As a record store, the name Merle’s Record Rack is an institution in New Haven county. What started out as a family business in the 1960s soon became a franchise by the end of that turbulent decade. Over time, eight franchise stores named Merle’s have gone out of business. Now only one remains, in Orange, Conn., right off of Interstate 95. Owner/operator Michael J. Papa has kept his store relevant as it moved through the different fads and trends of each decade. But there has always been one constant, and that is the strength of the vinyl format.
Q: What was your first job?
A: My first job was working the sidewalk sale for Merle’s when it was at the CT Post Mall in Milford, Conn. I was 15 years old, and my job was to lug boxes in and out of the store in the hot July sun. I did this for 15 hours that day. That led to a part-time job at Merle’s Record Rack. Merle’s is the only job I’ve ever had.
Q: What was the first record you ever bought?
A: The first record I bought was the 45 “Rich Girl” by Hall and Oates. I don’t remember where I purchased it. It wasn’t until I started working at a record store that I really began to appreciate music.
Q: When did the idea of owning your own record store first occur to you?
A: After working at the mall for a few years and then moving into our New Haven store and working both wholesale and retail, I decided that there was money to be made in the music business. I went to college and majored in business. When I came out, I opened a Merle’s franchise. I always worked well with customers and thought that I’d do well in this business.
Q: What is the history of your store?
A: Merle’s Record Rack opened on Chapel Street in New Haven, Conn. in 1962. A woman named Merle and her husband, Rudy, established it. In the late 1960s, Merle’s was bought out by Coop Creations. This was the company I worked for in the late 1970s, until I franchised my store in Derby in 1984. At one point in time, there were eight Merle’s stores throughout the greater New Haven area. Today, my store in Orange is the only one left. I’ve very proud to carry on the name and the tradition of the independent record store.
Q: What do you specialize in?
A: Merle’s has evolved over the decades. Originally, it catered to the Billboard top hits with a deep catalog of vinyl. As the music industry has changed, so has my store. Today, I specialize in collectible vinyl and have a large selection of used records. I locate hard-to-find pieces for my customers and I special order to meet their needs. I’ve also started to do electronic repairs. People find old turntables from their past, and it brings back memories for them. Most often, the equipment no longer works. It’s my job to get them working and bring those memories back to life. Merle’s buys and sells electronic equipment, vinyl and CDs, among other things. We have a gift department with rock paraphernalia and memorabilia.
Q: How has the music retail market changed over the years?
A: It used to be a market for young kids — teenagers and twentysomethings. With the popularity of the Internet and the ability to download music, the age of music store shoppers has crept upward. I notice that the majority of my customers are over 40, although many of my customers, both young and old, are interested in vinyl.
Q: Have you noticed resurgence in vinyl-record sales?
A: Vinyl records have always been a mainstay in my business. When I first started, customers used to leave boxes of records on my doorstep just wanting to get rid of them. Their donations became a large part of my business. I took their donated records, cleaned them up, and turned them into profit. Today, many of my customers are happy that they’ve kept their old records; those who haven’t are back looking to re-create their collections. They love the sound and the nostalgia that the albums and covers can bring. Vinyl, in my opinion, is here to stay.
Q: What changes has the store gone through over the years?
A: My first store in Derby was 1,250 square feet. I thought this was enormous, at the time. With the addition of vintage electronics and repairs, and our audio/video transfer department, I realized that we needed to expand. Merle’s has moved four times in the last 25 years. Our current location on Racebrook Road in Orange is nearly triple the size of my original store. The departments are distinct, and it feels like the record stores that you remember.
Q: Who are some of your favorite customers from over the years, and why?
A: Some of my favorite customers are the people who come into my store and tell me how they used to shop at Merle’s in the 1960s. I love when they come in with their children and their children’s children and introduce them to an independent record store. It’s great to see generations of music enthusiasts patronizing Merle’s.
Q: What was the biggest day the store ever had?
A: When I first opened up my franchise, I had a Ticketron machine. I came to work the morning that Guns N’ Roses tickets were going on sale only to find hundreds of people lined up at my doors waiting for tickets to go on sale. I let them in two at a time. One of my employees manned the door. I needed to keep the sales orderly so as not to interrupt service for my other customers. This was a long time ago, but it stands out vividly in my mind.
Q: Ever had anybody famous come in and shop at your store?
A: Freddie Paris from The Five Satins frequents my store regularly. Although I don’t get a lot of celebrities in my store, especially since there are no local performance venues. What I do get are international buyers. I’ve had people come in from Japan, the U.K., Greece, Italy and other locations around the world and the country. They come in to buy high-end vinyl and bring it back with them for resale.
Q: What is the future of record stores like yours?
A: Only time will tell what the future of record stores will be, but after nearly 50 years of Merle’s Record Rack being in business, I’m hoping to keep changing with the times and giving people the music and the service that they’ve grown to depend on.
Q: What’s the rarest record you’ve ever had in your store?
A: Probably the rarest record I’ve ever had in my store was the Beatles’ “Yesterday and Today” album with the butcher cover. The cover originally pictured all four Beatles with decapitated dolls and chunks of meat. Capitol records had the cover changed. The original cover became very collectible.
Q: What advice do you have for people who want to own a record store?
A: It’s not easy owning a record store today. The big-box stores used to be our competition, but now it’s the competition with ordering online. The best advice I can give someone who wants to own a music store is to find a niche. Don’t do something that people can get anywhere; do something special. Be original. Create something that people find unique and worthwhile and the customers will come to you.
Merle’s Record Rack
307 Racebrook Road
Orange, CT 06477