This article was originally published in the Aug. 20, 2017, edition of the Sun.
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Joe Demers, owner of Joe’s Albums at 317 Main St., has chosen to follow the adage generally attributed to Confucius: “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.”
With apologies to Mr. Hendrix, if you want to be “Experienced,” head to the former WRTA headquarters near Mechanics Hall and enter the room of vinyl. Strike up a conversation with Joe and you, too, shall be immersed in the art of sound, texture and warmth, found in those long-lost scratchy treasures, now reborn as newfound friends.
Demers has been a big music fan since he received his first all-in-one “stereo” when he was 6 years old.
“For people who truly want to listen, vinyl is a high quality sound. I believe that people who listen to records are ‘active’ listeners, because you have to physically take it out, manually place it on the turntable, then take it off, too. You are much more attached to it. … It’s a tangible experience and I think that plays a big part.”
But kids grow up to be teens, life gets in the way and the “stereo” is shuttered away to a dark corner of the house.
“For about 20 years, I never listened to my records, which were stored in the basement. By that time, I was listening to music on CDs, iPods and MP3 players,” he said.
About eight years ago during the winter, he decided to revisit his dusty childhood friend and the amazingly still-preserved albums.
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“I hooked it up and started listening. And I fell in love with it all over again.
“At that time there were few places to get vinyl albums. There were some on eBay but those were for high-end collectors. So at that time I did buy a few collections off Craigslist” hoping to invest in some future winners, Demers said.
He then built a website, and started selling $3, $4 and $5 records online. And to his surprise, he started to get orders right away.
“I really wasn’t an internet guy. I started in accounting in manufacturing organizations. So I hadn’t done the internet thing. Everything was kind of new to me. This was about 2009-2010,” he said.
The homegrown business grew beyond the “savings for a rainy day” into a side enterprise. He continued with the web sales and his corporate day job as vice president of a company in Marlborough.
After a few years of steady growth, “It was getting to the point where I didn’t want to have the album business based out of the house anymore. So I decided to rent a business storefront near my home in Tatnuck Square.”
At first, the store was open on weekends. He added Fridays with help from a student at Clark University.
He maintained the business in Tatnuck for five years. But around the fourth year, Demers decided to turn all his attention to the Tatnuck store and to his family.
“My kids were teenagers, with games and other stuff that they needed to get to … so I just couldn’t do it all. It all came down to, stay with my corporate career or try to do this. After thinking about it for a while, I knew I would always wonder if I could do this (as a business). So I put enough money aside and decided to give myself three years to get to a certain level. If it does, great, then I’d continue it or else I’d return to the corporate world.
“I’m about 2½ years through that and oddly enough the revenue side is exactly where it should be. There’s been pretty good progressive growth for those years. So, with fingers crossed, it seems I’m on the path where I needed to be to keep it as a viable business and to keep me occupied here as my career and not going back to the corporate world,” he said.
Demers’ clientele from Tatnuck have made the trek to his current downtown location, and they’ve been telling others to check out Joe’s place near Mechanics Hall.
He settled into the current location in September 2016.
“I had been looking for a place to rent for almost two years, because the Tatnuck area is really not a destination for foot-traffic shopping. You go there for a purpose. So between size and proximity, I wanted to get more ‘central’ and larger. I had looked in the Canal District … then looked down here and saw all of the development going on and thought that was very intriguing.
“We’re still a few more years away from what’s going to happen, but I think Worcester is truly coming back this time. There is a lot of out-of-town money coming in with all of the development. I looked at 12 different places – from the Hanover Theatre to down here at Mechanics Hall – and cut it down to three and decided on this spot,” he said.
Demers said his location makes sense because he is central to several music venues – the Palladium, Mechanics Hall, the DCU Center, and the Hanover Theatre for the Performing Arts.
“Whenever there are things going on, people filter in and look around the shop, which is great. There were a few times I’ve stayed open past 6 p.m. Recently, when Journey played at the DCU, we stayed open a little bit later and some people came by to check us out.
“But we haven’t made it a point to stay open just because a group is playing somewhere. Most people want to get there and get to the show and not carry things around.
“Another thing about this location is the amount of activity during the day. Between people coming and going to the courthouse, the students at MassPharmacy, there’s a lot of foot traffic right outside the door,” he added. “With the infusion of more people in downtown within walking distance every day, it’s got to help the bottom line.”
Because half of his clients live 30 to 45 minutes outside of Worcester, driving to Tatnuck added another 15-20 minutes after they got off the highway. Here, it’s an easy commute getting off and getting back on in any direction, Demers added.
Who are your clients and what are they looking to buy?
“It’s all over the map,” Demers said. “Five-plus years ago, it was a lot of middle-aged guys. But within the last two years, it’s changed dramatically. Now, my clients are teenagers through all ages. And I see that more and more teens and young adults in their 20s are getting into buying vinyl.
“While some are driven by the classic rock of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, they also want today’s music. And then there’s jazz and blues, country, hip hop, punk … you name it.”
During the last two to three years, the sales value of sealed vinyl products, which can be new or be re-issues, have been 60 percent of his business, Demers said. “They definitely outsell the used records.”
Many of those classic used records sell for $1 in the store. So the new music drives the bottom line, too.
Demers said other clients may start by purchasing the albums with the intention of buying the equipment at a later time. “That’s sort of an odd dynamic to me because the album exists for listening.”
Components of a “modern” stereo package still may include the turntable with much smaller and better speakers that may be built into the unit. Demers said a $500 to $700 investment will get you a very good system today. A very good Pro-Ject turntable will be $400 to $500.
Of course, one can go higher, just like any other commodity. For instance, Demers can order a $14,000 turntable if you want the very best.
If you have a receiver with inputs for speakers, you could get a great table for about $400, he added.
So the spectrum of the album-buying public is very wide. And it’s getting younger – late teens to early 30s. And today there are more female buyers than males, he said.
“Years ago it was always guys coming in and buying albums, and they’d take off the price stickers so their wife or mother wouldn’t know how much they paid for it.”
Demers recalled, “A few years ago, a young woman came in and bought a fairly pricey double album, probably around $35 or $40. And when she cashed out she told me, ‘I’m going to take the sticker off this right now before my boyfriend sees how much I paid for it.’
The sound of music (on an album)
Demers said he had forgotten about the intricacies of the sound produced on vinyl.
“I was struck by the difference when I hooked everything up again. It sounded warmer and there was a fuller spectrum of sound. I think part of that was the fact that I was listening via MP3s on my iPod or iPhone, almost exclusively at work, in the car, and it was playing as background music.”
With MP3s, the files are small and there is a greater loss in the quality of the sound because they’re compressed (to hold thousands of songs). So the difference is vast between an MP3 and an album.
“I think what a lot of people have been listening to these days have been the compressed versions on machines that are intended to hold a vast library of music, and there is so much missing from that music,” he said. “You just do not get that rich, full sound that you get from a record.”
On the other hand, album sales will remain a niche market. It will never get back to the mainstream markets, he said. MP3s will remain as the choice of the public because it is cheaper and because of the volume of songs a player can hold.
“But for people who truly want to listen, vinyl is a high quality sound. I believe that people who listen to records are ‘active’ listeners, because you have to physically take it out, manually place it on the turntable, then take it off, too. You are much more attached to it. … It’s a tangible experience and I think that plays a big part. Also, you might be reading the liner notes and learning about the band while the music is playing,” Demers said.
“Whereas when I had my MP3s with me, it was on all time … and I don’t know if I was really listening all that much,” he added.
He said one can pay $50 to $75 for a stereo system, which includes speakers, at one of the big box stores. But you’re not getting any benefit from that because the sound quality is so poor. If people are buying a $25 album and playing it on a $50 stereo system, that’s not doing anyone any good.
Joe’s Albums has a wide variety for any musical taste. And if one needs a specialty item or a one-of-a-kind, he can probably get it. His contacts in the industry can find just about anything, from Bruce Springsteen’s boots that he wore on his 1975 “Born to Run” tour (in store) or any album (or 45 rpm) from any era.
Monthly bestsellers in albums include the classic “Dark Side of the Moon” by Pink Floyd and the jazz masterpiece “A Kind of Blue” by Miles Davis. “I can’t keep those in the store. I order those two every month,” Demers said.
“It’s really varied, so I try to cast a wide net” so that everyone is satisfied. “About the only things we do not carry is the Big Band Era and easy-listening crooner albums. But aside from that, if it’s in good, clean shape (no scuffs or scratches) people may come here and I’ll take a look at it if you wish to sell.”
Remember the sign on the used record bins … albums $1. No one is going to make a lot of money selling your old “Aqualung,” “Who’s Next” or “Meet the Beatles” albums.
Demers said music evokes emotional ties within everyone. “Even though they may be inanimate objects, the albums that you grew up with and the memories that are associated with certain songs have very special meaning. That’s why people hold on to them for so long.”
For new vinyl and protected albums, Demers said he has accounts with every distributor in the country.
“Eventually, I’d like to set up direct accounts with the record companies themselves,” he said.
Demers said there are few days when he is not ordering records for someone. “I only carry about one-third of the product in the store. You just cannot have everything on hand because there is so much out there.”
He can also special-order CDs for customers, too, since there are fewer places that carry CDs.
Changes in a growing downtown
Demers said he is looking forward to seeing more and more pedestrians in downtown in a few years. Plans for afoot to increase housing on the north end of Main Street, from the former Worcester County Courthouse to the Central Building.
“As this turns more into a community, this can only help my business here. So that can only help.
“As more of that happens, more and more businesses will move in … It’s still pretty vacant in some areas and that’s good, too … for future growth.”