Bob Tremblay | The MetroWest Daily News
NATICK — Those square-shaped pieces of cardboard with circular discs inside. Remember them? They’re called long-playing albums. LPs, for short. In this era of iPods and CDs, LPs have become as common in stores as the turntables that used to spin them.
That doesn’t mean LPs have gone the way of disco duck. One place where LPs still rock is Listen Up! The downtown Natick store has an inventory of more than 3,000 used LPs with about 1,000 priced at $1. The average price of LPs is around $5 while the store also sells more expensive collectibles, such as a Dion and the Belmonts LP priced at $175. Leadbelly fans, meanwhile, can pick up “Rock Island Line” on a 10-inch disc for $50. Classic rock bands, such as the Beatles, also have a vinyl presence.
Listen Up! bills itself as “the biggest little music store in MetroWest.” In addition to used LPs, it carries more than 7,500 new and used CDs. The store is also packed with racks of used cassettes. For good measure, it sells used DVDs and VHS movies as well as new and used music videos and used turntables. It sells posters, too. Gumball machines stand near the entrance for sales of sweets.
Music genres represented include rock, country, jazz, world, reggae, blues, rap, folk and easy listening. Listen Up! specializes in classic rock, jazz and blues. It also makes special orders.
Customers can buy, sell or trade musical merchandise. Those who trade receive a 20 percent bonus. For example, if a customer brings in used CDs valued at $20, he or she receives $24 worth of used CDs in the trade. Those who sell merchandise for cash don’t get the bonus.
Listen Up! was started in 1996 by lifelong music fan Russell Reitz for whom music had been a hobby. “I was working in the advertising business in upstate New York when I started having health problems,” says Reitz, referring to a bleeding ulcer. “The doctor said, `You might want to find a new line of work, something less stressful.’
“At the time I had a client who owned a chain of music stores. One store wasn’t doing well so I put forth a proposition, `Why don’t you make some money and sell it?’ So he did.”
As the new owner, Reitz changed the name of the store from Music Plus to Listen Up! and then moved the store from New York to Natick where he had family. The 1,500-square-foot store is located at 1 South Ave. Look for the Glenn Miller album in the storefront window.
“When I started out, I had one rack of used CDs and some used cassettes and some records,” says Reitz. “I gradually expanded into videos, used DVDs, more records and more used CDs.”
New CDs cost from $12 to $18 at Listen Up! while the average price for a used CD ranges from $8 to $10. The store also sells CDs for as low as $2 and has a “three CDs for $5” bin.
New and used CDs account for about 35 percent of sales each, with used records contributing 20 percent, according to Reitz. Listen Up! sells more used CDs but the higher price of the new CDs evens out matters fiscally, he says. Most of the store’s CDs are used. The prices of new CDs are close to what chain stores charge, he adds.
“When I first started I was the only guy in town doing used CDs,” says the Framingham resident. “Strawberries, which is now FYE, was next and then Newbury Comics.”
Before buying a used CD from a customer, Reitz will examine it. “I don’t have the time to play it,” he says. “ I look at the bottom for scratches and scuff marks. If I see those, I reject it.
“Everything is guaranteed here. If a CD slips through the cracks and doesn’t play, the customer can come back and exchange it for something else.”
As for albums, Reitz will inspect them also – and so will the buyers. “Album buyers are a little more savvy about condition than CD buyers,” he says. “They’ll pull out the record before they buy it and really examine it.”
Some people simply drop off boxes filled with records. “I’ll say, `These are the ones I want and I’ll give you this much,’ and they’ll say, `You can just keep the rest.’ About 60 to 70 percent of those end up in the trash because they’re so beat up. Others are passable so they go in the $1 bin. And every now and then you find a Led Zeppelin or a Beatles album,” says Reitz. Those don’t go in the $1 bin.
As one of the few independent music stores in MetroWest, Listen Up! is waging an uphill battle against large chains and digital downloading. So how does the store compete?
“It’s difficult,” Reitz acknowledges. He does sell products on eBay and Half.com. The latter is similar to eBay except there’s no bidding. All products are at a fixed price. Reitz has begun a bigger push on the Internet, which now accounts for about 10 percent of Listen Up! sales. “That pays the rent,” he says. “The rest is profit, in theory.”
Having “a pretty reasonable rent” and no staff help keeps costs down. Still, if the music business is taking a hit from illegal downloading or file-sharing, so are the stores selling a product that some consumers can now get for free.
“In the past, a hit CD could sell 8 million copies,” says Reitz. “Now if if it sells 2 million, it’s a monumental hit.”
The future for Listen Up! isn’t entirely bleak. “There’s a nostalgia factor here,” says Reitz. “People will come in and say, `I haven’t seen a store like this in years.’
“Also, the Internet is so impersonal. At some point, it’s got to go back the other way. People want to come in and ask questions. `I like this group. Who else would you recommend?’ `I like this genre. What else in this genre would I like?’ It’s the personal interaction that’s missing, not just in the music business but in business in general.
“(Listen Up!) is a throwback to the old-fashioned store people grew up with. You walk into a chain store and nobody is there to help you. The strength of a store like this is personal interaction. I actually talk to people about their purchases. I’ll say, `That’s a great CD,’ and that invariably gets the customer going. You can end up having a 15-minute conversation. You learn a lot about their musical tastes.
“I take the time to research stuff, too. If a customer is looking for a song but doesn’t know who did it, I’ll try to find the connection.” A computer at the counter assists with this task.
Another plus, according to Reitz, are the special orders. “Chain stores don’t want to do it,” he says. “They deal directly with the record companies so they’d have to buy in bulk. It’s tough to order one CD. I deal with the distributor so it’s no problem buying just one CD.”
As if on cue, a customer enters the store looking for a Dinah Washington-Brook Benton album. It’s now a special order.
“When people walk in the door, they’re expecting to see this little store,” says Reitz. “They walk in and they’re overwhelmed by the amount of inventory.”
Not all of the inventory has found a home. Filing is an ongoing process as “new” material keeps arriving.
Music from the classic rock era of the 1960s and ’70s, especially the early ’70s, continues to sell, according to Reitz. “(Jimi) Hendrix, the Beatles, the Doors, they always sell. I’m always replacing that stuff. And it’s not just baby boomers buying it. A lot of young people, they see a used Beatles or Doors album and they snap it right up. The Grateful Dead are very popular.”
Reitz likes classic rock, too, but he’s also a fan of blues, jazz, folk and new music from such “less well-known” bands as Porcupine Tree and “more well-known” bands at the White Stripes.
“The music keeps me going,” says Reitz. “I’m always looking for something new and different.”