Jack Firneno, the Wire
Writing about the Newtown Book and Record Exchange is like taking a trip down memory lane. Or, specifically, the path through the trees at the edge of Council Rock High School North and the zig-zag trajectory through town that led from my school to the store.
In the late ’90s, downloading music was science fiction and new CDs were $15, not an easy line item with a fast food-job budget. For a kid with an appreciation for classic rock who’d recently found a needle for his parents’ old turntable, the little store on State Street was the obvious place to go.
I wandered in first on a recon mission, browsing the racks of used records in great condition for around $4 each. I walked out with The Who and Jethro Tull. My first two Elvis Costello records came soon after.
One day I spotted a three-record Frank Zappa box that hadn’t even made it to the floor yet, and was overjoyed when they agreed to reserve it for a few days until I got paid. Soon, there was a checklist of albums and their prices hanging on my bedroom wall.
It turns out I’m not the only one with a story like this.
“Some people come a couple times a year when they’re visiting family,” owner Bobbie Lewis told me when I called to ask about the bands that would be playing there this weekend. “They came in the shop when they were growing up, and now they come in and say, ‘Do you remember me? I came in and bought my first record here.’ ”
A lot’s changed at the Newtown Book and Record Exchange over the past 34 years. Sure, the used books still line the walls, and the tables of records and CDs still crowd the old hardwood floors and spill onto the counter.
But the location of those items themselves tell the story of the music industry, both locally and nationally. For more than half the time the shop has been open, vinyl records occupied the racks in the front of the store.
As records fell out of fashion to CDs, however, they moved to a handful of crates toward the back. Then they were nearly nonexistent as people migrated even further, toward digital downloads.
But now they’re front and center in the store again — and, this Saturday, the music in the back of the store will be live.
Like hundreds of other independent music stores across the country, Newtown Book and Record is celebrating Record Store Day this weekend. The shop is opening early at 9 a.m. and will stock many special edition vinyl releases made available exclusively on this day to independent records stores. And, musicians from all over the area will be playing from 10:30 a.m till 5:30 p.m.
“It’s a day where there’s a lot of good feeling between the customers and the musicians,” said Lewis. “Everybody’s happy. Even when there’s a line outside in the morning, everyone’s talking to each other. It’s a good day.”
That sense of community has always been a driving force for the store, which started out selling only used records. When CDs came into vogue, people started coming in replacing their vinyl collections.
Even as those sales dropped in favor of digital music, according to Lewis, a lot of people in the area still preferred the physical CD to downloading. And, throughout that time the store has maintained customers who come in regularly to sell off old books and buy new ones.
“We probably wouldn’t be here if it was still just vinyl,” Lewis admitted.
But records have been experiencing a renaissance in the past decades, which Lews attributes both to the sound quality — “You can’t beat the convenience of a CD, but it doesn’t have the depth and warmth of sounds that a good old vinyl record has,” she noted — and their social aspect.
People can listen to records with their friends, Lewis said, enjoying the music together, passing the album cover around and reading the liner notes. It’s an idea that’s catching on with the younger crowd: a lot of the people coming in for records are picking up albums by new artists.
“You don’t sit around the iPod,” she laughed.
And, on Saturday, people will come to the store and stand around to listen to their music live. It’s the sixth year they’re having music on Record Store Day, and it’s their biggest yet: 15 acts, all curated by local singer-songwriter Chelsea Mitchell, who’s also worked at the shop for a decade or so.
“It’s gotten easier every year,” said Mitchell. “This year, I sent an invite out and we were completely booked in two hours.”
One of the musicians, Adam Ray Honeycutt of the band Like Lions, is a Newtown resident and regular at the store. Others hail from Center City or Manayunk in Philadelphia.
“It’s just a party all day long, and people want to be a part of that,” said Mitchell. “There’s something special about this store in particular,”
It’s a far cry, she said, from some places with “young blood” and the attitude that can come with it: “Oh, so-and-so’s buying Taylor Swift and that’s not cool to me so I’ll ring them up with disdain,” she laughed.
At Newtown, however, “It’s such a small-town feel. We have several generations of families trusting us to get the music they want.”
And, she puts owner Lewis at the center of it all, a woman who “always seems to be on the up-and-up” when it comes to new music. “She knows bands I’ve never even heard of. I’ve learned a lot working with her,” said Mitchell.
To her, Record Store Day is as much about Newtown Book and Record’s owner as it is about the shop itself, or the records they sell: “We’re all excited. and if anyone deserves to have a big party for her store, it’s Bobbie.”
For information, visit www.newtownbookandrecord.com.