Walk into The Stereo Shop in Martinez looking for high-end music equipment, and Louis Hernandez will sit you down on the center of a wooden bench in the shop and ask you to close your eyes.
He will take out a record and a CD of the same artist -- Eva Cassidy on a recent occasion -- and cue the music. Then Hernandez will ask which version you prefer.
If you're like most people, you'll prefer Cassidy's Fields of Gold wafting through the air on the record player instead of the CD.
"No one since 1985 has ever picked the CD as being better than the record player," said Hernandez, 63, the store's owner.
It doesn't matter if he plays jazz, classical music or The Beatles -- people instinctively flock to the sound of the record player, he said.
A self-professed audiophile, Hernandez opened The Stereo Shop in 1976. Its original location was a small space on Washington Road behind what is now the Tile Center.
Now the store is situated in a unique, geometrically shaped house on Columbia Road and sells music, audio and video systems, and surround-sound systems.
He caters to high-end clients who are willing to dole out more money for a quality system and equipment. As people gravitate toward digital music and Internet downloads, that has become a smaller segment of consumers.
"It's the new technology, and everyone is embracing the new technology," Hernandez said. "Diehards like me and a lot of my customers who do not have iPods and do not download from the Internet like records and CDs on really good equipment. Unless you hear that equipment, you really don't know what we are talking about."
Ken Lummis, of Martinez, has taken in equipment to be repaired at the shop and looks to Hernandez for product guidance.
"I came in a year ago and started immediately drooling over the equipment here," Lummis said during a recent trip to the store.
The Stereo Shop has had several homes through the years. In addition to the original spot on Washington Road, it was once housed in Columbia Square shopping center, between Columbia and Washington roads.
The business has had the same address since 1999 after Hernandez came across a similar building in Belvedere, and was inspired to re-create the look for his store. The geometric-looking store came shipped from California with a kit to help put it together.
"I wanted something that was really unique and easy to find," Hernandez said. "I normally don't use signs. If you use signs, you get too many people breaking in. ... I wanted to be out of the way and yet easy to find."
Hernandez moved with his family to Augusta in 1964 from Puerto Rico when his father was stationed at Fort Gordon.
"I married a girl from here, and I have been here ever since," he said.
Music started out as a hobby for him, and then one day when he was in his 20s, he visited a high-end store in Atlanta.
"I always liked music," he said. "I had stereo equipment that was not high end and I thought it was really good until one day I walked into Fat Julian's (Audio) in Atlanta and heard some real equipment and after that I couldn't listen to mine anymore. That was it."
Hernandez studied electronics technology at Augusta Technical College. Before opening his store, he had several other jobs, including working at WRDW as a television engineer and working on two-way radio communication and electronics maintenance.
"Every time I wanted to buy equipment I had to go to Atlanta, and I had a lot of friends who had to go to Atlanta," he said. "No one in Augusta had this gear. There was just a lot of generic stuff. A friend of mine in Atlanta basically told me you should open up a place in Augusta. I am still here."
There have been many changes in the music industry since Hernandez started his business. A field dominated by records changed to CDs and, most recently, digital music from the Internet that can be downloaded onto an MP3 player or computer.
Through all that change, much of the music quality has been lost, he said.
"People are listening to their iPods these days, and they think the music is really great," he said. "People just don't realize what music can sound like unless they hear it on the really good equipment."
Hernandez said that he likes just about any kind of music but that he probably listens to classical about 80 percent of the time in his shop.
"It's been fun. You get to play with new equipment. Even stuff that I don't sell, I get to audition from other manufacturers," Hernandez said. "Basically, it's like Christmas morning when you get a new piece of equipment. You can't wait to open it up and listen to it."
Anthony Jowers said he discovered The Stereo Shop when he was a teenager and it was in its original spot. His father had operated a doctor's office in the building.
"What I liked about Louis was he had a strong passion for what he does and his passion kept him from being a re-seller for the lower-end mass products," Jowers said. "He chose a small niche market because of his passion and desire for the higher quality."
Hernandez's decades of experience make his opinion very valuable, Jowers said.
"He doesn't just regurgitate the manufacturer facts. He actually sits there for hours and hours and weeks and listens to the (products), truly with an experienced ear," Jowers said. "It's his passion that makes him believable."
Hernandez said he would like to continue with the business for several more years, as long as the economy makes that possible, and then sell it to someone who wants to continue selling high-end stereo products.
"I still enjoy the music and have fun," he said. "That's really the biggest thing."