When you talk to Mark Mawhinney, one thing quickly becomes clear: He cares about sound. The Pittsburgh-based businessman is an audiophile, and all his endeavors support that concern. He operates a high-end home audio company (Northern Audio) and the only record store in the US that carries the entire Mobile Fidelity catalog (Music To My Ear). So when Mark discusses his other business, manufacturing the Spin-Clean Record Washer, you know it’s about more than hawking plastic boxes.
In fact, his love affair with the Spin-clean is nearly lifelong. “I started working at my father’s record store at around 8 or 10,” Mark reminisced during a recent call. That’s where he first encountered the vinyl washing machine. Around that time, the mid-’70s, it was owned by a company called Fidelitone and named Spin ‘N Clean.
His father, Paul Mawhinney — who owned the venerated Record-Rama and eventually amassed a collection of around 3,000,000 records — kept one at the front counter to freshen up used vinyl. When the washer was in use, customers watched in awe. “They’d see you cleaning the records and say, ‘What’s that?!’” Mark said. “You’d show them how it works, and they bought it.”
According to Mark though, Fidelitone’s plan was to “throw it in big piles” in chain stores without advertisement, instruction, or demonstration. That didn’t work. In 1975, the company decided to discontinue the product. Paul wasn’t pleased. “My dad called and said, ‘We sell tons of these things. You can’t do that,” Mark remembered. The elder Mawhinney then made an offer to buy Spin-Clean outright. Paul got the remaining stock, changed the name, and began manufacturing the product anew.
For the next three decades, the family would hand assemble each record washer and sell around 1,000 a year. It was a successful, but modest business. That all changed in 2009, when Paul decided to retire. Mark asked to take over the product. “I loved Spin-Clean,” he said. “And I knew I could do something with it. At this point, no one really knew what Spin-Clean was. We’d been around 30 years, but nobody really had a clue.”
He certainly did something with it. “I’d been in the audio business for many years at the time,” Mark recounted. “And I had a good friend named Chad Kassem who runs a company called Acoustic Sounds. I called him up, said I was going to send him something, and asked him to let me know what he thought.” For the unengaged, Kassem is something of a mythical figure in the audiophile world thanks to his outsize personality and revered vinyl businesses (the Acoustic Sounds store, Analogue Productions label, and Quality Record Pressings plant).
He got an enthusiastic call from Kassem, who loved the Spin-Clean. Mark was invited to bring 50 boxes to the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest to hang out at the Acoustic Sounds booth. It turned out that they massively underestimated the demand. “We sold 50 units in less than a couple of hours,” Mark laughed.
In the furor, journalists expressed interest in the product, including respected reviewer Michael Fremer of Stereophile Magazine. After Fremer reviewed it, Mark bragged, “every other reviewer in the history of the business reviewed it in every magazine there was.”
Spin-Clean subsequently won awards from Stereophile and The Absolute Sound that year. “We went from basically nothing to 180 overnight,” Mark said. For an $80 record washer with fewer bells and whistles than its high-end motorized competitors, “that was huge!”
Demand immediately outstripped Mark and his family’s ability to hand assemble units as they had in the past. “We just couldn’t do it,” he said. “We couldn’t keep up with it, and there was no more space in the hallway for the boxes to sit.”
From there, they found a state-of-the-art manufacturer, gained worldwide distribution, and jumped from an unassuming 1,000 units a year to around 35,000. Almost 10 years later, the success still shocks Mark Mawhinney. “Spin-Clean has been part of my life since I can remember, but I just could not imagine it would end up like this!”