“Just because something’s old don’t mean it’s outta style.” – Doug Eaton, Kensington Television Service
Just north of Washington DC is the town of Kensington, Maryland. Part of Montgomery County, it began in 1873 as Knowles Station, a stop on the recently completed Metropolitan Branch of the B&O railroad. It became Kensington in 1894 when Brainard Warner, a developer from DC who began buying up parcels of land in the area, convinced the mayor and town council to rename it after a trip to London inspired him to build the Victorian community. Today, Kensington is a quiet place, known for its Antique District, Saturday morning farmer’s markets at the train depot and one particular shop that gives visitors a look back at the golden age of radio. I happened upon Kensington Television Service very much by accident. I was out exploring the area and was starting to get hungry. Yelp suggested a place called Old Town Market which according to the reviews, served up terrific sandwiches, particularly the chicken pesto. The market is at the far end of a small strip mall on Kensington Parkway and pulling into the parking lot, one of the first things you notice is a display of gorgeous vintage radios, televisions and turntables in the front window of a small shop that faces the driveway. The decades-old sign in the window reads: RCA VICTOR HI-FI RADIO AND TELEVISION. I don’t know much about vintage radios at all, other than the fact that I am fascinated by them as objects and in many ways have romanticized the eras in which they were most popular. Lunch was going to have to wait. Two older men were having a conversation on the sidewalk next to the front door. The one seated on a stool appeared to be the owner of the store, while the other, as it happened, was the owner of a Pomeranian named Foxy, who scampered out of the store, half-yipping to greet me. “Careful of the guard dog,” her owner said, chuckling. “Hello there,” I said as I approached. As I looked more closely at the line of radios in the window, a beautiful vintage turntable caught my eye. “Mind if I go in?” I asked. “Sure, go on,” the owner replied. “Just stay up front. Don’t go in the back.” I don’t know that I could have been prepared for what I saw inside. Literally hundreds of radios, turntables and victrolas filled the space in every size and shape imaginable, from tabletop to consoles. Not only were they stacked floor to ceiling on shelves against the walls, the entire showroom was piled chest high from one side to the other, leaving only a narrow pathway from the entrance to the back room. The entire scene was like some sort of museum diorama designed to be viewed from an appropriate distance. After a few minutes, the owner came in to check on me. “Well, what do you think?” he asked. “I think it’s the most amazing collection of radios I’ve ever seen in one place,” I replied. He smiled wide, pleased with my response. “This isn’t even all of it. I’ve got more at home,” he said. “My wife won’t let me buy any more.” I asked his name and introduced myself. Over the next few minutes, I learned that the store had been there for about 65 years and that Doug had owned it for about 40 of them. A customer came in. She was looking at a beautiful walnut turntable. “Excuse me,” Doug said. “You can look in the back if you want. Don’t go in there, but you can have a look.” The back room was just as well-stocked as the front—maybe more so. I kept looking around the store, but overheard the two of them discussing the price, which to me seemed perfectly reasonable, but the woman didn’t seem convinced. She said she needed to talk to her husband. They spoke a bit more and she left. When he came back, I asked a question. “Alright, Doug,” I began. “The store is on fire, or there’s a flood or an earthquake or something and you can only save one thing. What do you take?” “Hmmm,” he said. “That’s a tough question.” He thought for a moment, his hand on his chin. “Probably that,” he said pointing to a Chet Atkins LP that was sitting on a shelf at the back of the store. “That?” I asked, surprised. “Out of everything in here, that’s the one thing you would save?” “Yes sir,” he said, smiling. “Why that record?” I asked. “Because I’m a guitar man,” he said as if it should be obvious. “Are you?” I replied. “Absolutely. Come here, I want to show you something,” he said, as he began walking to the front of the store. ” We walked out the open door which he closed behind us. There, taped to the back side of the glass was a large color photo. In it, a younger version of Doug was playing guitar on stage at the Grand Ole Opry. “Doug, is that you?” I asked. “Yes it is.” “On the stage of the Opry?” “Yes sir.” “Doug, that’s fantastic!” I exclaimed. He beamed with pride. After a moment, he leaned in a little, as if he had a secret to tell. “Hey,” he asked. “do you like eggs?” It seemed like an odd question, but I went with it. “Yeah, I like eggs,” I replied. “Do you like eggs?” “Oh, I love eggs,” he said, walking back into the store. “Come here.” Reaching behind one of the consoles, he produced a dozen eggs and handed them to me. “Here you go,” he offered. It was then that I asked one of the dumbest questions in the history of dumb questions. “Doug, do you grow eggs?” A somewhat quizzical look came over him. “No, I grow chickens. The chickens lay the eggs,” he said matter of factly. Right. Of course. “Well, thank you very much,” I said. “I’ll enjoy these tomorrow with some bacon.” My attention turned back to the Chet Atkins record while Doug sorted through some paperwork on the small table next to us. It was obvious that this was a near lifelong hero of his and someone for whom he had tremendous respect. “How did you get into country music?” I asked. “Oh, I’ve always played country music,” he said, “even as a boy. My favorite, of course, is Chet Atkins and Les Paul.” I asked if he remembered the first time he heard Chet Atkins. “Yes,” he said, “I was on a bicycle riding down to Cabin John and the tune was ‘Poor People of Paris‘.” I asked what was it about Chet that spoke to him. “He could play good music,” he said. “One thing I liked about him was the fact that you heard the note when it was being played. Today you don’t hear it at all, you hear power chords. You don’t hear that individual note. It’s nothing. I don’t know what’s brought that kind of music on but it sure doesn’t help very much for entertainment, that’s for sure. But there again, it’s a money game and that’s what it’s all about.” “What about Les Paul?” I asked. “Where did you first hear him?” He thought for a moment. “Let’s see, that’s when was playing with his wife Mary. I think that was her name. ‘How High the Moon‘ I think was the name of that. That’s when I first heard him.” I asked him if he had already played the guitar or whether Chet Atkins and Les Paul were the initial inspiration to play. “Yeah, they definitely inspired me,” he said. I asked him where he got his first guitar. “Sears and Roebuck,” he replied. “Silvertone from Sears and Roebuck. It was twenty-four dollars and change.” He paused for a moment on the memory. “Now I do it by myself. Chet died. Great loss—a very great loss when they lost Chet and a great loss when they lost Les Paul not too long ago. But Chet was my favorite. I mean, there was other artists that I liked, of course. Everybody liked Elvis Presley. He was great, a great entertainer. And the Killer…” He smiled. I asked if he ever saw Jerry Lee live. “No, I never seen any of ’em live,” he replied. “The only thing I know about ’em was when they’re dead,” he said, laughing. For the next half hour or so, Doug and I talked about music and how, for him, the radio was such an important piece of the experience of listening to music. He said “Before television, people used to listen to the radio and they could imagine what was taking place about the story, you know? You could hear it. Today, they leave nothing, so you don’t develop anything of…imagination or being creative. That’s my opinion. It doesn’t necessarily make me right.” I asked if country music had the best stories. “Yes,” he replied without hesitation, “I think so. I wrote a tune called ‘Nashville’s Out of Tune.’ They didn’t like it down there when I sent it to them. I wrote ‘I need George Jones at the microphone, playing honkey tonk blues.’ It’s a very simple song, but it has it’s merits.” We continued talking about artists like George Jones and Conway Twitty and how, in his opinion, the pure, artistic side of making music had been largely replaced by excessive showmanship and the business of making music. I asked him when he thought it changed. “Good question,” he said, thinking. “Maybe it’s because the record producers and the publishers are from a different generation. Just because something’s old don’t mean it’s outta style,” he said. “But I don’t know. Maybe after Presley died. That’s about when it started to change.” We talked a bit more, but Doug had to leave to go to a customer’s house and see about a radio. We exchanged numbers and I told him that I would love to stop by again when I came back to DC. “Absolutely,” he said. “Don’t be a stranger.” As he gathered his things, I asked if I could take his photo before I left, to which he happily agreed. I had two terrific visits with Doug while I was in DC and I have no doubt that there will be more to come. He’s quite a character and full of interesting stories that I can’t wait to hear and to share.