Salty’s in Modesto plays on after the loss of its music-loving owner

jfarrow@modbee.comDecember 29, 2013 

— On the surface, Salty’s Record Attic seemed to have everything going against it.

Its location, for example: on Ninth Street, across from a lumber yard and junk company, and sitting between a bolt shop – “All types of threaded fasteners,” the sign reads – and an auto repair shop. Nothing like the McHenry Avenue locations that give visibility to shops like Yesterday’s Books and Remember When antiques.

No bold signage to attract passers-by to the treasure trove of music and movie memorabilia. For drivers heading northeast on Ninth, a “Kansas Ave., Needham St.” sign all but obscures the store, which has “Salty’s Record Attic” painted on its boarded-up window and across the top of its facade.

And technology, which has changed not only how so many people listen to music (MP3 downloads), but how they purchase it (iTunes and other online sources).

But what Salty’s always had going for it was owner Ramona Saben. Her business savvy, determination and passion for music more than made up for the challenges of operating a largely vinyl-based business in an industrial area of Modesto.

On the first of this month, Saben died after a long battle against cancer. Her husband, Craig, and employee and friend Martha Vallejo will keep the business going because, really, there never was talk of doing anything else.

“She basically didn’t believe anything was going to happen – that she’d recover and come back and it would be business as usual,” Vallejo said. “She never talked about (what should happen) when she was gone because she didn’t think she would be gone.”

So now, while business will go on, it hardly will be “as usual.” By her husband, family and friends like Vallejo (whose brother married the Sabens’ daughter in 1982) and the store’s regular customers, Ramona Saben’s absence is deeply felt.

“Ramona was phenomenal at getting items for customers, including things people were told were out of print,” Vallejo said. She succeeded most times, but on those occasions she didn’t, it was only after exhausting every avenue she could follow. Saben also had an amazing memory and knowledge of music, Vallejo said.

Efren Martinez, Modesto’s Quake Mobile DJ, can attest to that. “Ramona was my Internet source on music before the Internet even existed,” he told The Modesto Bee via email. “Every so often, I would go into Salty’s trying to find a particular song for a client that I didn’t know the name of. She was so quick to name that tune, all I would have to do sometimes is hum a few bars or sing a lyric or two and then – Shazam! – she would then pull the record out for me in seconds.”

Now in his mid-40s, Martinez recalls Saben’s encouragement when he was an aspiring disc jockey. “I remember walking into Salty’s and being in awe with the sight of so many records at my fingertips,” he said. “I quickly started a conversation with Ramona, letting her know that I was some hot-shot DJ. Sounds kind of funny now because I was only 13 years old. Just the same, Ramona treated me like if I was some hot-shot DJ, and from that moment on, we became friends.”

Longtime customer Art Lovato of Modesto was in Salty’s on Friday to browse and inquire about Beatles and Herman’s Hermits LPs. “I love music, I love oldies, and I’ve always thought that albums sounded better than CDs” the 49-year-old said. He’s shopped Salty’s because it has good prices and he enjoyed talking with Saben. “She knew a lot about her music,” he said, adding, “I prayed for her when she was in the hospital.”

Not everyone could easily see Saben’s warmth. “Some people called her Salty,” Vallejo said. “She told people exactly what was on her mind.”

Vallejo said fair pricing was important to Saben, who when hunting down items for customers always tried to get them the best deal. But she insisted on fair deals for herself as well. Someone might come in looking to sell records, Vallejo said, and if Saben didn’t like the condition of the discs, she could be blunt about it. “She’d say, ‘If I had a hammer, I’d take it to these. They’re garbage,’ ” Vallejo said. She’d say, ‘Would you buy this record if it was in this condition?’ 

Thinking like her customers is a big part of why Salty’s kept going while stores like Tower, Wherehouse and Replay fell, Craig Saben said. “The thing is diversity,” he said. “A lot of people who had a business – nice people, good people – a lot of times they stocked the music they liked.” Ramona knew it was important to carry a good cross section: classical, jazz, rockabilly, country, rock, R&B. “A lot of it might not be my choice, or her choice, but it was what a lot of people liked.”

Customers also know they can find a variety of media at Salty’s, Craig Saben said. It stocks not just vinyl and CDs, but eight-track and cassette tapes – popular with classic-car owners who still have working tape decks and want music to play in them – and even some reel-to-reels.

Craig Saben, who had his own career with the city of Modesto, always was involved with Salty’s, “but not up front and visible like she was,” he said of Ramona. He retired just before his wife became ill about three years ago. He was Ramona’s primary caregiver, looking after her at their home and keeping in frequent contact with Vallejo over the phone.

Nowadays, Craig Saben goes through the stock – there’s an actual attic at Salty’s that holds about twice as much as what’s on display in the store – to price it and put it out for sale. Vallejo provides the customer service.

Because very little ordering of new stock has been done since Ramona first became ill, there’s “a lot of catching up to do” at the store, Craig Saben said, but there won’t be “any great changes as far as I can see.”

One thing he’s pondering, though, is whether to start carrying a few turntables. As records have seen a resurgence in recent years – Justin Timberlake and Pearl Jam are among contemporary artists issuing limited vinyl releases – youth are seeing what they’ve missed out on. He and Vallejo have had teens and 20-somethings come in who have pored over their parents’ record collections – kept even in households that no longer have turntables.

“As a DJ, I think there is a lot to be said about the feel of a record and the sound of the snap, crackle, pop when the record spins,” Martinez said. “Salty’s is a gem here,” he added, encouraging music lovers “to step outside of the digital download world from time to time and walk into Salty’s Record Attic so that they can experience the sound of music as Ramona and many of us DJs enjoy.”

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Bee City Editor Deke Farrow can be reached at or (209) 578-2327.

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