

It's a theme echoed by Fletcher. "What you're getting today isn't music," he says. "The artists don't put into it like the old artists used to. They'd put time into it to make sure it was something you want to listen to." The store does, however, carry a small selection of contemporary R&B and hip hop.

Unlike businesses before them, they have no intention of leaving Detroit. "I love the city," Helen says. "The city's been good to us, our people have been good to us. We tried to run our business the way it should be run — simple — and we're decent to people. They get service when they come in; they don't just walk around lost. We're there for them."

Damon's Records is located at 20124 Plymouth Rd., Detroit; 313-838-3500.

Detroitblogger John scours the city for hidden gems. Send comments to [email protected]
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