President's Day always inspires in me a strong memory summed up in two words: Tech Hifi. This was a northeastern U.S. chain of now-defunct stereo shops that for a time were THE place for audiophiles to score their fix. I guess I was about 15 when I bought my first component stereo system there, that would put the year at 1978. You could still get reel-to-reel players then, that was considered pretty high end. They sold speakers as tall as I was and had a wall of turntable cartridges.
Anyway, every President's Day Tech Hifi had a big sale and while I would go window shopping there throughout the year, President's Day was when I threw down the Andrew Jacksons.
I remember feeling intimidated when I first walked in because I didn't know anything about stereos at that time. Up to that point, I had played my records, tapes, and 8-tracks on shitty all-in-one systems purchased at Lechmere (also defunct). Now I was ready for the big time.
The staff were known for being pretty knowledgeable and helpful, and I learned what to listen for in speakers and how it was important to get the receiver/speaker combo decided on first. I didn't have a ton of money to spend but for a starter system it was certainly a quantum leap over what I had before, and I immediately heard things in my records I had never heard before.
My favorite component was my turntable: a Technics SL-220. It looked beautiful and I was literally hypnotized by the orange-red strobe light that enabled you to fine-tune the platter speed. I always have liked to listen to music as I went to bed at night, and I used to lie awake just staring at the glow emanating from my turntable in the dark of my room.
The next year, I upgraded my tape deck, then my receiver. When I got to college, Tech Hifi was already gone, but I upgraded my speakers to a pair of Burhoe Acoustics Blues, custom made in Dark Green cabinets (custom fabrication made easier by virtue of the fact that Mr. Burhoe's son was a friend at said college). For a time, it seemed as though I would make buying stereo equipment an annual event. But then I realized that I finally had the best components I could afford, and there simply were other things I needed unrestricted funds for.
It was years before I bought stereo equipment again. When I got married, we merged our stereo components, and my precious SL-220, now quite old and out of style (straight arms had replaced S arms) was sold at a yard sale. More than a decade later, still missing the entrancing component, I bought another SL-220 off of eBay. I haven't yet reincorporated it into my stereo system, but I feel better just knowing I own it again.
Now, when I look around at how people listen to music, I see that the golden age of audiophile stereo equipment is probably long over. Most of the music people listen to today are compressed mp3s that they listen to over their computers or through ear buds on handheld devices. The idea that one would set up one's living room by first assessing the ideal speaker placement and then positioning the seating in relation to that, spouse/girlfriend's objections be damned, is a thing of the past. Just as I don't pore over CD booklets the way I did gatefold album covers, I don't sit and concentrate on music the way I did when I was younger. For me, listening to music was often an activity unto itself, not just a complement to some other activity.
It makes me sad because while I still demand, devour, and delight in music as much as I ever did, I feel like I'm coasting on the momentum generated by my youthful audiophile days, when I would go to Tech Hifi and learn about Frank Zappa by overhearing older guys talking about him, sit in the listening room and be assaulted by perfect stereophonic fidelity, gaze at the catalogs longingly and read the descriptions of the ultra-high-end systems as if they were Penthouse Forum letters, and, perhaps, walk out with a sweet Aiwa tape deck with LED meters that displayed in yellow, green, and red.
Those were the days.
(For a mini history of Tech Hifi, read the founder's obituary here.)