When you are a record store in close proximity to the finest Ivy League colleges money can buy, you can’t help but pick up a little bit of that nerdy, scholarly vibe. Cambridge, Massachusetts own Weirdo Records is the Ivy League record store for the most adventurous listeners in the region (and beyond), and we’re happy to make them this week’s Record Store of the Week. We picked the brain of head Weirdo Angela Sawyer, and came out feeling a little bit smarter.
Tell us about Weirdo Records, and it’s history.
Weirdo was started in 2006 in the bedroom of an apartment, and moved into a tiny storefront in Feb. 2009. Shop’s open for browsing 11am-9pm 7 days a week & also does mailorder worldwide. Weirdo has weekly in-store performances, events hosted at local bars, a monthly blog dedicated to Catonese Opera cassettes, a lending library of music books, a free online radio station that runs 24 hours a day. The store’s website is updated every single day of the year, and the door’s open with free beer inside on holidays. There are currently about 5000 titles here, about half vinyl/cd & about half new/used.
How many people work for Weirdo?
Weirdo is about the size of a dorm room and is mostly run by one person, & that’s me, Angela. The shelves here are on wheels, so a little space can be made when needed. Running any sort of store by yourself is next to impossible, so a few subs, part-timers, volunteers, & Boston’s generous community of record collectors all help take up the slack. I’m a very lucky girl. Summer of 2011 will mark 20 years that I’ve been working in one record store or another here in Boston, and I can’t even think of enough good things to say about the folks around town who- and here’s the bottom line- are the people who really make this place happen.
What kind of records to you specialize in?
Saying that Weirdo is a specialty shop is a bit of an understatement: Wiggy garage psychedelia from Bolivia; Soundtracks to Spanish VHS pornos; Flemish housewives in green pancake makeup sitting on the floor of their kitchens, banging pots & pans & shrieking at the top of their lungs; One sided 78s about baseball from 1904; Cocaine-damaged open-mike-night songwriters who wish they were rock stars; Singapore’s answer to Nancy Sinatra or Jakarta’s answer to George Harrison; Field recordings of diseased babies or bugs chewing food or lamps on the fritz… That’s my meat & potatoes around here.
What is your favorite Light in the Attic release and why?
Light in the Attic’s deee-luxe reissue of the Monks record (chirpy art-school nihilistic garage by American expat soldiers living in Germany!), is just the sort of thing that I think every pair of ears needs to hear.
Do you do instore performances?
Weirdo has weekly in-store performances. Social spaces that encourage people to awaken their inner metaphysician, epicurean, art historian, archeologist- or even just their inner head-scratcher- are becoming increasingly rare anywhere in America. Yet citizens generally & musicians specifically need to be all of these things and much more. Weirdo is a tiny shop, but I like to think it’s a sorely needed one. I love EVERYTHING about running it. Even the accounting & the plumbing fiascos are pretty entertaining.
What record do you always find yourself listening to in the store?
When people ask me how I got to be where I am, I usually answer: one wonderful record at a time. But year after year of ‘em makes it tough to be specific about which one is the very best. People who know me well know that I had a raging Beach Boys phase that lasted several years (those things never really end, but I guess they mellow eventually). Ditto for Glenn Gould & the Sun City Girls. When I have to narrow things down, I usually pick either Sonny Bono’s Inner Views or Jan & Dean Meet Batman as early discoveries that’ve remained heavy perennials. I still pull out the Mickey Mouse record I’ve loved since I was 5 years old every once in a while too. Here’s a bunch of top tens from the end of last year, both by me & some regulars.
What is the coolest record that has come into your store that you never thought you’d ever see?
Rarities that I’ve seen since the shop started include previously undiscovered foreign language 78s, a few Fluxus items that are very difficult to find, a high-end psych collectable or two, some outsider classics, couple of free jazz holy grails, loads of tiny edition noise cassettes & 1 of 1 art covers/prints. I don’t sell on ebay as a matter of policy, so they almost entirely went to good pals who live close by.
What sort of things have you done for your customers that you really didn’t have to? What have you gained from it?
Over the years I’ve traded a record for a car, for drawings, for cookies & for carpentry. I’ve rescued customers from drunken/drug blackouts, driven them from/to jails/hospitals, dug them out of snow/floods/avalanches of trash, been asked to note someone’s special order requests while I was inside the stall of a public bathroom & plenty of other ridiculous adventures. I’ve also learned most of what I know about world geography, psychology, economics, the local halfway house system, political conspiracies & crime by way of reading or talking about records.
What kind of folks frequent your store, and what sort of records do they typically buy?
The people who shop here come in all shapes & sizes, but they always bring their curiosity. Weirdo is not meant to be a store for everybody. Because even though everybody likes music, not everybody is kept awake at night because they’re not certain whether it’s possible to write a song that is both musically and politically urgent. Not everybody spends years on end hunting for the secret ingredient that turns a mess of unformed noise into something meaningful. Only some folks have arguments over whether dancing is a mode of appreciation or a detriment. There are lots of questions for people like this: Can a serial killer write a good song? How about a two year old? Are some chords better than others? Are some guitar sounds always cooler than others? Are funny songs automatically less profound? What about the different kinds of listening that you do when something is live vs. when it’s recorded? Or when something is a hundred years old vs. released this week? Memorized it from when you were a kid vs. never heard it before? These questions are not rhetorical. They have answers. Long, detailed ones. And even if they never speak such questions out loud (some of them are nearly autistic, after all), record collectors define & delimit good music to themselves, by saving the worthy & pushing away the dross. Like gardeners, little by little, they weed garbage, plant seedlings, expand, upgrade, re-landscape, and continually re-focus & savor, on the myriad number of ways that good music takes place.
What do you love most about working at a cool independent record shop?
Record store employee games are one of my favorite things and I occasionally still get to play them. There’s always plenty of fake bands to be named, unique song titles to be squirreled away on little pieces of paper, questions to be batted back & forth. One excellent game is called ‘Less Than 5 Minutes’. In this game, you put on a record, and try to get a reaction out of a stranger, either positive or negative, in less than 5 minutes. Only two artists are banned from the game: Santo & Johnny and Yoko Ono. I advise everyone: Have a listening party at your house sometime & see what happens when you play interesting sounds for people!
844 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge MA 02139