The Record Baron of Beirut

Through thirty-five years of sectarian strife and brutal civil war in Lebanon, a former fighter and obsessive vinyl collector has provided a vital soundtrack of distraction.

The Record Baron of Beirut

Inside a nondescript building with a modest storefront on Beirut’s Armenia Street sits a tiny music store, Super Out Discotheque, with a long history. The small space is packed floor to ceiling with outdated but still-functional audio equipment, from a 1970s-era reel-to-reel tape machine and stacks of cassette decks to giant wooden speakers that are more than twenty years old. Thousands of vinyl records, compact discs and cassette tapes are wedged into the shelves, juxtaposed with Christian idols — Virgin Mary statues, photos and several crucifixes — as well as reminders of Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war, such as the yellowed photo of Super Out owner Roy Hayek’s brother, who died when his vehicle was hit with a rocket-propelled grenade in 1983.

Roy Hayek is a garrulous guy with a lit cigarette perpetually either in his mouth or between his fingers. He is always sharply dressed, thin black hair gelled back, with glasses perched on his nose and a fastidiously groomed matching moustache. On a Wednesday afternoon in May, the fifty-three-year-old music aficionado hums, sings and talks continuously while he burns CDs for his loyal customers. He swings back and forth in his weathered chair, moving from his computer to the wooden counter, the bell above the door ringing every few minutes with new traffic coming in from the street.

People come here primarily for Hayek’s customized mixes and copies of his extensive collection of early- to mid-twentieth century Arabic music. His shop is a neighborhood fixture now, as it has been since long before he took it over. For thirty-five years the space was his grandfather’s pub, until it closed in 1965 after he passed away. Hayek’s father wanted to continue a business there, so he converted the pub into a store selling Arabian sweets. In 1979, Hayek carried on the third generation of the family business by transforming the bar-turned-sweet shop into the music store it is today.

Lebanon’s brutal war destroyed much of the beautiful capital, leaving more than 200,000 dead and an estimated 17,000 more missing. During those fifteen years, the Green Line — a demarcation of the largely sectarian fighting — divided predominantly Muslim factions in West Beirut from the mainly Christian factions in the East. Once called the Paris of the Middle East for its cosmopolitan culture and world-class architecture, among other things, Beirut itself was severely damaged. Fighting between Israel and Hezbollah in 1996 again resulted in the destruction of parts of Beirut, as did the devastating thirty-four-day war with Israel in 2006. Despite the fact that Lebanon continues to be wracked by instability thanks to ISIS encroachment and spillover from the Syrian conflict, there are places like Super Out that have survived, and even thrived.

The Super Out Discotheque space was passed down in the Hayek family for three generations.
The Super Out Discotheque space was passed down in the Hayek family for three generations.

This space, which originally dates back to the 1930s, has seen both the country’s glory days and the destruction of its wars. Hayek talks fondly of the city’s heyday before the civil war but angrily when it comes to politics. Hayek, who started fighting with the Phalange party — a Lebanese right-wing Christian militia — when he was fifteen, lost friends and family during the conflict. Christians are estimated to comprise about forty percent of Lebanon’s population, with Sunni and Shia Muslims and the minority Druze accounting for the rest, and alliances shifted frequently during the long civil war. The start of the conflict is widely considered to be April 13, 1975, when a Beirut bus was ambushed by Phalangist gunmen, killing twenty-seven Palestinian passengers.

Hayek fought for about seven years. When Phalange party leader and president-elect Bachir Gemayel was assassinated in 1982, he put down his gun permanently.

“For us, we lost the cause when [Gemayel] died. Our dream went,” Hayek says.

Since then, he has been solely focused on spinning records and selling tapes.

Hayek’s prodigious record collection has provided a very good living for him, allowing him to pursue his passion in the neighborhood where he grew up. Twice married and twice divorced, he enjoys his bachelor life, preferring to fill his days with smoke, conversation and the sound of music.

Once a fighter for the Phalange party, Hayek now spends his days manning his record store and burning CDs.
Once a fighter for the Phalange party, Hayek now spends his days manning his record store and burning CDs.

He was just nineteen years old when he opened Super Out — a name he says is inspired by the word “output,” referring to music equipment. Back then, he operated the store in between classes at university, where he was studying to be a civil engineer, and before fighting with the Phalange along the front lines of downtown Beirut at night.

“This was where Martyrs’ Square was,” Hayek says, pointing as he draws the old battle lines on a white square of paper. “We had a bunker in front of St. George’s Church. We had another one on the Roxy [a downtown movie theater used by snipers].” Downtown, since rebuilt, was then a battlefield. The unofficial front line was a no-man’s land known as the Green Line, named for the bushes and other foliage that were left to grow wildly for years while fighting raged. The heart of the commercial district where the upscale Beirut Souks shopping center now sits was once the site of fierce battles.

Hayek switches seamlessly from seriousness to laughter as he reminisces about the lighthearted side of being a young man during the civil war. He recalls how he and his friends used to hang out in front of the sandbag-stacked music store in order to monitor who was going in and out, a sack of green fava beans and Heinekens between them.

The young fighters used the shop as a place to hang out and rest between battles, listening to music while they talked about girls and drank coffee and whiskey. In those days, they listened to classic rock — Eric Clapton, Carlos Santana (one of Hayek’s favorites), Genesis and Roy Buchanan.

Super Out Discotheque has survived years of civil war and conflict within Lebanon.
Super Out Discotheque has survived years of civil war and conflict within Lebanon.

“We used to sit on the wall [across from the store] wearing our uniforms with Heineken doubles in our hands. The Heineken double [an extra-large can] was a trend back then,” Hayek says with a smile. After finishing, the men would set up the empty cans and use them for target practice.

The lack of electricity and long power outages during the war caused many other shops to close, but Hayek’s father worked at Lebanon’s state-owned electricity company headquarters, Electricité du Liban, across the street. Through his father’s window in the electricity building he got the power he needed to keep Super Out open.

Despite the turmoil, business for Hayek was good. He would close up shop at seven p.m. every night, and with all the business, he was able to buy a brand new Nissan off the lot within a couple of years.

“In the days of the war, the store was never empty, even when there was shelling,” Hayek says.

Hayek started off with only 100 vinyl records and a couple of pieces of equipment, including the reel-to-reel tape player he bought and the recorder that he still uses today. He was a shrewd entrepreneur when it came to acquiring his collection, driving north to the coastal city of Jounieh, a dangerous trip during the civil war, in order to pick up new records from the port there.

He bought from Beirut’s port when shipments came in from Europe, and had a direct connect to Paris through an airplane steward friend who would collect records from Hayek’s sister in France and fly back with them in tow. Even today, though he has more records than he could ever need — about 12,000 — he still has “spies,” as he calls them, who are his extra eyes and ears in his eternal search for certain records throughout Lebanon. Though there are a few other longstanding record stores in the city, Hayek has never considered them competition. His ability to procure difficult-to-find records and provide a consistent source of music to people looking for distraction and fun amidst struggle has always been his strongest selling point.

Hayek burns vintage Arabic music on CDs to sell, but the original records are not for sale.
Hayek burns vintage Arabic music on CDs to sell, but the original records are not for sale.

In an era of online pirating, this self-proclaimed luddite shuns the Internet and still holds onto self-made mixes, though he has evolved from tapes to CDs. Hayek says his refusal to use the Internet mostly stems from the short period of time when he first got online and was constantly barraged by email to send people songs. After a virus wiped out 80,000 songs that he had personally recorded from vinyl records six years ago, he shut down his Internet connection for good.

Hayek worships the quality of music above all, dismissing mp3s altogether, believing the only truly clean and real sound comes from a vinyl record.

Despite his lack of a presence on the web, his neighborhood joint is never empty, with cigarette smoke, tunes and discussion perpetually filling the space. The stools on the other side of Hayek’s glass counter are nearly always filled. His nearly unmatched collection of vintage Arabic music, copies of which he sells on burned CDs, is still the primary draw. Some cassettes are for sale, but the vinyl records themselves are strictly off the market.

Famous Lebanese musicians such as Wadih el-Safi and Ziad Rahbani have been here over the years, and Hayek has worked with Endemol, the producer of the Arab version of “The Voice.” In the past, singers used to come into his shop to make copies of their records — a cheaper option than booking studio recording time — so they could distribute to them to radio stations to be broadcasted.

Hayek is visibly agitated when asked about the recent changes in the area, as his neighborhood is being quickly transformed, building-by-building, into a fashionable bar and restaurant strip. The neighborhood, Mar Mikhael, is the new “it” place, and Hayek is incensed with the results.

“Everything changed. We used to know every neighbor. Now, everyone is a foreigner. New people come in. A lot of companies have moved into the residential area…They ruined everything. Everyone is drunk on the streets.”

One customer, Marlene Bustros, who lives in the neighborhood, agrees with Hayek. “Sometimes I can’t think of the life we used to have, ” says Bustros, who has lived in the area for over thirty years. She is a frequent customer who comes in not only for the music, but for the company. She and Hayek joke for hours, with him frequently doing his trademark “moose ears,” waving his fingers with his thumbs at his temples while he sticks out his tongue. “I came in for one [CD], now I have nearly eighty,” Bustros says.

Hayek shows off his signature "moose ears" pose.
Hayek shows off his signature “moose ears” pose.

One thing that has changed for the better, Hayek says, is that while only Christians came here during the civil war, Muslims and others stop in these days.

Even amidst the current instability, it is business as usual at Super Out. As long as Hayek is around, there will always be good company and Arabic coffee on Armenia Street. “There was always coffee on the fire,” he says, “Even until today, it’s still on.”