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The one-story building and garden-apartment-style basement that houses the Numero Group in Chicago's Little Village is an unassuming portal to the past. Next door, a woman sweeps the sidewalk of the falling autumn leaves. At least during business hours on this warm early November afternoon, both doors are unlocked. Despite its plain appearance, this building—until recently, Shipley's home, with Numero's operations confined to the basement—is a monument to one of the most monumental passions of the early 21st century.
To wit, Shipley is screaming inside. A shipment of Local Customs: Pressed at Boddie was supposed to have already arrived, but it seems there's been a mix-up: "Now they're messing with our schedule. I don't want to pay for late," he barks.
Lately, Numero has grown large enough that he vacated his home for elsewhere; they took over the upstairs, too. The move is so recent that the walls in Shipley's new office aren't yet lined with the record shelves that meticulously pack every corner of the basement. Rather, he proudly shows off the drawers in his former office, custom-built to hold 7-inch singles. "I'm not interested in owning records anymore," he notes. "I'm interested in owning master tapes."
For Shipley, who grew up as a skate-punk east of San Francisco in the mid-'80s, this obsession began with a few stolen Minor Threat and Dead Kennedys cassettes, an endless series of mixes and ordering 7-inches from far-off labels. Shipley moved through a series of record industry jobs, eventually meeting Rob Sevier, who got him a job working at Groove Distribution, where the two hatched the plan for Numero. They began with a French bossa nova record Shipley had become enchanted with by the band Antenna, and a compilation of the Cap-Soul label out of Columbus, Ohio.
Eventually, the present lost its luster. Shipley laments the overwhelmed world of cheap recording and cheaper distribution; in a way, those old works just felt more important, maybe more real.
"Going through MP3s in 30 years is going to be a task for whipping boys," he says of the crate diggers of the future or those who might spend time harvesting dead MySpace accounts. "Oneohtrix Point Never puts out a CD-R. You made this shit in your bedroom. I'm sorry, but it's garbage music for people who won't care about it in five minutes."
People cared about most of Numero's original artists for far less than five minutes.
"For somebody to fail at making a record, especially being black in the late '60s or early '70s, means they put a lot more than four or five hundred dollars on the line," he explains. "They put their life on the line, they put their well-being on the line, they put food on the line. For it not to work out was so much more major than anybody could possibly imagine. For all this failure to happen simultaneously is pretty amazing. I think that's what makes the recordings that much more special, even the not-good ones."
All three of Numero's primaries all slipped slowly into the world of record collecting, pulling away at the past until it became fully present. The past now courses through the bustling office like a phantom current. In an alcove next door to Shipley's office, Sevier scours old publishing directories for addresses and possible leads. Once, after spotting an address on a 45 at Reckless Records, he got on his bike and headed directly there. Sometimes, he spends years tracking down artists. It took him a half-decade to locate Darnell Glover, a singer with the Bandit label.
"I sent so many letters. I found his sister, but she was out of touch—one thing after another after another," says Sevier. After a half-decade, Glover actually contacted Numero. Sevier visited him in a project a few miles down the freeway. "There was nothing on the walls except one piece of paper in a frame, and I wondered what it was. On our way out, I walked around to get a look at what was on it. The thing on the wall was a letter from me, and it was from 2004, and by then it was like 2009. I asked him why he didn't reply."
"Well," Glover told him. "I just liked the letter because you laid out all my accomplishments in one place."
When the Numero crew travels to North Carolina for its showcase at Duke, Shipley, Sevier and a Southern specialist will load a rented minivan with Numero wares. There will be stops at local record shops to sell their goods wholesale, and there will be investigations. They rarely go into towns without a plan, a lead or a connection. If something looks promising, they'll send out more troops to pore through session logs and budget sheets and other miscellaneous papers and to do lots of interviews. In the middle, somewhere, there are likely stories, music and some brilliant intersection that might come alive when laid into Numero's loving packages. Only time will tell.
Down in the basement, though, Shipley has tracked down the Boddie shipment. He has dispatched some people to go get the lost music.
In high school, we had a friend named Dan Hecht, whom we called Head. We were amused, on occasion, when we spotted books by a novelist of the same name. "Check it out," we'd say. "Somebody's got the same name as Head."
Years later, when Numero's Guitar Soli came out, I noticed a track by Daniel Hecht. "Dude," I told my friend. "There's another Dan Hecht."
His girlfriend interrupted the memory. The author and the guitarist were the same person, she said: "He was our family's best friend when I was growing up." The point of recounting this unlikely and obscure trio of coincidences isn't necessarily that it's a small world but rather that there is music everywhere in it. Who knows what our neighbors did in their youth? Or the guy at the coffee shop?
On the current installment of the Eccentric Soul Revue, there are no North or South Carolina artists, though there are a few throughout the Numero catalog. Shipley cites Elijah and the Ebonites. There could be many more sometime in the future. He's excited about the possibilities of the region, especially having a Carolina native, Jon Kirby, along for this trip. Kirby is one of the newest Numero employees, at a time when most labels continue to make cuts with staff and otherwise. In an odd twist, at the Numero Group, the future seems as limitless as the past.
"I think we paid $400 for the Numero logo, which seemed like a lot at the time," Shipley says. These days, the shelves in the Numero basement are pleasing, endless rows of the label's iconic sleeve. Each collectible edition represents the end point of a narrative, years of history sorted into clean liner notes with careful discographies and research.
But even second comings aren't always clean; not everything sells. Shipley acknowledged that Celestial Navigations: The Short Films of Al Jarnow hasn't exactly moved myriad units, scoring in the bottom third for all Numero releases.
"Not everything will be a hit out of the gate, but we don't make anything that'll be a hit anyway," Ken says, perhaps diplomatically.
These days, my dad makes computer programs and designs wondrous exhibits for children's museums. He's looking for a smartphone app developer to work with. He also just directed his first Sesame Street short in 20 years—not necessarily because of the DVD, but it didn't hurt, either.
Mostly, though, he likes to make Andy Goldsworthy-meets-Joseph Cornell-like beach sculptures that he documents on his website, Protozone, before letting them wash back into the surf. One of his new medium's chief virtues is that it doesn't take up much space in the attic.