The return of the record: Johnny’s vinyl haven still going strong

The sign in Johnny’s store window read “Going Out of Business,” and it seemed as though this record shop was on the path of obsolescence carved out by MP3s and iTunes — a path laden with other record store casualties, remnants of what some were calling a bygone era.

Owner John Konrad was about to bid farewell to a place he built from the ground up; a gathering place for musicophiles; a pit stop for art lovers; a nesting ground for intriguing conversations and light-hearted banter.

By his own account, Konrad had essentially dropped out of overseeing his store as he pursued other interests that had burned from inside him for years. When he finally realized his store was in terrible shape, it was too late.

Well, almost.

“You’re always making changes in your life and you gotta say goodbye to some parts of yourself, or put it on ice or something,” Konrad told The Darien Times, in between entertaining customers at his Tokeneke Road store. “But when it came time to close, I said, ‘You know, this is too big a part of me.’ I didn’t know what would happen if I unbalanced myself like that.

“The next three years really sucked.”

A few years after the turn of the millennium, Konrad began rebuilding the business he had started in 1975. But as the music industry continued to unravel at the seams and all hope appeared lost for independent store owners, an interesting phenomenon occurred. Suddenly, and without much warning, a renewed interest in vinyl records began sweeping the states.

“Then one day I started to get calls from parents of teenage kids who just found their parents’ turntable,” Konrad said, and “all of a sudden it was teenagers who were kind of interested in it.”

Two months later he had quadrupled his vinyl inventory. This was about five years ago.

“I could feel the current,” Konrad said. “Now it grows month by month.”

Record Store Day, which happens in April, has a secondary event on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving. To prepare, Konrad ordered several hundred records, anticipating a rush of vinyl lovers. He ordered so many boxes that he joked with the UPS delivery man to send him the medical bill for the driver’s likely hernia.

“I know pretty much everyone who comes in here,” Konrad said. “If I don’t, I will before they leave.”

As people wandered into his store, that sentiment became increasingly apparent. Wilton resident David Lynch credits Konrad’s success to his affable nature and his ability to score out-of-print material.

“He has so many artists that you don’t even see a title for in other stores,” Lynch said, after inquiring about a Rare Earth album. “He just ordered four CDs for me. If they’re available through his sources — whether they’re out of print or not — he comes through 99% of the time… That’s where I give him so much credit. And he’s a nice guy.”

The first thing a person might notice upon entering Johnny’s, aside from the obvious racks of records, CDs, posters and T-shirts, is the smell. The musky, dry odor of aging album covers fills the room with a sense of nostalgia that’s comparable to returning home after an extended hiatus.

Konrad’s own love affair with music began early, when his father would bring home bags full of old 45s, issued by artists representing a wide spectrum of genres.

“I’ve had a passion for music since I can remember being alive,” Konrad said. While he’s not keen on picking favorites, he remembered how “smitten” he was when Elvis Presley first hit the scene in the 1950s. From there, his palate continued to diversify.

After graduating from Darien High School in 1968, and later from Columbia University with an English degree, Konrad returned to his roots where he took a job that enabled him to work on his “great American novel.”

But he became restless. Several years later, he decided his love of music could be harnessed as a record store owner.

“I’ve always had some gene for doing business,” he said. “I like talking to people… it’s always been something that comes natural to me.”

He told his future landlord that he only intended to run the store for a year, at which point he received a look that questioned his sanity.

“Suddenly a year became, like, 40 years,” Konrad said with a laugh.

As his business launched, Konrad remembered that young Darienites were discovering their love of marijuana. Seeing this as a business opportunity, he began selling pipes and other paraphernalia. This led to rumors around town that he was selling drugs, so area mothers decided they would “march on the store” in an attempt to cleanse the town of this nefarious record store character.

But the night before the march, Konrad got a feeling something bad was about to happen. He had no knowledge of the planned assault on his store, but he felt compelled to rid his shop of all head gear. He called a friend at midnight and together they gathered all the pot smoking items and piled them into a car.

The next morning, the moms marched in. But there was nothing around. Agitated, one of the women spotted a metronome and asked incredulously, and with perhaps a bit of naive frustration, “What is this?” Hoping she had found the smoking gun. Konrad couldn’t contain his own laughter while relating the story.

He sold the pipes to Utopia in Norwalk for a “huge loss,” Konrad said. His friend, however, lamented his role in transporting the paraphernalia.

“He said, ‘What if I get into an accident? There will be bongs all over 95’,” Konrad said, laughing heartily.

Never short on anecdotes, Konrad is one part entrepreneur, one part storyteller, and one part therapist. During his exploration phase, he ended his marriage and went back to school, taking on complex math classes until a UConn professor developed physics courses solely for him.

He also ventured into energy therapy and hypnosis, which he continues to perform as a part time service. He’s accustomed to people coming to him with problems. One of his friends had recently lost his father, so in a moment of spontaneous succor, Konrad decided to destroy a CD rack to make room for more vinyl with hopes that his friend could join the demolition in an act of healing catharsis.

“It was my way of helping him deal with the loss,” Konrad said.

But it’s music that pays the bills. Or at least, things related to music. Konrad also deals in rock art and posters, a market that tends to fluctuate but always maintains a relatively high demand. He recently sold an acid test poster for $17,000. The acid test was immortalized in Tom Wolfe’s book “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test”, which recounts the journey of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters as they traveled the country, taking LSD and searching for meaning in a rapidly changing world.

On his website, Konrad offers a Jerry Garcia print called “Ishi” for $16,500. Ishi was known as the last living member of the Yahi people, a Native American nation that became extinct as settlers colonized the American west.

But it’s the music that keeps people coming back. New Canaan resident Dutch Doscher comes to Johnny’s because the store provides a much-needed service in the era of the download.

“For me, I feel like I want to own something,” Doscher said. “Some of it is wanting to give music to my daughters, handing it down to them.”

As customers steadily roam into his shop, Konrad grabs a few discs he picked out or ordered specifically for them.

“Johnny’s amazing, he’s got great taste,” Doscher said. “I come in here all the time and say, ‘What do you got?’ And he’ll play stuff for me and I end up leaving spending more money than I should have.”

Written in Konrad’s mind is an exhaustive history of the record industry. He’s been there since the heydays when vinyl was everything. He was there when eight-tracks and tapes came along. He watched as big box stores would sell records for dirt-cheap prices, and then go out of business because the low prices were predicated on not paying record companies for the actual records.

“It was the same crap over and over again,” Konrad said. “Everybody’s going, ‘I can’t buy from you guys, Crazy Eddie’s is so cheap,’ and I go, ‘They’re not gonna be there in two months’. You know, I know what they’re doing. I’ve watched the game.”

He was there when CDs and MTV came along, creating musical commodities. He watched as Disney got involved in music, leading to the creation of manufactured bands such as ‘N Sync and Britney Spears. He was front row for the nonstop complaints that pop rockers continued to sell albums that had only one good song.

He was there as rising CD costs paved the way for Napster and MP3s, and he’s there now to see the decline of CD prices, only now “it’s 22 years too late…”

For years, major record labels such as Sony and Warner Bros. ignored him. “They could care less if I was alive,” he said. Then about five years ago, they started caring.

“Now, there’s so few of us left, I’m getting calls from these guys all the time, saying, ‘Hey what’s going on? What’s the word on the street?’ Because they lost the word on the street.”

And he’s still there, weathering each storm that crosses his path with a sense of contentment akin to a meditative monk.

“When you’re younger you think you have to spend so much time making things happen,” said Konrad, 62. “When you get older, you realize you carry a charge and things just start coming to you.”

That sense of fatalism hit hard when he finally was able to finish the book he always wanted to write. Over the course of a year, he penned 700 pages, one of the most rewarding experiences of his life, he said.

Where does Johnny Konrad see the future of the music industry?

“I have no idea,” he said. But he does see a resurgence in the grassroots spirit that made the 1960s such an exciting time for his industry. As access to marketing avenues exploded with the Internet, bands now can do almost everything on their own and on the cheap. Vinyl’s role during this evolution has cycled 360 degrees.

In the 1990s, Konrad had to make room for CDs and filled his garage with tens of thousands of records, much to his wife’s chagrin. Almost two decades later, he had to take CDs out to make room for more vinyl.

“The return of the record has really changed the industry completely, it probably saved the industries’ ass in the last five years,” Konrad said. “The industry would be gone if it wasn’t for vinyl now. It would be gone. It’s the only part of the industry that’s growing. And it keeps growing.”

Originally published in The Darien Times.


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