Jean Haffner’s record fair is a haven for audiophiles in St. Louis | Music news and interviews | St. Louis

click to enlarge Jean Haffner has owned Record Exchange in the St. Louis Hills since 1977.  - MONICA OBRADOVIC

Monica Obradovic

Jean Haffner has owned Record Exchange in the St. Louis Hills since 1977.

In a building of a former library, bins with records, shelves with CDs and boxes with products tower almost as high as the ceiling. Only the sound of customers peeling through plastic-covered records can be heard over classic rock played through a speaker.

This is the plate exchange (5320 Hampton Avenue, 314-832-2249)where owner Jean Haffner, 76, has built a literal library of records and music paraphernalia in the former Buder Branch of the St. Louis Public Library in St. Louis Hills.

It’s the largest record store in St. Louis (and possibly the country, Haffner claims).

Haffner’s staggering inventory of vinyl records, cassettes, laserdiscs, 45s, VHS tapes, CDs, and more, is the combined behemoth of nine record stores and two antique stores. He opened the first record store in 1976, but closed all but one 11 stores about 15 years ago after he “got tired of traveling.”

Record Exchange has been a haven for St. Louis audiophiles and collectors of physical media ever since. Only here can customers find Duran Duran records, a Camp Rock themed guitar, and an entire box set from ER in the same place. Not that anyone would ever need all those things at once, but it’s the novelty that sets Record Exchange apart.

In addition to the extensive inventory, Haffner is the heart of Record Exchange.

A lifelong music lover, Record Exchange is the amalgamation of Haffner’s passion for collecting and sharing music, even if that hasn’t always been his central focus.

In the 1970s, after 30 years of doing what was expected of him, Haffner was feeling a little restless.

He’d gone to college, served in the Navy, then found an easy job at his father’s urging.

After holding a handful of corporate jobs—even a job in HR for Ross Perot, a brash Texas billionaire who sold computer systems and unsuccessfully ran for president in 1992—Haffner wanted more.

So, in 1975, Haffner decided to quit his mundane job as a personnel director for Travelers Insurance to pursue something he was passionate about.

“The suit-and-tie, 9-to-5 routine just got old,” Haffner says. “I saw a gold watch at the end and I wanted more than that. I wanted to do something. I wanted to build something, so I built 11 stores.”

Although he was never an ‘educated musician’, music has always been a constant in Haffner’s life.

Inspired by Elvis and Ricky Nelson, Haffner bought a guitar when he was 6 years old, but joked that he “wasn’t smart enough to learn to play.”

“I started hitting the back and thought, well, I’ll just get some drums,” he says.

click to enlarge Record Exchange sells everything from cassettes and LPs to DVDs and VCRs.  -MONICA OBRADOVIC

Monica Obradovic

Record Exchange sells everything from cassettes and LPs to DVDs and VCRs.

He performed high school and college dances with his band, who would eventually play instrumentals on Buddy Holly albums, albeit without Haffner.

After Holly died, producer Norman Petty wanted to finish the songs Holly had written before his death in Clovis, New Mexico.

“He used the guys I played with to put down the instrumental versions of his songs,” Haffner says. “Had I stayed with the band, I would have been on three or four Buddy albums. That’s my near-claim to fame.”

Growing up in Amarillo, Texas, Haffner satisfied his appetite for music by mowing grass to buy records.

“I listened to the radio a lot as a kid,” Haffner says. “If there were songs that appealed to me that I wanted, I would go to the record store and buy them. I didn’t have a lot of money back then because an album cost $3.79 or something like that – a lot of money for a kid – so I mostly bought 45’s.”

In 1957 he bought his first album, Ricky Nelson’s debut, ‘Ricky’. His record collection would eventually grow to thousands.

“I had collected so many that I became ‘The Record Guy’ in school,” Haffner says. “We had a lot of parties and I was always the one who was asked to bring the records.”

In shop class, he built a container for his 45s that reached about four feet above the ground and filled it to the top.

That same dexterity remains today. Haffner built most of the shelves and fixtures in the Record Exchange itself.

Haffner’s personal collection eventually grew so large that he was able to start his business. He estimated that he collected up to 5000 records.

“It was a lot then, but sometimes I buy so many every day,” Haffner says.

Haffner’s mounting inventory has taken up virtually all of Record Exchange’s space. The store is so full of merchandise, you could probably spend days in the store and not see everything.

But what’s in the store isn’t even the entire collection. Haffner says he has a full warehouse that could fill the space “two or three times, easily.”

click to enlarge A view of Record Exchange from the second floor.  -MONICA OBRADOVIC

Monica Obradovic

A view of Record Exchange from the second floor.

That is why Haffner is looking for a larger space. The Record Exchange building has been up for sale several times, most recently in 2020. Haffner says he’s “run out of space” but hasn’t had any luck finding a buyer.

“I’ve had several people who wanted it, but for some reason all the deals didn’t go through,” he says. “The closest I had was with a microbrewery. They really wanted it, but wanted two houses on the other side for parking. One is available, but the other, an old man lives there. He is about 100 years old and still mows the grass.”

Meanwhile, Record Exchange isn’t going anywhere, and neither is Haffner. On any given workday, Haffner is likely to man the store counter or assist customers. It is a job that “has never been a job”.

“I want to die on that stool in the front like the Rolling Stones,” Haffner says. “I hope they die on stage, where they belong… I’d rather be here than anywhere else.”

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