Merle’s Record Rack hits 55
ORANGE >> Michael J. Papa, owner of Merle’s Record Rack, is known to record-collectors as the “King of Vinyl.”
But as Papa is getting ready to celebrate Merle’s 55th anniversary on Aug. 26, he said the business is as much about customers sharing and experiencing memories as about the extensive vinyl and collectible inventory.
“These things have a million memories,” Papa said, extending his arm to the store filled with LPs, 45s, CDs and vintage stereo equipment.
Music is “like a smell — it triggers something. ... It brings them happiness. It helps them feel young again.”
The celebration will be 10 a.m.-5 p.m. in the store at 307 Racebrook Road, with a disc jockey, sales and “good vibes,” as he put on postcards publicizing the event.
Founded in 1962 by Merle Shaw, a woman, the first location was on Chapel Street in New Haven. Five years later, Shaw sold the store, and the next owners expanded into many communities, including Wallingford, East Haven and Milford.
In 1984, Papa, a senior at Southern Connecticut State University who had been working for the company since age 15, franchised the name and opened a store in Derby, where it was located for 21 years.
He now owns the store name, and the only Merle’s Record Rack is now in Orange, where he’s been for 14 years.
Papa, who often gets called “Merle,” because people assume it’s his name, said the tricky part through the years has been predicting trends.
He said in the early 1980s people were getting into CDs and quickly getting rid of records. Nowadays people are ditching their CDs — some of which have become collectibles — in favor of live streaming, which he said doesn’t sound as good.
“I try to stay ahead of the curve,” said Papa, who in the beginning built his collectibles inventory by visiting flea markets and tag sales.
Today, he said vinyl, or records, is the “fastest-growing segment of the music industry.”
There’s a lot packed into the bustling store that has a strong focus on rock ‘n’ roll.
He said the five main departments are vinyl products; repairs and sales of electronics, many of them vintage 1970s turntables and receivers; rock ‘n’ roll collectibles; CDs; and digitalization services to preserve old home movies, phone calls or anything else recorded.
He said one customer, who exchanged recorded love letters with a boyfriend serving in Vietnam War, recently had them digitalized. He never made it home from Vietnam.
The store has such items as tie-dye shirts, autographed prints of the Beatles, framed original posters for Woodstock, the Grateful Dead, a “Janis Joplin Avenue” sign and replica metal lunch boxes.
Papa grew up in West Haven and now lives in Orange with his wife, Michele, a high school teacher in Prospect. He said he was always an entrepreneur, mowing lawns and fixing things as a kid.
He opened his franchise during what was to be his last semester as a business student at Southern Connecticut State University.
His mother gave him money saved for his education to start, and he finished his degree later, when the business was established.
Papa said he was 2 years old when his auto mechanic father died, and it was his wish for Papa to get an education.
Papa said he loves music — it’s always playing in the store — but he keeps it quieter at home. Friends come over and expect “phenomenal stereo setup,” but he doesn’t have one. Michele often complains that he hasn’t fixed their stereo, he said.
Papa said one of his favorite parts of the business is still fixing equipment. It’s the “gear head” in him, he said.
But he also loves to hear customers’ stories, and their conversations in the store over shared concert experiences and feelings about certain bands, music.
“This is all about relationships with people,” he said of the business.
Customers reminisce about music, he said, recalling their first album, the album their father bought them for $4. or the album they listened to 50 times with a cousin.
“It’s very touching,” he said. He noted his gift for gab has served him well through the years.
Papa said music, like sports, creates camaraderie.
“All of a sudden people are out on the (sales) floor making conversation about style, genre,” he said of customers connecting.
He also sees collectors from as far away as Japan and Germany, making Merle’s Record Rack a stop when they’re on buying trips. The internet has helped lead out-of-the-area collectors to the store. Some make Merle’s a side trip when they’re visiting New York City, he said.
Kimberly Roy, 20, of West Haven, was recently at Merle’s looking for a wire to hook up the speakers for her turntable.
Roy said she loves old records — from Mary Poppins to the Rolling Stones — because it facilitates conversation with her father, Robert Roy, a ‘70s guy and to some degree, with her mother, Carolyn.
“I find it a way to connect with Dad,” she said of listening to records. “It’s a good way to learn a lot about him.”
Roy said some old music helped get her mother to spill about some of her teenage shenanigans outside Toad’s Place in New Haven years ago.
Papa and his wife have two college-educated daughters, who love music, but are not interested in going into the business, he said.
Papa said after all these years he still loves coming to work and often wakes up in the middle of the night wondering what the next day will bring.
“Everything is a mystery. People call, it’s always different,” Papa said. “It’s still fun to come to work.”