On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Rene Perez, 38, was enjoying a peaceful moment at his record shop, Sonido Del Valle, on 1st Street in Boyle Heights. While at its current location since 2021, it’s been providing music to the neighborhood since 2016.
Perez sorted old records in the Tejano section into rustic hand-built, brown-colored shelves. He placed a vinyl disc onto his silver-colored player and a soulful, melancholic ballad titled “Smile Now, Cry Later” by oldies band Sunny & The Sunliners filled the room.
Perez said he gravitates towards this particular song because the frontman Sunny Ozuna, an 80-year-old Texas-based crooner, sings wistfully in both English and Spanish.
“I didn’t grow up speaking Spanish, I’m still not super fluent but I get by,” said Perez, “ But I love him and I love Latin soul because he bridges that gap by singing in English and Spanish.”
While other music purveyors typically place music produced by Latiné artists into a catch-all “world” section, Perez has built a collection at Sonido Del Valle of more than 20,000 records that is influenced by Ozuna’s blend of Spanish and English music.
Early 2000s Indie rock and 1980s dance music share space with cumbia and mariachi records on racks that line the walls. The cumbia and salsa sections are robust and consistently stocked for DJs on the Eastside who are looking for new rhythms to spin at Latin music events.
“One of the main things we do here is seek out records that people haven’t heard yet,” Perez said.
Perez also does his best to find sought-after ranchera albums for the neighborhood musicians who have made Boyle Heights famous for its mariachi scene. He pointed out a 45 pressing of an obscure record with musical arrangements by former Boyle Heights-based musician Pedro Rey.
“He was on top of the mariachi world here in Los Angeles and the most expensive records we get are his,” Perez said. “A fan of his will buy this just because he’s on it.”
Some of these hidden gems are made by lesser known Latiné artists such as Los Angeles band Levitation Room, whose dreamy, shoegaze pop 2020 single “Quarantine” can be found at the shop. Perez also took a moment to highlight Florencia Andrada, an Argentine singer-songwriter releasing bilingual soul music via Long Beach-based label Love Soul Productions.
“I love music from places like Mexico City, from Cuba; it’s all dope,” Perez said. “But LA has as many [music] labels as ones in Mexico that are Latin labels and putting new stuff out all the time.”
Even though Sonido Del Valle has a world section, it’s reserved for more eclectic and unique finds. This is where customer Raul Estrada made a shocking discovery: a slightly worn-out 1967 collaborative album between pop icon Frank Sinatra and famed Brazilian songwriter and composer Antônio Carlo Jobim.
“I’ve been record collecting for 30 years,” said Estrada, “and he [Rene Perez] just put me onto this; I had never even seen this one before.”
Estrada was debating whether to make this purchase because of its slightly worn condition but seemed delighted by the discovery. Estrada, the executive director of nearby nonprofit El Centro De Ayuda, has been working in Boyle Heights for roughly 30 years. He said Sonido Del Valle has been a welcome addition to the neighborhood.
“I’m glad he was able to open up a shop here,” said Estrada. “This used to be an old market and markets are great, but I think it’s great for young people to be able to come and be exposed to different genres of music.”
Sonido Del Valle’s origins
Most of the records on display at Sonido Del Valle are a representation of sounds that Perez grew up hearing in Lincoln Heights, Boyle Heights, and the San Gabriel Valley. The store’s namesake, which translates to “sound of the valley”, is also a homage to his parents’ origins. “My dad’s family came to El Monte in the SGV from Mexico and my mom, she kind of grew up there too.”
He said oldies ballads sung by Ritchie Valens and Brenton Wood blared out of his godmother’s car speakers who had her radio tuned to local rock station K-EARTH 101. His mother listened to upbeat Electro dance jams by Arabian Prince and Unknown DJ while she was getting ready to go out with friends.
Perez heard Latin music like cumbia, rancheras, and norteños and also hip-hop playing in the streets of the east side. When he became a teenager, he began collecting music of his own.
“In high school, I made friends with the rocker kids in my high school and they told me I could buy albums on vinyl for like a dollar at thrift stores. That’s when I started accumulating records and I got a record player for my birthday,” Perez said.
His first purchase was an album by Nu Metal band Korn, and his collection quickly grew from there. While he loved listening to vinyl records, he hadn’t thought of selling them until it became necessary. In 2015, the record collection he had amassed as a teenager had grown too large and he had recently been let go from his job as a cook.
“It turned into a big collection and all this time I’m not working so friends of mine told me, ‘You should be able to sell some to pay your bills,’” he said.
Perez and former co-owner Hector Flores began selling records at the East LA Art Walk, Downtown LA Art Walk, La Cita, and any other event in LA they could be a part of.
In 2016, the duo received an opportunity to sell their records in the backspace of Other Books on Cesar Chavez Ave. Flores eventually left the business and Perez continued to run Sonido Del Valle at Other Books while saving enough money to move into his current location.
Some of the initial challenges Perez said he faced stemmed from his own lack of experience.
“The biggest challenge was getting organized and managing money,” he said, “and then building relationships with dealers and other people who sell to record stores.”
One of Perez’s regulars, a local record dealer who goes by his professional namesake DJ Lucky, excitedly rushed into the shop with several records in hand. “I have some good stuff for you man,” Lucky boldly exclaimed to Perez.
Lucky has stockpiled vinyl Electro and Freestyle records from his days DJing house parties during LA’s electronic music scene in the 1980s. He’s been selling his wares at Sonido Del Valle since Perez’s days at Other Books, and he’s also a fan of Sonido Del Valle’s vast selection.
He quickly flipped through records until he identified one that caught his eye, like one album by pioneering electro group Uncle Jamm’s Army.
“He sells obscure stuff and I sell here but I also come here to buy for myself. This is a great record store, it always has been and it always will be for East LA,” Lucky said.
Sonido Del Valle has managed to stay afloat despite the pandemic thanks in part to loyal customers like DJ Lucky and Raul Estrada and a growing demand in the U.S. for records. According to a report by data company Luminate, vinyl LP sales increased 21.7% in the first six months of this year from the same period the year before.
Perez said he’s noticed a majority of his new customers tend to be younger and are looking for new albums by more popular artists such as Bad Bunny and Taylor Swift.
“We don’t have much of that because I try my best to seek out new artists from local labels,” he said.
Even so, Sonido Del Valle’s niche of becoming a hub for Latiné and LA-based music has proven to be more of a blessing than a curse.
“We’ve had people come to our shop from Amoeba [a large music store chain] because someone who works there said, ‘Hey if you want this you should go [to Sonido Del Valle] because we don’t have it,” Perez said. “The chances of discovering something that hasn’t been heard in a long time is a lot more likely at a shop like this.”