If collecting records can be considered a modern-day form of antiquing, then consider Planet Records the mother of all antique shops.
As store fires, Napster and new forms of digital music threatened his old-fashioned record store at the turn of the century, John Damroth reconceived his store as just that. What if, he reasoned, Planet Records became a place people came to find rare records or those no longer in stock. What if it became a place people brought their old collections for resale? What if they looked at his record store as a place to buy and sell “antique” music?
Today, Planet Records, which opened in 1983, boasts of the largest collection of classical records in greater Boston. It’s a place in which aficionados can find the limited-edition, original-remastered recording of Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas No. 1, 2, 3 & 15, Japanese edition, and conductor Alfred Cortot’s performance of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos BWV 596. And it’s a place to find “used music” for prices ranging from $1 to $50.
But this store, which grew up in Kenmore Square between The Rat, a fabled but now defunct venue, and Celebrations, a disco club, also has its share of contemporary classical, jazz, rock and punk. It’s a place to browse – just like those antique stores Damroth had in mind.
“One of the things about the store is that it’s like a mutual fund,” Damroth said. “We have a spread of different stuff just in case the classical guy doesn’t come in, we have stuff for the jazz guy or the rock guy.”
Damroth first came to Boston more than 30 years ago to break into advertising. He wanted to be the funny, creative guy, but instead he was the guy who got yelled at for not telling his supervisor that her mascara has run. After three months, he decided he was done with advertising.
He took a job at a record store, where he realized music was something he loved and came naturally to him. After managing the store, Damroth knew this was something he could do himself. That’s when he decided to open Planet Records.
The store was built on the parlor floor of an apartment building in Kenmore Square. Damroth did all the construction himself, and hired his brother who is a contractor to help with the carpentry. The store proved to be such a success that Damroth was able to pay off the store’s loan in the first year. He decided to expand into the neighboring apartments and the store grew by the year.
In 1997, Damroth opened a second shop on JFK Street in Harvard Square.
Planet Records seemed to be the smartest investment he could have made, Damroth said, until his Kenmore Square shop burned to the ground by a mysterious fire in 1998.
“We lost everything,” Damroth said. “It wasn’t a big tragedy, but the tragic part came with my connection to some of the records that were lost. A lot of them were amazing.”
A charred Squier Stratocaster from the Kenmore store fire hangs on the wall of Planet Records.
With only one shop to house Damroth’s entire music inventory, the store on JFK Street grew cramped, but business continued as usual.
It wasn’t until the late ’90s and early ’00s that Damroth started to see business decline with the rise of Napster and digital music sales. Planet Records was lucky if it sold an LP a week.
“It just got ridiculous,” Damroth said. “But I refused to give it up because records mean something to me. It’s what we’re about.”
That stubborn commitment to music and dedication to record collecting proved wise as Planet Records outlived the lull of record sales and returned to making a profit. Damroth decision to be an antique shop for music enthusiasts like Bruce Kelly has paid off.
Kelly, a die-hard Beatles fan, said he likes to frequent Planet Records every two to three weeks in search for older, obscure collectable CDs and LPs. He isn’t shy to admit that he owns more music than he could ever listen to.
“I’m so happy places like this still exist,” he said. “They’re declining, but it’s a lot more fun than searching for music online. You stumble upon things you didn’t know you were looking for.”
Besides its current store location on Mt. Auburn Street in Harvard Square, Damroth said Planet Records makes about 40 percent of its sales from CD and record sales on eBay and Amazon, making 20 to 30 sales a day and shipping them out the next morning.
Customers not only frequent the store to buy music, but to part with it as well. Such is the case with long- time customer Dan Sabino.
Sabino has joined the Dark Side.
He’s switching over to digital music. As a House DJ, digital makes it easier to collect music, create podcasts and share it with others, he says.
On a recent Sunday, Sabino, who has been visiting Planet Records since its early days at Kenmore Square, enters the Harvard Square store with three crates full of his ’90s Pop, House and Techno record collection. He walks them over to Damroth and lays them on the counter, just a fraction of what his collection used to be.
“If I don’t sell them, they’d cover my walls,” said Sabino, who is keeping some records for sentimental reasons. “And I can’t live like that anymore.
“You still want someone to enjoy what you used to own,” he added.
Damroth carefully examines every record before it is packaged and sold, or bought from customers.
Damroth carefully takes a record, wipes it down with a cloth and holds it to the light. It takes an eye to see the history of the record, the way the grooves look and the record’s condition after it’s been played several times. He also looks for scratches, but those are easy to spot.
Damroth is picky, and on this day Sabino has no luck. Planet Records won’t be buying his collection.
“I’ve been really careful about condition since day one,” Damroth said. “If you’re looking at something in here, chances are it’s in really good shape, if not perfect shape.”
Richie Thorn is also visiting the shop today, this time as a client. Thron works as a distributor for record stores in the Northeast. He used to own a record store himself, but had to close it in 2004 when music downloading became popular.
He said he’s grateful for stores like Planet Records that keep true to music, and he hopes that the current young generation discover the magic in collecting music.
“I want to stress the importance for college kids to keep music alive and stores like this alive,” said Thorn. “They need to discover this is where it’s really at.”
Until then, Damroth will continue running Planet Records as an antique shop, buying and selling priceless pieces of music to those who still have an eye toward the past.
“The heart of our store is basically these people who are looking for music that they want,” Damroth said. “They want that sort of Holy Grail to them. It’s different for everyone, and we’re here to help people find that stuff.”
By Jeannie L. Rodriguez
An oldie, but a goodie. Written Spring 2012/ Boston, MA.