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On Monday afternoons, Stereo Jack’s door at 1686 Mass. Ave. in Cambridge swings open every few minutes.
“On Mondays we have a meeting of the minds to price everything and put the new stuff on the shelf,” says Jack Woker, owner of the new and used vinyl shop. “The regulars know that it’s a good time to come in.”
Many people walk by old record shops thinking they’re seeing a blast from the past. I associate it with a museum in my 21-year-old mind—a place where you could look, but not touch (or buy). Without a record player or an apartment with an extra square foot of storage, Spotify—a place to listen, but not buy—is my main go-to. On the surface, Stereo Jack’s might seem like a museum—with Woker as the gallery guide, an Elvis head statue in the window and yellowing cardboard record covers—but the business of buying and selling vinyl is far from outdated.
Since Woker opened Stereo Jack’s in 1982, many things about the music business have changed. After vinyl, tape cassettes were replaced by the also portable, but better format of CDs. Now, mp3s and iTunes songs are taking over the main business, not to mention streaming services, making music more disposable. Songs bought online disappear when you spill water on your laptop and can’t be listed in your will to pass down to future generations.
Unfortunately, if I were to take stock of my physical music collection, neglecting my iTunes compendium, I would have a total of five CDs—mostly Smash Mouth and Spice Girls—stored away at my parents’ house from my childhood. But what, exactly, am I missing?
Woker prefers CDs or vinyl records “with the cover art and a list of songs, but maybe I’m old fashioned.”
His business is anything but. People are buying vinyl for different reasons, but they’re still buying. Hardcore audiophiles say that vinyl sounds inherently better. Other customers at Jack’s are collectors. And then there is the new surge of customers who are in their 20s who decided vinyl records were cool and began buying common records on vinyl around the mid-2000s.
Vinyl isn’t exactly making a comeback, though. Woker claims the business of selling vinyl grew from maybe a half a percent to two percent. It’s just a bubble that will eventually burst.
“It’s a misconception that it’s coming back, but enough so that guys like us can make a living,” he says. “Just go where the money leads, follow the business.”
One thing that’s for certain is that as records get older, collectors want them more. The vinyl business is as much for music lovers as it is for collectors today--with about a 10 percent overlap, says Woker.
“The future of record music is iTunes, but there will always be collectors. There’s an excitement to find a 1956 record.”
And that’s where the real competition is—finding good, sellable material. With Cheapo Records in Central Square, In Your Ear in Harvard Square and others dotting the Red Line, no other record shop is in direct competition with Jack’s. Not that it would matter since “hard core collectors go to all the store fronts anyway. The competition is getting the good ones,” Woker says.
Woker's knowledge of the music he sells is legendary. Writers pick his brain about arcane rock or jazz songs and albums in much the same way that people went to Kate Mattes of Kate's Mystery Books when it was located farther up Mass. Ave. Part of the charm of spending time in the store is listening to him talk about music with his customers and co-workers.
About 11 years ago, Woker began selling and buying rare records he received on eBay where they could find their true, higher, value than in the shop.
“I like to see good music go to people who enjoy it, but I have to be realistic,” he says.
In 2011, rumors about Stereo Jack’s closing began to circulate, bringing up the cliched argument that vinyl is dying. Unfortunately for that argument, Jack’s had almost closed because of a long-planned storefront reorganization--not lack of business.
“I didn’t really want to retire, but I didn’t want to move either,” was Woker’s attitude. In the end he wouldn’t have to do either since the reorganization didn’t happen. Stereo Jack’s will remain open “indefinitely,” as he boasts on his website.
Occupying the store front on Mass. Ave. since 1993, Stereo Jack’s had only moved once--a few blocks down the street from where it opened in 1982.
Woker’s hobby had always been music. When he realized he didn’t have the ambition to become a musician, though he played trombone, piano and a little of everything, he found another way to make money with music. After working at another record shop for five years and learning how to buy and sell used records, Woker opened Stereo Jack’s.
“It’s not the kind of thing that just anyone could run. We have a passion for it. That’s why it’s successful. It’s not a gold mine, but it keeps us employed.” And he plans to continue running it. Indefinitely.
Stereo Jack’s Records is a five-minute walk from the Porter Square T stop on the Red Line. They are open seven days a week--but not earlier than 10 a.m. or noon on Sundays!