“Peel slowly and see,” read the instructions on the album’s cover — but no one has in the 54 years since the sticker was placed there. Somehow, the previous owner or owners of this original edition of the Velvet Underground’s 1967 debut album, The Velvet Underground & Nico, resisted the temptation to peel off the banana-skin sticker on the record’s cover to reveal the phallic-pink fruit beneath. That makes this particular piece of vinyl rare and collectible, but it’s also what makes it fun and exciting, says Dillon Smith, owner of Noble Records.
“That’s the kind of stuff I like to find,” Smith says. “You can’t just go on Amazon and buy it new. You have to get lucky.”
Noble Records is situated in a shopping center on East Independence Boulevard on the border of Charlotte and Matthews in southeast Mecklenburg County. After 10 year of selling records online and hosting pop-ups at local breweries and other businesses, Smith launched the brick-and-mortar establishment in October 2019.
Having just celebrated its second anniversary, Noble Records has more in common with the unassuming businesses it shares a building with — ones like Beltway Gun & Pawn — than the shiny new branch of Elevation megachurch that sits across the parking lot.
The unpeeled VU & Nico is not the only collector’s prize in Smith’s bright and cozy 200-square-foot shop. On the same wall is a cache of rare vinyl records that can set a collector’s pulse racing and spark joy in the hearts of music lovers. A copy of English psychedelic rockers Soft Machine’s self-titled 1968 debut sports rare dye-cut artwork. Next to that, mystical singer-songwriter Judee Sill casts her eyes downward as she graces the cover of her second — and final — album, 1973’s Heart Food. The holy grail among these treasures is a record by Smith’s favorite band, Led Zeppelin.
Smith digs into the origin of the coveted Robert Ludwig pressing of Led Zeppelin II on Hi-Fi Friday, a recurring feature on his YouTube channel, where he recommends records, arranges to buy vinyl collections and raises a little advertising revenue for his store. He also talks records and collecting with various guests on his podcast Vinyl Biography.
“This is the very first pressing on Led Zeppelin II,” Smith recounts in the YouTube video.
After Zeppelin’s second album was recorded then mixed by Eddie Kramer, Kramer hired American engineer Ludwig to cut a mix so loud and hot that the punchy platter would leap off the turntable — and that’s exactly what it did. A copy of the disc landed in an Atlantic Records executive’s home. When the exec’s daughter spun the hot-mixed disc, it skipped like crazy on her cheap turntable. Atlantic immediately halted production of the album and ordered a more subdued mix — the mix most consumers hear to this day.
“They stripped out all the stuff that made it so magical,” Smith concludes.
Stories like these cut to the heart of Smith’s love for vinyl records. The history of specific discs fascinates him. A friendly 33-year-old bearded bear of a man, he speaks with laid-back folksy ease as we sit in a comfortable seating area by the front of his store. His eyes sparkle whenever he turns his attention to me and listens intently. He trains that same intensity toward playing records; they’re a media meant for much more that background listening.
“It’s such an intentional experience to put a record on,” he says. “It’s the closest thing to playing music.”
Smith’s enthusiasm is not just confined to music he likes. He’s proud that the store takes a “something for everybody” approach.
“I think record stores have a bad reputation for being gatekeepers and elitists,” Smith says, laughing when I share a story about a quintessentially rude clerk at Chicago music store Wax Trax Records who called my purchase “absolute shit.” (The clerk, Alain Jourgensen, went on to front abrasive industrial metal band Ministry.) Smith actively discourages such snobbery.
“People like what they like,” he says. “They should feel comfortable buying Spice Girls or whatever.” Hence the shop’s homey sitting area. Smith wants people to feel at home at Noble Records, and able to strike up a friendly conversation about favorite — and sometimes rare — records. “I want us to have a good reputation, where if you come in, you’ll find something you’ll get excited about.”
Where Smith got his start
CDs were the big thing when Smith discovered records at age 10. It was well before the vinyl revival, and he didn’t care that records were at that point deemed uncool. The best thing about vinyl was that it was cheap.
“CDs were expensive, and records were a quarter each or people were giving them away,” he remembers. Smith went to thrift stores with his mom and snapped up all the vinyl records he could fine, developing a taste for classic rock. “Whenever I got a CD, it wasn’t as exciting to me. They were smaller.”
He loved the detailed — and larger — artwork vinyl records offered, getting immersed in gatefold illustrations, lyric sheets and liner notes. Smith also began to play guitar, deepening his appreciation for the musicians he discovered on vinyl. At the age of 14, he decided he was going to own and run a brick-and-mortar record store, even though there were no stores anywhere near his rural hometown of Midland, 25 miles east of Charlotte.
Around that time, Smith began developing as a budding young capitalist. Realizing that he was overpaying for a pencil at his elementary school’s on-campus supply store, he bought pencils, erasers, pens, candy — whatever his fellow students wanted or needed — in bulk, then resold his stock for less than his competitor.
“I had one of those flip-up desks, I had a whole store in there with prices for everything,” Smith says. “I was making a lot of money for a second grader, probably $3 a day.”
Smith was found out and hauled into the principal’s office, where his father gave a spirited defense of his son’s enterprise.
“I remember [my father] running my principal through the ringer,” Smith says. “‘[My son] is making a living in second grade! What is school for? School is supposed to prepare people for life.’”
It was time to go into another line of work, so Smith took his school-supply profits to a nearby livestock auction and bought 13 chickens. These weren’t just ordinary chickens, however. They were gold comets, bred to lay more eggs than any other chicken. At their most productive, they lay two eggs a day. Soon Smith was selling eggs to family, friends and neighbors.
“I had to buy feed and I researched all the different things to do to make the chickens lay more eggs. I was buying the catalogs so I could buy more chickens,” Smith remembers. “It was fun, and it taught me a lot about how to run a small business. That was the whole point behind it.”
After being home-schooled through his middle school years, Smith attended Central Cabarrus High School, where he bought, renovated and sold guitars as a side gig. He also played guitar, and it was through music that he met his wife Emily. They both played music and performed at their church.
“I was probably 16 when I met her,” Smith recalls. “We played music and just stuck together. We’re like-minded I guess.”
Through all his business endeavors and life changes, Smith continued to listen to and love records. He bought a top-loading turntable on which he could stack multiple records to drop down and play. Smith remembers loading two copies of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ Damn the Torpedoes — one on side one and the other on the flip side — so he could lay in bed at night and listen to the whole album without having to get up.
In 2010, Dillon and Emily married. Amid all the challenges and changes in the newlywed’s lives, records went on the back burner. Smith was only making $1,000 a month playing guitar at church on Sundays. He sold his collection of over 1,000 records on Craigslist to drum up extra money. To make ends meet, he also sold cars at a dealership and worked in landscaping. In the meantime, he was trying to figure out what he wanted to do in life. Then in 2012, he hit the jackpot.
“It was the luckiest break in my whole life,” Smith says. He doesn’t remember the name of his benefactor, nor much about his background, but a man from Chicago sold Smith a huge collection of vinyl records that set Smith on his current path. The man had once owned a record store in the windy city, and had planned to launch a new establishment in Charlotte, but records weren’t yet the hot commodity they are today.
“All this inventory he stuck in his spare bedroom and it was 7,000 records,” Smith says. “I went in there and I was blown away.”
With his background in classic rock, Smith had no knowledge of this wondrous collection of punk and alternative, everything from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds to The Cure and sealed Pearl Jam originals. Smith was between jobs, and only had $200 to his name, but the seller was moving out and needed to unload his stock. He took the $200. To move the records, Smith had to make several trips in his SUV with all the seats down. He tied records to the top of his vehicle to get all of them home. For four years, the Smiths got by through Dillon selling records on eBay as DAE Smith Records (Dillon And Emily Smith).
Once the couple began having kids, records alone wouldn’t cut it. Smith worked in graphic design for a few years, then at a fiber optics plant, while the couple raised two sons: Noble, from whom Smith’s record store takes its name; and Cannon. Smith was working 70 to 80 hours a week. The money was decent but not worth it, he recalls.
“I wanted to build something,” he says. “My kids were getting older and I was working my butt off trying to make a living and not seeing my family as much as I wanted to.”
A sound business
Soon Smith found an even more pressing reason to spend more time with family. He noticed communication problems developing between himself and his oldest son. Noble was sharp when it came to motor skills, but he wasn’t talking. The couple took Noble to a neurologist, who diagnosed him as autistic.
“[Autism] is such a spectrum, and they call it a spectrum for a reason,” Smith says. “Kids with autism, no two are the same.”
Despite challenges, Smith says Noble is gradually learning how to live his best life with autism, not despite it. His parents champion him in areas where he’s really strong, and help him in challenging areas.
“Would I change anything about him? No,” Smith says. “I have to connect with him and be more attentive to his needs. We have our own language. I can communicate with him without talking.”
Now 8 years old, Noble’s communication is still limited, though he is clearly intelligent.
“At some point in his life there’s going to be great things that come from his mind,” Smith offers. “It just works different.”
The attention Noble needs became a big factor in opening a brick-and-mortar store. Wanting to spend more time at home and be more involved in Noble’s development became Smith’s main priority. He and Emily noticed a space available on East Independence Boulevard and started driving by it repeatedly to see if it was still open.
“We wanted it badly,” Smith says.
Around that time, Smith launched a series of pop-ups. The first, in 2017, was orchestrated by Emily, who was working at a coffee shop that hosted vendors on Saturday mornings. She figured, why not let Dillon come and sell his records?
“I had never done a pop-up,” Smith remembers. “I had never sold anything in person.” A crowd of people came out, and he made much more money than he anticipated. He sniffed out a collection that came up for sale the next day, and with extra money in his pocket from the pop-up, snapped it up. He scheduled another pop-up and, as he tells it, “It just snowballed from there. At a certain point, I started making more money with pop-ups than I was at my regular job.”
Perhaps the highest profile pop-up was a 2018 event at Divine Barrel Brewing in NoDa. Dillon and Emily wanted to bring Noble to Santa Fe, New Mexico to see an alternative specialist, but they had no money to make the trip. Determined to make it happen, the couple branded their pop-up as a fundraiser for Noble’s new treatment. The pop-up was a huge success, and along with donations from Smith’s parents and grandparents, the family pulled the money together. They turned the trip into an adventure as they drove out to New Mexico in a 15-passenger van. Both the treatment and the trip had a beneficial effect, Smith says.
“It was a huge turning point. He started doing a lot better,” Smith says.
Prior to the trip, Noble wouldn’t sleep through the night, a problem perhaps exacerbated by Smith pulling too many 12-hour overnight shifts. But after the trip, which Smith thinks helped socialize Noble, his sleeping difficulties disappeared.
“Nothing’s going to flip a switch where everything will be normal,” Smith says. “You have to fight for every single victory that you get, and you keep building off that success.”
Finally, in the fall of 2019, Smith had enough money to buy the space for Noble Records. He could do what he loved with a flexible family-centered schedule.
“My number one thing is being a dad and being there for my kids,” Smith says. “Music is great, and I love records. It just so happens to be something I can do from home.”
He hopes someday, his sons will take over the business. He notes that his younger son Cannon, now 5 years old, already loves records.
The classic rock of Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, David Bowie, Jimi Hendrix, Black Sabbath, Grateful Dead, and others are the bread and butter of Noble Records, Smith says. That said, there are trends.
When the new Get Back documentary came out about The Beatles, people rushed to buy their records. Country music sales spiked when Ken Burns’ Country Music documentary dropped. Similarly, Bee Gees: How Can You Mend A Broken Heart piqued interest in the long-running Australian brother act. What hasn’t changed, is Smith’s attitude towards his customers.
“When people come in here, they get our attention, and they get our smile,” Smith says.
The store’s staff of four includes Dominic Geralds and Jeremy Smith. Both are professional musicians, playing with John Mark McMillan’s band. As a side gig, Geralds and Smith also run Gigantic Records.
“Basically, you send them a demo of you playing guitar and singing and they will take that and completely transform it into an incredible song,” Dillon Smith says. “They will transform into however you want it to sound. They are awesome musicians.”
Smith’s Noble Records staff also includes Grateful Dead enthusiast Ashley Johnson and relative newcomer Matt Crowder.
“When I hire somebody, the number one thing isn’t if they know records, it’s if they’re nice,” Smith says. “It’s more than a shop to me. It’s a way that we can serve people and be nice to people.”
In the past couple years, Smith notes that practically everybody has had a hard time. When there’s a bunch of people having difficulties, they act hostile and get at each other’s throats, he continues. He believes that often people just need somebody to be nice to them. Encountering pleasant and helpful people can make a make a big difference in someone’s day.
“I think people’s joy is important,” Smith says. “Getting a record that they’ve been looking for can spark some joy in their heart and help them out. It’s a small thing to help people, and sure I’m making money doing it, but I really enjoy that about it.”