In the age of the iPod and the impersonal digital download, the death knell of the traditional record store, piled high with vinyl and CDs, gets sounded with monotonous regularity. It’s true that in the past few years a number of Boston’s brick-and-mortar operations have gone belly-up, from chain stores like Tower to independents like Mars. But though the prognosis may be bleak, there are signs of life out there yet. This week I’ll lavish a little attention on two of the livelier and more unusual local on-line outlets, both of which specialize in the hard-to-find, the avant-garde, and the downright strange: Mimaroglu Music Sales (www.mimaroglumusicsales.com) and Weirdo Records (www.weirdorecords.com).
Mimaroglu Music Sales is the elder statesman — founded in 2001 by Somerville-based musician Keith Fullerton Whitman, it’s a reflection of his wide-ranging, esoteric musical interests. He named MMS after the eccentric Turkish-born electro-acoustic composer Ilhan Mimaroglu (a personal hero), and it offers an eclectic array of experimental music, specializing in early electronics, avant-psych, drones, out jazz, and sound art and poetry.
“I’m attracted to any kind of non-standard musicmaking practice,” Whitman explains, “focusing less on pure genre examples — jazz/improv, composition, electronic music, metal, noise, etc. — than on areas where the genres cross over and bleed into each other — drone metal, free improv psych, electro-acoustic improv minimalism — and also music that can’t be so easily labeled.”
In its six-year existence, MMS has grown from a hobby to a full-time job for Whitman, who handles everything: designing the Web site, writing detailed descriptions, uploading soundfiles, and packing orders. “The quintessential titles are always the ones that have been out for a few years, slept on by all but a few, at which point I discover them, write raving enthusiastic descriptions, and slowly start seeing other people checking them out, until I’m selling 10 to 20 copies a week.”
The fresh-faced kid on the block is Weirdo Records, which opened its on-line doors a little over a year ago and is now also greeting walk-in customers (652 Somerville Avenue, #3, in Somerville) on Tuesdays and Fridays from 2 to 10 pm. Weirdo is the brainchild of Angela Sawyer, a local musician and long-time employee at Harvard Square’s venerable specialty record shop, Twisted Village. Like MMS, Weirdo is an extension of its owner’s idiosyncratic musical obsessions, which include the latest side projects of West Coast collage-rockers the Sun City Girls, obscure film soundtracks, roots music, noise cassettes, and records by snoring Swedish sound artists.
“My favorite records in the world are bad novelty records,” Sawyer says with a laugh. “You know, I love noise records, but I consider them a subgenre of bad novelty records. And I love free-jazz records and all kinds of things like that, but, I really love [vocal] harmony records and bad novelty records, and almost all of the records that I own can fit in one or the other of those categories. A real Weirdo record is Sonny Bono’s Inner Views or the Jan and Dean Meet Batman record. Those are records that I would die for — they’re the reason that I had to start a store, and the reason that I didn’t grow up to have children and a 401k.”
Sawyer attributes the store’s modest success in its first year to this idiosyncratic selection and focus, along with low prices and shipping charges. Like Whitman, she always includes detailed — and often extremely funny — product descriptions as well as sound files to guide visitors through the mysterious world of Weirdo. The goal is to evolve into a larger storefront operation. That’s almost a necessity, since as Weirdo has expanded, space has become tight, a dire situation for a voracious collector like Sawyer. “Weirdo is just my personal greed amped,” she admits. “The truth is that I’m incredibly greedy for records, and I want so many more of them that I’m willing to chunnel a bunch of them out of here in order to get more!”