Last month, a conspicuous image popped up on the Facebook page of the soon-to-be-shuttered Left of the Dial Records in Santa Ana. It was a picture of owner Geoff Leamon’s face, with the bottom half coverd by a sheet of paper whose message was loud and clear: “Left of the Dial Lives!”
Up until that point, anyone familiar with the record-store scene in Santa Ana would’ve said the opposite about the beloved shop, which, despite Leamon’s best efforts, had fallen on hard times. We’ll spare you the cliché tale of a poor store owner grappling with the plight of the crumbling record industry. Even in a world in which people favor free digital over pricey wax, Leamon was doing all right. “As much as my life became a struggle, I would still wake up every day and thank God I was going into a record store to work,” Leamon says. “It was still amazing. That’s why it took me so long to decide to close.”
Over the past several years, Leamon faced a stream of gut-punching misfortunes: various medical issues including Crohn’s disease, piling-up medical bills and two car accidents (one in which he was hit by a drunk, another by a distracted texter). He felt as if he were trapped in a downward spiral that made it almost impossible to keep a fledgeling record store afloat, and after eight years, he decided to call it quits. “I got to the point where closing is my only option,” he says. “I was struggling with rent and personal debt; it just became too much of a juggling act. It seemed like it was the only thing I could do, even though I didn’t want to.”
But just as he was about to throw up his hands and his closing-sale signs, he was contacted by a guy from Mission Viejo with a similar dream to Leamon’s.
Bill Michelle had spent years as a teacher’s aide for Capistrano Unified School District, teaching kids with autism, ADD and a variety of other learning disorders. Though he loved his job and had a talent and the patience for it, he felt he needed a chance to start over. Like plenty of Baby Boomers in love with his vinyl collection, Michelle had flirted with the idea of owning a record store. When he set out to do it, the tiny property he wanted to rent in South County was charging more than double what it was worth, more than any small record store could generate. So he continued searching.
“Then I stumbled on this place,” Michelle says, referring to Left of the Dial. “I came in, made a purchase; I talked to Geoff, and I told him, ‘Don’t shut this store down. I’m gonna buy it; I’m gonna help you’—because he was at wit’s end.”
While Michelle wasn’t the first to inquire about buying the store, Leamon could tell he was serious. “I didn’t put much stock into it because people have expressed interest in buying the shop before, and it went nowhere,” Leamon says. “But this was a real quick process; he was dead-set.”
The two struck a deal, and starting Saturday, Michelle will be the new owner of Left of the Dial. Though the store was on the verge of closing, it meant too much to both parties and the downtown Santa Ana community for the story to stop there. Leamon has spent several weeks showing Michelle the ropes as he transitions into his new career, and other business owners and patrons have come by the shop to lend their support, even dropping off records and offering to buy off some of his stock when the place officially reopens. “I saw the love of people who were excited about me being here, like I was some sort of hero,” Michelle says. “No, [Geoff] is the hero. He stood by this place for eight years, through health issues and car accidents.”
By the same token, the response Leamon received since announcing the store was closing was shocking. “We’ve been embraced by the community from the time we came in. Everyone’s been so great over the years, including the old-school people in the neighborhood,” Leamon says. “As soon as I announced that we were closing, it was crazy how much response and support and thank-yous I got from people. Their kids came in and were influenced by a band or said, ‘Hey, you turned me on to this band,’ things like that. . . . That’s why I got into what I did.”
Considering Leamon has spent years as part of the community and the even-smaller fraternity of local record-store owners, Michelle wanted to show him the impact he’s had on the local music scene. To do so, he’s partnering with the Frida Cinema to organize a July 9 fund-raiser to help Leamon with his expenses as he moves on with his life. (Details of the event had not yet been announced at press time.) “Everyone has a music memory that they love, and it takes them to a special place,” Michelle says. “Whatever’s going on in their lives, they can just come inside that door and breathe and go, ‘I like how I feel when I’m around music, when I hear music.’ I love that.”
Left of the Dial Records, 320 French St., Santa Ana, (657) 900-2275; www.facebook.com/leftofthedialrecords.