Even as the current wax renaissance extends the longevity of vinyl as a medium, the massive, industrial presses used to create records remain in dwindling supply. Mark Rieker, Packaging Manager of Furnace Mfg, a Fairfax, VA based vinyl packaging plant, recently learned just how hard you have to work to retrieve them.
"For the most part, nobody's manufacturing record presses, and finding functioning presses out in the world is nearly impossible," explains Rieker. "The places where these presses do exist is pretty remote."
After years of aspiring to graduate from packaging records to pressing vinyl, Rieker and his crew were alerted to the presence of not just one, but ten pristine Toolex Alpha vinyl presses––a discontinued, high-capacity, classic Swedish model. Even one would have been a coup. Ten would be a life-changing haul for Rieker and his compadres.
"It was a huge, huge find," Rieker confirms. There was only one problem. The presses were all the way in Mexico City. Undeterred, Rieker and Furnace Production Coordinator Alex Reimer strode into a south-of-the-border clusterfuck, the likes of which they could never have prepared for.
Already blanched by the chaotic extremes of Mexico City, the duo arrived at their destination in sweltering mid-July. "The presses were in a residential neighborhood in a three-sided garage in this guy's back yard," says Rieker. "We were going through a brokerage firm with all the logistics. We had to get the police to shut down the street to get this 53-foot semi truck to the little street where the presses were."
There's a saying in certain parts of Mexico that roughly translates to: "If you're gonna dip your hands in the pozole, your fingers might get a little messy." Rieker and Reimer learned this the hard way. "Paying the police off is built in to the cost of doing business. It's corruption-by-design," he says, explaining how two foreigners managed to roll up into town and block off a residential street without so much as a paper permit.
Happily paid off, the police were the least of their problems. The process of excavating the one-ton presses from a backyard into the street, then up via crane onto a truck, ran into a host of unforeseen calamities. "The number of machines required two loads," explains Rieker. "A protest erupted in between the time that the first truck showed up and the second one was supposed to be there. A large section of the city was shut down and the truck was stuck all day."
Already caught up in the frenetic energy of Mexico City, the job was unfinished by nightfall. "The operation wasn't supposed to go to a second day," says Rieker. "And by day two, we'd attracted enough attention that our presence was well known in the neighborhood…lots of people had stopped to watch."
As the show unfolded, the Virginian duo were alerted to a sinister presence: "The police came by, took us aside, and told us that we should stop speaking English immediately and that we should stay in the truck, stay out of view of people on the street." Rieker and Reimer had made it onto the cartel radar. "I didn't ask a lot of questions after that," he says. "We both just scurried. We stayed outta sight."
Somehow a couple of vinyl nerds from Virginia had stumbled into their own version of the movie Traffic, except the goods being exchanged were significantly more legal. "You are nervous. In those moments, it feels like anything could go wrong," says Rieker. "You're so far out of your comfort zone. There's a way that you're used to doing business in your own nation, and when you get outside of it, things are totally different. There's a level of caution and anxiety."
Don't worry. This one has a happy ending. "Those trucks made the drive from Mexico City, all the way to Laredo, Texas, where they cleared customs. The entire load was transferred from the Mexican trailers into American trailers." All ten Toolex Alphas are sitting pretty in Virginia now.
There's only one last hold-up. Just having the presses isn't enough to get them working. "We're still in the process of finding a new building to put them in. There are still lots of things that have to happen," says Rieker. "The infrastructure that goes into building an actual pressing plant is pretty intense. You need hydraulic capacity, a steady supply of oil running through the machine––The machines run on steam!"
Rieker's dream record to press? That's easy. "I would do Rush records," he says. "They're my favorite band, by far. It was actually [Rush drummer] Neil Pert who said 'adventures suck while you're having them.' And that's true! It was really intense, but, it makes you feel an immense sense of gratitude for how good we have it here. Everything seems so negative on the news. There's a constant onslaught of negativity. But, really, your average American has it so good. To go to another country where they don't have the same security that we have here…I came back with an immense sense of gratitude. And it's sort of humbling, y'know?"