SAN DIEGO — The young Latino man walked up to the counter of the Art-Te Company and, in Spanish, asked owner Arturo Urgelles for the newest Earth, Wind and Fire album.
He left empty-handed, after Urgelles, also in Spanish, informed him that the downtown record store at 10th Avenue and Broadway only carries music imported from Mexico, Latin America and other Spanish-speaking countries.
Later, Urgelles--who has operated the Art-Te Company at its present location for 17 years--said he turns away customers looking for the latest American Top 40 releases several times a day.
"These other albums, you can find everywhere," Urgelles, 57, said. "But we're the only record store in town where San Diego's Hispanic population--which is increasing every day--can find the music of their native countries."
Indeed, the average customer who happens to walk into the Art-Te Company--the store is named after Urgelles and his wife, Teresita--won't find a single familiar title in any of the racks.
Down one aisle are the newest albums by Julio Iglesias, Roberto Carlos and Jose Jose, as well as other popular Latino recording artists.
Down another are sections for various types of Latino music--salsa, polkas, mariachis, norteno, rondallas, and even Tex-Mex--and folk albums from more than a dozen Spanish-speaking countries, including Argentina, Cuba, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru and Spain.
Elsewhere in the store are singles, cassettes, compact discs and Mexican pulp novels and fan magazines.
And since February, the store has been carrying more than 500 videocassettes of popular Mexican films for rent or purchase.
"We specialize exclusively in Spanish-language products, mostly imported from Mexico," Urgelles said. "And we pride ourselves on having the best selection of music on both sides of the border.
"We sell not just what's popular now, but a full catalogue of records by artists who have passed away, like Pedro Infante, as a service to our older customers."
Accordingly, Urgelles added, his clientele is drawn from all age groups, unlike American record stores, whose customers are mostly young and interested in purchasing only the hits.
"Most of our regular customers live in San Diego and South Bay," Urgelles said, "but we also get people from as far away as Encinitas, Oceanside and Escondido--as well as Tijuana.
"And almost every day, someone says to us, 'Gee, I've been looking for this album all over the place, but I hadn't been able to find it anywhere until I came here.' "
Urgelles proudly says that business has never been better, particularly because his is the only shop of its kind in the county.
And his optimism for the future is based, he said, on the increasing number of Latinos who settle in San Diego every year.
(A spokeswoman for the San Diego Assn. of Governments confirms this trend. According to Sandag statistics, San Diego County's Latino population increased from 12.8% of the total population, or 174,209, in 1970, to 14.8%, or 275,177, in 1980.)
"Before you start a business, you have to obtain census information of some kind," Urgelles said. "And when I first opened the Art-Te Company at another downtown location almost 30 years ago, I learned that the number of Hispanics in the county was increasing all the time.
"That's why I chose to specialize--and that's why I've been doing better all the time."
Other San Diego area record stores have likewise taken note of the county's growing Latino population.
Bobbie Head, manager of the Tower Records store on El Cajon Boulevard in East San Diego, said she sells an average of 30 Latino records a month, ranging from hit albums by Julio Iglesias to more traditional mariachi and salsa records.
"Just in the last seven or eight years, it's definitely picked up, particularly around Cinco de Mayo," Head said. "Not only are more Hispanics moving to San Diego all the time--right now, they account for more than 25% of our customers--but a growing number of Americans are getting into the music as well."
David M. Hakola, general manager of the Arcade Music Co., a used record store on F Street in downtown, agrees.
"I'd say over the last two years, our Mexican clientele has increased by about 60%," Hakola said. "And while many of them buy American rock and pop albums, like everybody else, a lot of them come in regularly to look for traditional Mexican and Latin American albums.
"And as soon as they find one, they snatch it up--generally, the very same day that it's put out in the racks."