Music fans remember April 21, 2016, as the day Prince died. For Randall Harris, the date is important for a second reason: It was the day he finally made his passion project come true.
For a decade, the former record store clerk and current graphic designer dreamed of starting a mobile record store. But it didn't come to fruition until that otherwise tragic spring day, when he acquired the former dairy delivery truck he's since turned into a rolling dispensary for new and used vinyl.
"That's when I actually found the guy in the paper and went and bought it," says Harris, 47. "So that's kind of the establishment day."
For vinyl collectors who are justifiably uneasy about spending longer than 45 seconds in an enclosed shop these days, the itch to spend a leisurely afternoon combing through racks of LPs in hopes of uncovering a gem has to be unbearable. While curbside pickup and online shopping are decent substitutes, the experience isn't nearly the same.
That's why Harris' Roaming Empire Vinylmobile might be the pandemic's saving grace.
Living in Southern Oregon at the time, Harris would park the Vinylmobile at events like the Britt Music & Arts Festival in Jacksonville ("at least until the cops or security chased us off," he says) and would often drive it to Portland to sell records outside shows at McMenamins Edgefield and Aladdin Theater. As the miles piled up, Harris' wife convinced him to relocate to Portland permanently in 2018.
With the live music industry shut down, Harris has had few chances to take the Vinylmobile for a spin. For time being, he has the truck parked in a friend's driveway in the Richmond neighborhood. For three days each week, Harris pops open the awning door and the back gate to allow one customer at a time to browse through racks of well-curated '60s and '70s rock and soul, prewar blues, and modern indie sounds. Harris sits nearby, fielding questions and quaffing cans of beer as he spins rare Turkish psych rock on a portable turntable.
It's a decidedly low-key operation and not one that Harris can rely on for a steady income—a good day, he says, usually nets him about $200. But to hear him tell it, that was never his goal.
"I've worked in record stores my whole life and, especially around Christmastime, it used to be horrible," Harris says. "Helping people find that horrible Paul McCartney Christmas song over and over. You didn't get to share your passion. This is the opposite. The only people that show up here want to sit and talk music with me for an hour."
SHOP: Roaming Empire Vinylmobile, 3623 SE Rhine St., 541-292-2927. Open Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday; text for hours.