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.
Suarez's territory is Esperanto's extensive Latin section, which is arguably the most complete in the city. The store's estimated 5000 Latin-music discs are arranged by country and artist, and the section is devoid of the sloppy compilations that tend to clog the bins at the megamusic stores.
Not that Esperanto could ever be confused with one of the bright, vast music emporiums that dot South Florida's malls. It's a lot cozier, but spacious enough that customers poking through the jazz CDs won't bump into those looking at rock titles in the rack behind them. A smaller room at the back of the store houses vinyl and used CDs. Posters from independent record labels line the store walls.
Although Suarez praises Calle Ocho's Latin bastions Casino and Do-Re-Mi for their inventory, he notes his stock is better organized and more discriminating. Esperanto has a large Latin-rock section, the latest imports from Spain (which have proved big sellers thus far), and a broad selection of Brazilian music. Suarez says the relatively slim pickings from other Latin American countries will increase. Only the most popular names in commercial salsa and merengue are present, but there is a rare stock of venerable titles from salsa pioneers: the Fania artists, et al. The Latin jazz section features discs by Latin artists as well as other musicians' experiments with Latin rhythms.
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Esperanto is not only a Latin music store, and Suarez is advised on other musical genres by the rest of the staff. Expertly advised. His entire staff is composed of music lovers who are well-known around town. Michael Dean, a jazz authority with 30 years in the music business and who started his career at Decca Records, is in charge of the backroom, which is devoted to new and used vinyl. Guy Moise, who worked at Capitol Hi-Fi, advises Suarez on world music. Guitarist and DJ Andrew Yeomanson, a Flippers veteran, is an overall music buff with vast knowledge of obscurities and oddities. Andres Solar weighs in on anything and everything. The youngest staffers, Vanessa Gonzalez and Irving Vargas, both fixtures on the club scene, take charge of the dance music.
"Once people find out who's involved in the store they'll be coming in," Suarez declares. "What sets us apart from others stores is the service we provide; we become friends with the customers." After barely a month in business, Suarez is already a known entity on Lincoln Road. Several times per hour someone pokes their head in the shop to say hello or comes in just to chat. "We don't want people coming in and buying something and then we never see them again. This isn't just a commercial thing," he says. "We promote what we really think is worth listening to. We don't let the labels dictate to us. We want to contribute to creating a decent cultural atmosphere on the Beach."
Suarez gestures to a small wooden stage in the back of the store. He hopes to frequently host in-store appearances by visiting artists and local bands. This month Esperanto began offering a free concert the first Saturday evening of each month. This past Saturday piano player Paquito Hechavarria, whose public performances are few and far between, appeared with a group of Latin jazz musicians. Suarez also plans to hold a series of lectures on musical subjects in the store.
"I want the name Esperanto to be associated with good music," Suarez asserts. "Good music is what it's all about." Lincoln Road, he stresses, is the best place in the world to open a record store right now. "The customer base here is very cosmopolitan. People are open to different musical adventures. They need a fix and we've got the drug.