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Record stores are getting their groove back

Planet Records owner John Damroth sorts merchandise in his Cambridge store, which recently reopened for business.
Planet Records owner John Damroth sorts merchandise in his Cambridge store, which recently reopened for business.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

For the past 12 years, Christmas has come in April for independent record stores. The advent of Record Store Day, the annual blowout when musicians release hundreds of limited-edition recordings to support brick-and-mortar stores, has boosted the fortunes of retailers in a business that was practically left for dead by the arrival of the Internet.

This year, though, Christmas never came. March brought the coronavirus, and by April, record stores across New England stood as silent as an album still sealed in its shrink wrap.

John Damroth, who opened Planet Records in Kenmore Square nearly 40 years ago, furloughed his four employees and braced for financial impact. Then he went to his current location outside Harvard Square, locked the door behind him, and began filling online orders.

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Dismayed about closing, his mood quickly brightened. Having handled an average of 20-25 mail orders per day before the Great Pause, suddenly he had twice that many. With no live concerts to attend, it seemed that some music lovers wanted to spend some of that stimulus money adding to their record collections.

A few regular customers found unique ways to support the store. When the saxophonist Lee Konitz died in April, for instance, one guy ordered everything Planet had in stock with Konitz’s name on it. And as the pandemic wore on, orders remained high. Even more encouraging for Damroth, though, were the voice messages and social media posts he received from well-wishers.

“I’m the kind of guy [for whom] that matters a lot, maybe more than money,” Damroth says. “I feel like I’m carrying the torch. It reinforces the feeling that I want to be doing this because people love it.”

Planet Records in Cambridge owner John Damroth says his business weathered the three-month shutdown with a big jump in online sales.
Planet Records in Cambridge owner John Damroth says his business weathered the three-month shutdown with a big jump in online sales.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Around the Boston area, record store owners say they survived the shutdown through a combination of online sales — usually on eBay or through the record marketplace Discogs — curbside pickup, and, in some cases, a little rent relief from their landlords. A few who had comparatively little online presence, such as Nick Williams, who co-owns Deep Thoughts JP in Jamaica Plain with his wife, Alaina Stamatis, say they worried about their livelihood.

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Others, such as Reed Lappin at the venerable In Your Ear on Commonwealth Avenue, used the downtime to upgrade their Internet listings.

“Our website wasn’t really anything beyond a calling card,” Lappin says. “We had to shift into the online world almost completely.”

Some got creative. Todd Radict, who owns the punk-flavored Skele-Tone Records in Rochester, N.H., posted live videos of himself thumbing through the bins in his store, pulling out favorite records. A member of the New York City band the Radicts who later worked for Hilly Kristal at CBGB, he has far-flung customers who know about his punk pedigree, he says. One guy from Maine ordered $200 of stuff each week for the duration of the shutdown.

Since reopening in mid-May, on the day New Hampshire retailers were permitted to do so, Skele-Tone has been offering black T-shirts that read “Straight Outta Quarantine.” They’ve sold several, Radict says through the bandanna wrapped around his face.

The racks of used vinyl at Planet Records in Cambridge, which reopened earlier this month.
The racks of used vinyl at Planet Records in Cambridge, which reopened earlier this month.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

In Worcester, Joe Demers of Joe’s Albums says there were days he brought bags of mail “as big as me” to the post office for delivery.

“I expected it would tail off,” he says. “But it really picked up.” He’s one of the rare shop owners who lists every record for sale in the store ― not just the high-ticket items — on his website.

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When Jason Isbell made his latest album, “Reunions,” available a week early in a special edition to support independent stores, Demers rounded up about 20 copies.

“We went live at 6:20 a.m., and within 20 minutes they were all gone,” he says.

But online sales can’t compare to selling a record over the counter for store owners like Dave Perry at Lowell’s Vinyl Destination. “I got into this because of the face-to-face thing,” he says. “I always loved going into the record store and hanging out.”

His shop is located in Mill No. 5, an “indoor streetscape” in a repurposed factory building that remains closed to the public. The shopkeepers in the mill plan to open for a test run during the second weekend of July, then decide how to proceed from there. Perry says his business can survive for the time being on his “small war chest.”

“Right now, we’re literally gathering cobwebs,” he says.

The owners of Inclusion Records in Norwell don’t sell online, either. Worried about the health of their parents, John Nichols and Bobby DePesa voluntarily closed a couple of weeks before the governor’s advisory went into effect.

“It was definitely nerve-wracking, like, ‘Is this business gonna survive?’ ” says Nichols. Like Radict, they posted videos of themselves flipping through albums, and customers responded by ordering for curbside pickup

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One guy who had never set foot in the store began buying albums every time they posted, says DePesa. Mostly classic rock — Tom Petty or the Eagles. “By the third or fourth day we started to recognize the caller ID,” he says.

In quarantine, some people rediscovered their sound systems. “We sold a lot of record players,” says DePesa.

Stores in Massachusetts were permitted to reopen during Phase 2, which began on June 7. But in an abundance of caution, Inclusion Records won’t reopen until July 1. “We’d much rather have people in here shopping,” says Nichols. “We’re trying to read the community.”

Those owners who have been able to reopen in recent weeks are grateful.

“I’m just happy to be here, with the doors open and the breeze coming through,” says Deep Thoughts’s Williams. “Life feels much better.”

A customer sanitizes his hands after shopping at Planet Records in Cambridge.
A customer sanitizes his hands after shopping at Planet Records in Cambridge.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Each store is handling precautions in its own way. Masks, of course, are required; most are making hand sanitizer available. Some customers are wearing gloves, the owners say. Some are not.

This year’s Record Store Day will now take place on three dates, in late August, September, and October, to minimize crowding. At Planet Records, the pandemic helped convince owner Damroth to shorten his hours of operation. “For now, I’m not concerned about cranking the volume knob up to 11,” he says. “I’m looking for a slow easing back into this.”

In the meantime, he’ll gladly bask in the confirmation of something he’s long suspected.

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“Records have substance,” he says, “and you’re looking for substance in times like this.”

E-mail James Sullivan at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.