Music fanatics can be hard to take. They run the gamut from opinionated to obnoxious. Some of us know the middle-aged jazz hipster, pontificating about John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme versus Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew. Bob Dylan cognoscenti will turn on each other, arguing whether his Desire album is as important as Blood on the Tracks. Snooty purists scoff at the notion that Billy Gibbons and Joe Bonamassa are “blues” guitarists. It can get ugly.
But one of the biggest rifts in music these days is format. There are the streaming triplets: Pandora, Spotify and iTunes. These exceedingly efficient delivery systems have a massive global following. Before that it was digital storage media, embodied by the compact disc. It’s an increasingly foreign
notion. CDs came of age in the early 90s, when Gen X icons like Kurt Cobain and Layne Staley could move millions of units at retail. That business collapsed after the iPod debuted in 2001.
Then, there’s vinyl—and everything that goes with it.
These flimsy 12-inch platters came to prominence during the era of TV dinners and poodle skirts. Their low-tech unwieldiness is comical to the iPhone generation. The long-playing (LP) album—and its cousin the compact cassette—nearly became extinct when CDs went mainstream. But in a curious reversal, sales of vinyl albums have surged in recent years, even as CD sales tanked. This trend combines the revenge of analog traditionalists with the inherent collectibility of something that is both graphic art and music at once.
Still, the demise of independent record stores left a void in American towns that the Apple Store can never fill. So, where do you go? Ironically, back to Main Street.
Exile on Main Street, located at 267 East Main Street in Branford, has been a shoreline staple since the year of Nirvana’s In Utero and Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream (1993). It’s so old school that it’s nearly anachronistic. Everything about the place is unassuming, from its handwritten artist index cards to its two proprietors, Paula Kretkiewicz and Al Lotto.
Music pundits in their own right, Paula and Al, interchangeably, can be seen at Exile seven days a week, blasting tunes, talking music, and selling of merchandise ranging from CDs and records to t-shirts, posters, and DVDs.
The music industry was markedly different back when Exile opened its doors in September of 1993. Even then, they were an underdog. Larger retail outfits such as Cutler’s and Strawberries were formidable competition. That competition had more inventory, more stores, more advertising—more everything. Yet in another ironic turnaround, it’s Exile that is still standing after all these years.
“We had no idea what to expect,” Al Lotto says. “We opened our doors and hoped for the best. Twenty plus years later and we’re still here.” Paula Kretkiewicz sees it differently: “We’re stubborn by nature,” she says. “We had no intention of ever going away.”
Such stubbornness seems to have paid off. Despite all the odds—from big retail chains to online shopping to streaming music—Exile and its owners have prevailed. “We’re in favor of the artists,” Kretkiewicz says, “and the current music industry model makes it very difficult for them to make money. We’ve maintained our position as the conduit between the artist and the fan, and we’re happy to play that role.”
Fortuitously located next to a guitar shop steeped with as much small town charm as its neighbor, Exile is frequented by all walks of life. High schoolers dwell over the massive stock of used CDs; twenty and thirty-somethings ogle Allman Brothers t-shirts and incense; middle-aged men and women wax nostalgic over the vinyl that has miraculously become en vogue again.
“Everything is pretty much music related,” Lotto says. “That’s our niche: music. We’re fans who wanted to be around it as much as possible. That’s why we do this—for the love of the music. Patti Smith, the Stones, R.E.M. and Bowie just to name a few artists who’ve inspired us in some way or another.”
Its name gleaned from the iconic 1972 Rolling Stones’ album of the same name, Exile on Main Street postures itself as a proud survivor in a cutthroat industry. “We’re certainly among the last of our kind,” Kretkiewicz says. “Free music has compromised the entire industry in ways no one could have ever predicted. But those who still want to buy their music in the old fashioned way still do so. And we’re grateful for that. It has allowed us to endure.”
On the other end of the Connecticut shoreline is another bastion of vinyl glory, Tumbleweeds, located on 325 Main Street in Niantic. This store has a history that goes back to (subverting) the Nixon administration. Like a hippie dream, it’s a wonderful maelstrom of tie-dyed clothing and accessories, blues recordings, new and used CDs, and enough vinyl to pave the walls and floors of Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Like many indy record stores, Tumbleweeds had humble beginnings. Conceived more as a head shop when Dave Wyatt opened it back in 1974, the store specialized in hand carved candles, clothes, jewelry, and of course, bongs. In the intervening decades Tumblweeds has exponentially increased its merchandise, which now includes eco-friendly clothing, vintage vinyl, and a Congressional archive full of blues recordings. It has remained a living part of the shoreline music scene, attracting enthusiasts who range in age from thirteen to seventy.
Dave Wyatt has passed on, and Tumbleweeds is now the domain of his daughter, Tara Wyatt. Sitting behind her counter on a sun-filled Wednesday afternoon, Wyatt conveys her business vision: “We want to bring in things that are truly unique. Everyone’s shopping experience should be truly unique as well. We want everyone to feel great about what they’ve just purchased. It should be an experience—and a positive one as well. It’s as simple as that.”
Wyatt practically beams when you ask her how business has been. With the exception of January and February (two notoriously slow retail months) business is excellent. With a loyal clientele and an ever-increasing inventory, Tumbleweeds has defied the odds and shown that mom-and-pop indie record stores can thrive in the streaming era. Tumbleweeds may never be able to compete with the few big chains left in today’s music market, but that’s hardly Tara Wyatt’s goal.
“If people want to shop at Walmart,” Wyatt says, with sly humor in her voice, “I’m not inclined to stop them. We’re not offering the Walmart experience.”
Exile on Main Street’s Top Ten
(To get a Spotify playlist of songs from these albums, just click here!)
ARCTIC MONKEYS AM
BECK Morning Phase
FOO-FIGHTERS Sonic Highways
PINK FLOYD Endless River
JACK WHITE Lazaretto
U2 Songs of Innocence
LUCINDA WILLIAMS Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone
JASON ISBELL Southeastern
GOV’T MULE Sco-Mule
SPOON They Want My Soul
Image Credits: Photo courtesy of Shutterstock