The Music Man

The day before the Esperanto music store opened on Lincoln Road this past month, Carlos Suarez set about making a sign to put in the window. Because he expected European tourists to visit the store, he began by printing No Smoking. Then, because the store is located in the center of South Beach, he wrote No Rollerblades. Underneath that Suarez added his personal caveat: No Musical Prejudice.

On a recent evening, Suarez stands behind the counter inside the shop, facing a rack full of trip-hop, trance, techno, and ambient CDs. Old-school salsa merits a prominent display nearby. Cuban music take up an entire wall of bins, above which hangs a rack of new releases and Suarez's current favorites. Moving swiftly from behind the counter, he grabs a CD by veteran Cuban piano player Ruben Gonzalez, proffering it to a chunky Cuban-American stockbroker. The man looks dubiously at his friend, another thick-set businessman in an identical dark suit, and tells Suarez that he's not sure about buying music from the island. Suarez, himself a Cuban American who grew up in Miami, shrugs complacently and slips the disc into the store's sound system, filling the room with the piquant strains of an old-style cha-cha-cha.

The customer starts tapping his fingers on the counter. He looks at his friend, nodding in time to the music. He picks up the jewel box, which Suarez has left on the counter. A few minutes later, he asks Suarez for another copy -- to give as a gift. Ten minutes after that, the man leaves the store with a half-dozen CDs, all recommended by Suarez. "I want to expand people's minds a little bit," Suarez says triumphantly. "That's what I'm here for."

With the playlists and personnel of virtually the entire existing catalogue of recorded Latin music logged in his head, Suarez is one of Miami's most informed lay musicologists.

"Carlos is very deep into the music," says Jay Sanchez, who worked with Suarez when he was just starting out at the venerable Flagler Street record store Capitol Hi-Fi. "It's not like he just knows the hitmakers, the ones who are here today, gone tomorrow. His knowledge goes way back. He knows Latin music all the way down to its roots."

Although Suarez was never a musician, his passion for music came early. The first musical experience he remembers was listening to marching bands as a a child in Cuba. Soon after he arrived in Miami at age seven, his mother found some Beatles albums in the trash. It was a milestone. "When I listened to that I was hooked," Suarez recalls. "My Dad would give me two dollars every week, and I'd go to a thrift store and buy all the albums and singles I could. My collection just kept building from there."

Suarez's enthusiasm for the discs he deems worthy makes him a hell of a salesman. But he can be best described as a sort of music psychologist, guiding the sonically inhibited to satisfy their inner needs, and fulfilling the wishes of those obsessed with finding some elusive title or vaguely remembered tune. "I like to take people on a musical tour," says the 39-year-old Suarez, a rangy figure dressed as usual in jeans and a promo T-shirt. "I ask them what style they like, if they like violins or flute, or if they prefer more percussion. Maybe they want rumba, for instance, but they don't know how to explain it. From the moment they say they want a lot of drums going on, that's what I'll lead them to. I try to be super varied in what I play them -- different stuff they might have heard somewhere along the line, but have never learned what it's called. I always let them tell me what they want, and then I take it from there."

Local music fanatics, DJs, and Miami-Dade Community College students know Suarez from Flippers, the downtown store he opened in 1991. A hole-in-the-wall bursting with CDs and crowded with browsers, it was known for its superior used-CD section and a discriminating selection of international recordings of all genres, many of which could not be found anywhere else in the city. Employees of New Times, then located around the corner, could be found among those grazing the bins during lunch hour. Suarez was usually there, praising a local band, playing a new release, or railing against Miami's dearth of live music or some crappy Top 40 band.

Suarez struggled financially and left Flippers in 1995 (his partner subsequently sold it to the CD Solution chain). Spec's then hired Suarez as the Latin buyer for its stores. Suarez notes that he was able to broaden the chain's inventory, in particular the music of contemporary Cuban bands. He left Spec's after ten months to work in distribution at Universal. He was laid off, and hired by Miami-based HL Distributors. One of his clients there was Carlos Souki, who owned a record store in Caracas, Venezuela.

Souki was interested in opening a store in Miami, and Suarez offered to run it. The partners took over the Lincoln Road space, located between Drexel and Pennsylvania avenues, from a record store called Extremes. Souki came up with the name Esperanto, which Suarez says suits his own philosophy just fine. "Music is really the international language, so the name fits," he explains.

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