FREMONT -- When Dan Bernal made plans to open his vintage music store, only one location would do. It had to be in Niles -- where nostalgia swirls around the neighborhood's quaint, Capra-esque lanes like steam from a Brooklyn manhole.
"Everything's antique in Niles," Bernal said, while an employee cleaned a Johnny Cash record. "It's just an old town. It fits in perfectly."
That same charming nostalgic vibe also might explain why the vinyl records he sells at his shop, Needle to the Grove, have such enduring appeal. After all, he said, when music buffs embark on a quest to recoup their record collections, they really are revisiting their faded youth.
"One woman was almost crying in here when she found a record by Taj Mahal," said Bernal, 40. "She had the album when she was younger and she was so happy to find it again."
Bernal knows the feeling. Music has been his lifelong obsession, starting when he was a Newark 12-year-old deejaying house parties, and continuing through his 20s when he was a devoted "superdigger," his term for professional collectors constantly on the hunt for old records.
"I'll go anywhere for good records in good condition," the Fremont resident said. "I still get butterflies when people drive up with boxes of records and I can work out a deal to buy them. I get a 'record high' and it's all natural."
From the beginning, the sunny, boxed-shape store -- run by Bernal and his wife Margie near the corner of I Street and Niles Boulevard -- has been a leap of faith. They opened its doors in 2006, even though Bernal was armed with just eight crates of records and a fledgling business savvy gleaned from three Ohlone College classes.
The day before the grand opening, a collector offered him 6,000 records at a reasonable price. Thanks to that beginner's luck, his small shop suddenly was not so small. Within two years, strong sales allowed Bernal to quit his job as a machinist. While commuting to work on a skateboard, he employed his vast network of music buffs, deejays and "superdiggers" to meet a constant flow of demand.
"I'll look at about 10,000 records a month and I'll buy more than half that," he said.
The store has had increasingly brisk sales of vinyl records, tapes, turntables and other graying musical technology long thought to have gone the way of the disco ball, he said.
"It's about the love of the records; I love vinyl because it's pure," he said. "CDs and MP3s sound fake to me; they don't have that bass kick when you put the needle to the record."
The store's bread and butter is classic rock, such as albums by Led Zeppelin and The Doors, and 1980s metal bands, including Metallica and Iron Maiden. Those records often sell for $30 each, while old .45s might go for as low as 50 cents. The store's highest single sale was a rare jazz record by John Heartsman and Circles. It sold for $5,200, Bernal said.
Bernal bristled at suggestions that the growing vinyl craze is a product of hipsters embracing all things ironic and obscure. "We get everyone from high school kids to Grandma looking for Doris Day to hard-core collectors who want the oddball stuff," he said, standing near a huge "The Clash -- London Calling" poster.
Rob Gensel, a store regular who works as a deejay, said he likes picking Bernal's brain about recordings of all genres. "He pretty much knows everything about music, so I know he can point me in the right direction," said Gensel, a Union City resident. "And it's a smallish shop and a cool environment where, even if you're not going to buy anything, you can just hang out and talk."
Even Bernal's son Talen, 6, has begun collecting albums -- including one each by Scooby Doo and Popeye -- to play on his Fisher-Price turntable, circa 1983.
Bernal's shop is stocked with a record cleaner, a listening booth so buyers can hear exactly what they're buying, and a "de-warping" device that removes warps and flattens once-damaged albums.
Nothing comes easy to the vinyl collector and, in an era ruled by instant gratification, maybe that is the point. "It's the art of digging," Bernal said. "Even in the age of eBay, they can come in and feel the record in their own hands. People love that."
Contact Chris De Benedetti at 510-353-7011. Follow him at Twitter.com/cdebenedetti.