Ritmo Latino, Virgin Megastore, Tower and Mission Music are all gone. But on any given day, customers still drop by Discolandia on 24th Street to listen to albums and visit with its owner, Silvia Rodriguez.
The store is more sparse now. Gone are the racks of LPs, cassettes and CDs that once packed Discolandia to the brim. After 38 years in business, pressing cultural and economic times threaten to close the neighborhood doors that Tito Puente and Celia Cruz once walked through.
“Discolandia is the only place to buy the classic music,” said Rodriguez. She carries boleros, Cuban salsa and anything from the 1950s, ’60s or ’70s — still her strongest sellers.
Marina Huezo, who has been a customer for more than 30 years, said, “They’ve always had music from all over Latin America. I’m from El Salvador, but I grew up listening to old singers like Celia Cruz and Olga Guillot, and I remember. I even bring my grandson here.”
For now, Rodriguez, 67, plans to keep the store open. “My friends come by and they talk really nicely of the old times,” she said. ”There was so much youth and desire, I left part of my youth here.”
Discolandia’s roots lie in a Cuba before Castro, in Rodriguez’s hometown of Santa Clara, a place she left for the United States in 1957 at the age of 14, a year after her mom first moved to “El Norte.” There weren’t many Cubans immigrating to the Mission community at the time, recalled Hilda Pagan, Rodriguez’s mother. “At that time, the Cuban dollar was worth five more cents than the U.S. dollar, and so few left Cuba.”
Rodriguez settled in the Mission and continued her music education at a record shop called La Moderna Poesia, the Modern Poetry, becoming more fluent in the sounds, styles and musicians of the 1950s cha cha cha, charanga and salsa music scene. Then she moved on to another store, La Casa de los Discos, the House of Records.
In 1962, at her mother’s suggestion, she bought the store she was working in. For $500 she got a store full of merchandise and rent paid through the end of the month. Her first buying trip meant riding in a truck bound for Los Angeles to find more music. She was 19 years old.
She removed a portion of the sign and renamed the store Discolandia. “I made $40 dollars that first day in record sales,” she said recently. Throughout the years, Discolandia did more than just sell records — it also sold birthday cards, rented movies and took passport photos.
“This place was everything salsa for everyone,” Rodriguez said. “We didn’t discriminate. Mexicans, Peruvians…all salseros entered the store.” Everyday folk and famous people dropped by.
Ismael Miranda, the famous Puerto Rican salsa singer, would buy old Cuban LPs of guanguanco and guaracha music for inspiration. Oscar D’León, a Venezuelan salsa star, would come by to drink Cuban coffee and buy records and listen to songs that were older than himself, Rodriguez said. Tito Puente, a famous Puerto Rican timbalero, began to drop by after he saw Celia Cruz make a stop there.
Rodriguez said that sales began to decline in 2004, but business really took a hit beginning in 2008. With the explosion of Internet music sales, the ubiquity of pirated music and the downward economy, sales have been slow. Where Rodriguez used to order 25 copies of an album, now she orders one. Four years ago she even considered selling the business.
She said she wonders if Discolandia is a thing of the past. “I keep thinking that everything has its end in life,” she said. “It’s time to retire. ”
But not just yet.
In the meantime she has broadened her collection to include some of the newer genres in Latin American music, like reggaeton and rock en espanol, but she buys just enough to sell. She also has records from local musicians that leave their albums for sale via consignment. Yet her heart is with the old music. Her favorite Cuban musician is Benny Moré, a singer from her hometown of Santa Isabel de las Lajas. “I hear his music and I remember my country, and my first loves.”
Which may have something to do with why she hasn’t retired. Financially she can live without the store, but there’s more at stake here.
“I couldn’t live without Discolandia,” she said. “I wake up and get ready for this. I’m working for the love of the art.”