Keohane: Newbury Comics Soldiers On

1218640969Living in a dynamic city virtually ensures any longtime resident will spend at least a few minutes every week mournfully pointing at spots where great things used to be, before they were forced out by something banal. For me, that’s a lot of minutes contemplating a lot of things (Curious Liquids on Beacon Hill, The Littlest Bar, The Someday Café, about 50 bookstores), but more than anything, it’s the record shops.

For years I spent my weekends walking around, drinking coffee, and shopping for music, starting at Stereo Jacks in Porter Square, and working Mass. Ave. down to Newbury Street. Now, most of the places are gone—Other Music, Tower Records, HMV, and a number of little used places—meaning that if I’m in the market for something, it’s Newbury Comics, or, and this kills me, Amazon.

With the collapse of the music industry, I’ve been worried for the last two or three years that Newbury Comics, which I visit probably three or four times a week, and which claims a bigger share of my paycheck than the Commonwealth, was on the outs as well. Particularly after I saw the Government Center location, which I unfailingly hit after trips to City Hall, was shutting down.

But according to Mike Dreese, who co-founded the company in 1978, not so.

The company pulled out of Government Center after, “the landlord put in front of us a substantial rent increase that, frankly, shocked us.”

But Dreese has now opened a new two-level shop last week in Fanueil Hall—a far cry from the store’s early punk days on what was once the scrappy side of Newbury Street. “In a market like Faneuil Hall, there’s just so many foreign tourists,” Dreese says. “I think it’ll be a very noted stop. It’ll take a year for us to get into the guidebooks and all that stuff.”

The new space is twice the size of the Government Center location. It’s two stories with four brick-lined rooms upstairs, packed with music, movies and the kind of kitsch miscellany that has become a bigger percentage of Newbury’s business over the years.

Though they only opened last week (and will need three weeks to get inventory ready for a grand opening) the place was jammed, like every other retail outlet in the city, with foreign tourists, notably obnoxious Spanish teenagers, who have become epidemic in this town since the dollar tanked.

Dreese says that Government Center was “a very difficult location,” though one with the chain’s most loyal customer base: city officials and financial industry workers. “They’re the city coat and tie crowd, they’ve been record collectors their whole lives, or comic collectors. They’re really well-educated, very much fans of the music or of film. It’s not a particularly young crowd. It’s a lot of 30- to 40-year-olds that still want this stuff. Not everybody’s into ripping Star Wars off line illegally or whatever.”

When a new release came out, the Government Center store outsold all the others in the chain. Same for comics. Dreese hopes 75 to 80 percent of those die-hards will make the trek down to Fanueil Hall to get their fix.

But whether those old fans will have to fortitude to plunge that deep into Fanueil Hall during the day is yet to be seen. I was down there yesterday afternoon, and it took all my restraint to not start shoving people out of the way, as I tried in vain to navigate past all the generic chain stores. Like, say, Orvis (for people for whom LL Bean is just a little too “out there”). I started having visions of those scenes in Shawn of the Dead where they stormed through the streets clubbing zombies who were too slow-moving to defend themselves.

In any case, so far, so good. Last week, the Faneuil store ranked third in the 24-store chain for vinyl sales, even though they hadn’t advertised its existence. Faneuil Hall, “was originally set up to feature local businesses and local flavor,” Dreese says, “and I think our coming there is a big deal for the marketplace because a lot of people have commented on the lack of local flavor. Newbury is a multiple state operator, but Boston is our identity.”

In two weeks, Newbury will open their largest store yet, a million-dollar location on the site of an old Kia dealership in Norwood, on Ernie Boch Jr. property (Boch and Dreese serve as Berklee board members).

It’s good to see a good local business continue to grow, even if it also ensures the continuation of my financially crippling music habit, particularly one that stands as a link back to the old scruffier Boston, when the mere utterance of a word like “Apple-tini” would probably land you a pretty thorough beating. As Dreese says, “I’ve never seen a store quite like it in my worldly travels.”

Joe Keohane’s column for Boston Daily runs every Wednesday.