BY CHRISTOPHER TREACY
If you sell vinyl, they will come.
Or so it seems these days. But it remains to be seen if vinyl is here to stay; formats come and go. When Roger Chouinard opened Purchase Street Records in New Bedford exactly five years ago this Friday, December 3, wasn’t he even a little worried it wouldn’t take off?
“Totally,” he admitted during a recent chat. “But the way I look at it, the average person makes $300 to $500 a week and hopefully I can profit that amount with enough sales to pay myself. It’s worked out over the past five years.”
For the uninitiated, Chouinard’s shop is a little different. He mainly sells the music he knows best: metal and punk. He knows the industry from multiple perspectives as a retailer, as a working drummer, and as the nephew of the late Bobby Chouinard who played in Billy Squier’s band, among others. Prior to opening his record shop, Chouinard wrote a book about his uncle, The Story of Bobby Chouinard, Drummer Extraordinaire, compiling memories and photographs culled from far and wide. At the time, he owned a tattoo shop and, not surprisingly, he has his fair share of body ink. And some piercings. As a result, he might look a bit intimidating, but for the most part he’s a gentle guy.
“I’m nicer than what I appear… most of the time,” he said with a laugh. “But I have an edgier mood going in the shop. When you walk in here it’s all hand painted stuff. First thing you see is a big KISS sign. There’s Skid Row, Dio, Type O Negative, and Guns N’ Roses posters on the wall, so, you know, it does have an attitude. So I feel the owner should have somewhat of an attitude. I make jokes and offer to help my customers find things so they know I’m approachable.”
Despite being a specialty shop, Chouinard does carry some other genres and he stocks both new and used vinyl. He stays away from country, jazz, classical, and soul. He also doesn’t carry turntables, mainly because the ones he’d prefer to carry would be higher end. Additionally, he’s only got 400 square feet to work with, so he has to think strategically about maximizing the limited space.
In the five years since he opened, record collecting has exploded. Looking back 20 years, many music shops were closing. Longstanding small businesses in and around metropolitan cities had made the transition from vinyl and cassettes to compact discs through the late 80s and 90s, but when digital downloads became widely available, brick and mortar stores began disappearing.
Some five years later, Newbury Comics began stocking small quantities of vinyl again and devoting some retail space to the medium. Since then, what began as a dull roar has grown into a clamoring demand for vinyl. It’d seem that many fans prefer to honor their music by owning hard copies of albums in their ultimate physical form; call it a backlash against the disposable nature of digital files. Now it’s to the point where there’s an industry shortage and seriously delayed manufacturing times. In turn, this has driven up prices for new vinyl. Used vinyl has also gotten more expensive, in part because of the pandemic: record collecting is something that can be done alone, at home. New or used, records can be mail ordered from around the world, and when lockdowns started in 2020, collectors got busy online.
Chouinard used this to his advantage when he was faced with having to close the shop due to the spreading Coronavirus.
“When I closed down and stopped ordering things from my distributors, I wasn’t in big debt with my credit card, per se, but I did have a balance I wanted to pay off. And since I don’t usually do mail order, I went into my basement and picked out a lot of releases that I’d overstocked in the past. For the first time, I put them online for mail order and actually sold my extra stock for substantially more money than the price point in the store. These were titles that didn’t move in the store, for whatever reason, but the price had tripled online.”
Chouinard also got crafty, selling exclusive t-shirts, hats, and tote bags online to an audience that was eager to help him stay afloat. But as someone that’d worked seven days a week pretty much since he turned 18, he was also okay with having a couple months off. He says it gave him time to work on his house and reorganize the record store.
“I stayed away from the curbside pickup,” he said. “I laid back and let everybody else do that. I tried to mainly just stay home and take it easy while they figured out how to get a handle on this thing.”
Despite having to close his doors for a bit, Chouinard felt confident that when it came time to reopen, his customers would return. He knows he’s providing a desired service. And if you weren’t already aware, metal fans are unusually passionate about their collecting.
“Metal guys will spend their last dime on a record and they just don’t care, it’s more important to them,” he explained. “They’re like okay, so I can have this sandwich or I can have this metal record that I’ve never seen. They never second guess themselves. And they tend to be completists. So, the collectability factor is definitely there. Also, a lot of metal stuff is very limited. Some of it has a different meaning, you might say it sends a ‘bad message,’ so sometimes you can’t buy it online as a result, because certain platforms won’t carry it. But we might have it and when a metal dude sees that record, they’re like, I’ve never seen this before, and I can’t buy it online, I need to buy this. As for metal guys selling their records, they would lose their apartment before they’d sell their records.”
Some obviously do sell their records or Chouinard would be at a loss to carry used metal, but there’s a scarcity-mentality that keeps his customers loyal. And, for collectors of a certain age, there’s an irresistible nostalgia factor. This gets reinforced by his having made the shop a destination spot for artists to do signings and, in some cases, just to stop in and shop on their way in and out of the area—The Vault Music Hall is located directly next door. You might just get to meet some lifelong heroes at the store.
“I’ve met so many local and national artists at Purchase Street Records,” said John Sylvia, a New Bedford resident and ongoing customer. “There is no better feeling than pulling up, seeing tour busses in front of the venue next door, walking into the store, and seeing band members hanging out, telling stories, or buying records for themselves.”
Sylvia first entered Chouinard’s store to buy a spot in line for a signing with Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider and says he felt like he was walking into 1986. He began to frequent the establishment regularly, becoming close with Chouinard, and helping out when needed. The camaraderie he describes harks back to a past when record stores were places at which local music enthusiasts would hang out in their spare time—a culture that has returned, to some degree, despite the price hike for the records themselves.
“The store has become such an important part of my life,” Sylvia said. “As a result, I began re-collecting the items of my youth—patches, pins, posters, cassettes, t-shirts, and, of course, records. Roger has been able to connect me with some amazing, hard to find pieces. People travel from all over New England and beyond to visit his store. I hear time and time again about how impressed they are with his selection of records. If he doesn’t have it, which is rare, chances are better than good that he can find it for you.”
One thing that’s certain: collectors want independent record stores to stay around, so they continue spending the money to help them subsist.
“A lot of folks want to have original stuff and it’s gotten expensive,” Chouinard explained. “It’s more of a collector’s value. There are plenty of $5 and $8 Pat Benatar and Billy Joel records in the racks, but especially with a lot of the metal that came out in the 90s—they didn’t print that much of it, so that drives up the price. You can buy reissues when they’re available, but collectors often want the sense of history that comes with buying original copies. And they’ll wait until they find it. It’s almost like an Easter egg hunt for them. The flipside is that the record has been floating around for thirty years and, sometimes, may have been mishandled along the way. Take Metallica’s Master of Puppets. Originals are between $100 and $200, depending on the pressing. You can buy a reissue for $24. Especially for a lot of the newer people, they’re okay with $24 Master of Puppets, because you still get the music and the vinyl is brand new. But a lot of the more devoted metal guys feel that buying reissues demeans their collection.”
Regardless, Chouinard says that in the five years he’s been opened, one important thing he’s learned is never to make assumptions.
“As for buying and selling, you never know what’s gonna walk through the door,” he said. “I’ve had holy grail records walk into the store in this town. And then I’ve taken entire collections and just thrown them out because they’re all junk. But you take the day that’s given to you and just try to succeed. You never judge a customer when they first come in. I always try and greet new customers the way I would greet one of my best customers. Because when somebody new walks through the door, you just don’t know who it is.”
Purchase Street Records is located at 767 Purchase Street in New Bedford, MA. If you stop by the store this weekend, Dec. 3-5, you can get 15% off your entire purchase and a free shirt with a $40 purchase. Furthermore, hoodies are $30 and hats are $15. Visit the store’s Facebook page by clicking HERE for more info and the latest news.