Harvard Square isn’t just a mecca for shopping, dining, and cute coffee shops — it’s also brimming with record stores, all within short walking distance. For the next few weeks, I’m going to be exploring the area in all its vinyl goodness. Why has Harvard Square managed to keep so many record stores afloat? How do these shops distinguish themselves from each other? Does the area cover all the bases for avid record hunters, or are there gaps in the market? I don’t have any answers for you right now. But hopefully, by the end of this stretch, I’ll be able to provide some insight into why this stop along the Red Line has been so attractive to vinyl sellers and consumers alike.
Let’s start with a place that’s already got it all figured out: Planet Records. From the minute you step inside, it’s apparent that Planet Records truly understands the vinyl buyer. This store has succeeded in “branding” itself like a boss, and all other record shops should take note. Walking into Planet Records is, quite literally, like roaming onto a planet made of records, and the shop is situated just far enough from the hustle and bustle of the heart of Harvard Square that it can adopt an eclectic, independent, and “on-the-fringes” mentality. In early 2012, Planet Records was doing so well that they moved from a tiny basement to their current address on 144 Mt. Auburn St., just a few blocks away. With this clean and spacious new location, it doesn’t look like they’re going anywhere any time soon.
Not to anyone’s surprise, the store is well stocked with used records from all the normal genres — rock, R&B, jazz, folk, classical, and electronic — as well as more recently released (but still used) records. It also offers a sizable collection of CDs, DVDs, artist box sets, and videos. Where Planet Records really excels, however, is on the experiential front. The interior decoration is colorful, quirky, and even comedic at times. Certificates from the “University of Vinyl” bestowing a Bachelor of Record Collecting degree? Check. Giant poster of a hamster? Check. There’s even merch stashed underneath the CD bins if you want to rock a Planet Records shirt on the daily.
While flipping through the store’s inventory (and simultaneously checking out the wall deco), I happened upon the record Tripper (2011) by Fruit Bats, an indie folk-rock band that has been making music for over a decade but hasn’t quite gotten the attention they deserve. With its soft, rambling tunes, Tripper isn’t an album that’s trying anything terribly new in the folk world. After a couple listens, though, the jaunty acoustic guitar, tinkling piano melodies, and occasional synth flourishes start to become infectious. Frontman Eric D. Johnson, who had a brief stint with the Shins from 2007 to 2011, clearly has a knack for writing pop hooks and breezy vocal lines.
And Planet Records clearly has a knack for shaping the vinyl shopping experience. The shop has managed to adjust to the modern day and age without losing the charm of an old-fashioned record store, striking a nearly perfect balance between sophistication and tongue-in-cheek humor. (Oh, and major bonus points for their epic write-up of the time Courtney Love visited their store and dropped $100 on a Gregorian Chant box set earlier this year.) Planet Records is a testament to the potential for record stores to be so much more than just a dusty time capsule, and it’s this type of innovation that’s going to drive the vinyl industry forward — against all odds.