Ron Penndorf, Vinyl Expert, Motorcycle Aficionado


Ron Penndorf, Vinyl Expert, Motorcycle Aficionado

Penndorf Warehouse: 2743 8th Street

Ron Penndorf once appeared on a magazine cover dressed in a tuxedo playing his cello while seated on the hood of a sleek Jaguar roadster. He was also photographed playing his cello while perched on a BMW motorcycle. This unlikely combination—the world of the cello and the world of expensive cars and motorcycles—was an essential part of his personality.

Penndorf believed that the sound of vinyl was superior to that of the CD and he turned his vast knowledge of music into a successful, international used record business. He once said that for him the grail “is the great record, whether that is Get Your Ya-Ya’s Out, ’Steamin, or Firebird”* He developed an intricate numerical system called “Maestro Management” for judging the condition of and performance on a vintage LP, including the sleeve and the jacket. He sold a boxed set of Arthur Schnabel playing Beethoven piano sonatas for $8,000 and many other records for hundreds of dollars. Penndorf published a catalogue of available titles and a scholarly quarterly, “Recollections,” that focused on various aspects of collectable records.

After attending the University of Wisconsin, Penndorf came to Berkeley for graduate studies in sociology. After quitting school he took a job at Whelan’s Smoke and Record Store at the corner of Bancroft and Telegraph. There he created a reputation for his knowledge of recordings and for his willingness to discuss individual records. After leaving Whelan’s he ran The Pit, a basement record store at Moe’s Books that claimed to have a copy of every record ever made. Penndorf credited The Pit’s success to the fact that “Moe left you alone, …sometimes.” He and Moe remained lifelong friends, but Penndorf eventually ran his record business from a warehouse on 8th Street in West Berkeley, where he lived for over 40 years. The warehouse also housed formidable collections of coins, guns, model trains, model airplanes, and a collection of as many as 30 antique motorcycles.

In the 60s, Penndorf married Mary Snowden, a stalwart in the painting department at the California College of Arts and Crafts. In his 40s, the grumpy and curmudgeonly Penndorf ,who loved to argue and would continue arguing on an issue for months, married Cheryl Lee King, a younger, cheerful, easygoing woman who seemed his opposite. He was politically active in West Berkeley and, when changes to the West Berkeley Plan were being debated, he sat in front of his warehouse with a beer, a cigar, and some lawn chairs, inviting anyone who came by—neighbors, beat cops, delivery guys—to talk about subjects of interest. He hung out at a nearby café, 900 Grayson, and used his popular blog, “Scrambled Eggs and Lox,” as a further forum for his ideas. Penndorf loved to dress up in various costumes, including military ones, and mimic well-known types. Favorites included Viennese psychoanalysts and Latin American dictators. Typical of the latter was “General Mimosa,” who proclaimed: “I loave my peeple, but sometime, although it break my heart, I must keel some of them”**

* Joel Selvin, SF Chronicle, January 25, 1992
** From a conversation with this author

Contributed by James Samuels, 2015

  • Penndorf Warehouse, photo (2015) R. Kehlmann

  • Penndorf as Army Colonel, photo Mary Guenther

  • Penndorf with Cheryl, photo (ca. 1980) Mary Guenther

  • Penndorf on his motorcycle, photo Recollections

  • Penndorf at the 900 Grayson cafe, photo (ca. 2013) Kathy Raddatz, SF Chronicle

  • Sketch of Penndorf and cello by Sylvia Solochek

Photo credit abbreviations:
BAHA: Berkeley Architectural Heritage Assn.
BHS: Berkeley Historical Society