For this installment of the Crate Diggers Spotlight series, we are highlighting Cambridge, MA record store Planet Records We spoke with shop owner John Damroth about his background and the beloved 35-year old record shop.
What is your role, and can you give us a bit of background on yourself?
My job is to make sure Planet Records offers the best possible environment for browsing and the best selection of music of all kinds on LP (and CD). For me, there is no greater pleasure than finding great music and sharing it with others. My hope is that the store offers people the music they’re looking for as well as music that they don’t yet know they want. When I was a teenager, I listened to all kinds of radio stations and I was always browsing local record stores, hunting for my current favorites and learning about all types of great music. When I discovered used record stores, it was quite a revelation that I could buy three used records for the price of one and really build a great and diverse collection. Planet Records makes is possible for other folks to do the same.
How long has your store been in business?
Over 35 years — I opened Planet Records in 1983.
Does your shop have a specialty? What sets your store apart from others?
Planet Records has always been a carefully curated shop. We clean our inventory and cycle in new stock each week, paying attention both to what people are buying and what we think folks could be buying! This means we carry all kinds of music including genres that do not necessarily fly off the shelves. Also, because we buy a lot of local collections, we are a kind of community record store. Luckily, our community has amazing taste in music so we have access to a wide array of music. We are also very careful about the condition and quality of the product we sell. In addition to used records, we offer a range of sealed records (cut-outs and discontinued stock). Rock, R&B, Jazz, and Classical are very well represented but Blues, Gospel, International, Broadway and Folk are all important parts of our inventory. I want anyone who walks in to find their taste represented and ideally find something that could be an important part of their collection. Customers often comment on how long they have searched for some of the music they find at Planet Records and how much they love browsing the shelves.
What was your inspiration for opening a record store?
I began to think about opening a used record store in the early 1980s. I initially worked in an advertising firm but corporate life lost its appeal very quickly. Soon after I quit, I happened into a used record store that was hiring and I needed a job. I loved the experience and I began to entertain the idea of opening my own store. The notion of being my own boss was appealing. After building up an inventory by searching yard sales and flea markets and culling my own personal collection, I renovated a space in Kenmore Square, Boston and we opened in 1983.
What do you enjoy most about running your shop?
I find the creative aspects of the business very engaging— from designing ads and t-shirts to building the fixtures and decorating the store. The deep satisfaction I feel in my job, however, comes from participating in and enabling the emotional connection people have to the music they love. Music has a very particular power in people’s lives. It creates a visceral connection with people, places, and emotions. The preferred type and style may differ from person to person but music is a compelling force that brings back memories or evokes strong feelings. It is also a very individual appreciation. For each person, music offers a specific resonance and language that is theirs and theirs alone. I really enjoy witnessing and facilitating these connections. I also like engaging with the endless stream of personalities that come through the store. Over the years I’ve had hundreds of employees, many of whom are like family. Occasionally an ex-employee will walk in, sometimes with their family and we’ll reminisce about the years they worked for Planet Records.
Do you have any favorite or particularly memorable moments in the shop?
After 35 years there are many but there are two that come to mind. I was standing at the counter and I noticed a woman crying. She had her back to me but there was no mistaking her shaking shoulders, sobs, and sniffles. As I contemplated walking over to her to see what was wrong, she lifted the record she was holding above her head. The tears were flowing as she looked up at the record (Tony Wilson) and said, “At last I found you.”
The other story involves a family that came in recently. There were three generations represented in the store – an elderly man, his daughter and her four children. The grandfather didn’t speak English so his daughter explained that they were looking for a particular Mexican song that he had loved as a young man in Mexico when he was courting his wife. The daughter had looked for it for years but hadn’t been able to find it on CD. She wasn’t sure of the title, although her grandfather knew all the lyrics so he softly sang them to her while she translated for me. I checked online and found the song and the artists that had performed it. I had a version by Trio Los Panchos. Quietly, I put it on the stereo. As it began to play the grandfather lifted his head, began to smile and then to cry. He could not have been more appreciative. It was very moving and showed me once again the depth of music’s affect in someone’s life.
What does your personal collection look like?
I often think of the store as my collection. I don’t have to own all of it personally but having the store means I can access all kinds of music. One of my favorite things is choosing the music we listen to each day. On any given day if you come in the store you’ll hear Fela Kuti, Sarah Vaughan, The Allman Brothers, Vivaldi, Howlin’ Wolf, Tom Jones, Bill Evans, OS Mutantes, Burl Ives, The Who, Doc Watson, Merle Haggard and on and on. I have a very broad appreciation for music. I love R&B – Al Green, Bill Withers, De La Soul, Aretha, the Delfonics – mostly 60’s and 70’s. I listen to Rock and feel a connection to the music I listened to as a kid. King Crimson, Hendrix, The Stones as well as Bowie, XTC, John Hiatt. My appreciation for Jazz has only become deeper and deeper so I own a bunch of Bill Evans, Duke Ellington, Lee Morgan and the like.
Do you use Discogs? If so, what features do you use?
Anything else you’d like us to know?
It’s been a long haul and I’m proud to have guided the store through all of the changes in the retail music industry. So many stores have faded away and disappeared but Planet Records has survived.