A decade or two ago, talking about Exile on Main Street might have involved describing what made the record shop different from others in the region.
That discussion doesn’t really apply anymore. Competitors have died off—most notably Cutler’s record store, which closed in June after 64 years in business—making Branford-based Exile one of just a handful left in the greater New Haven area. That’s meant less local competition for them, sure, but it’s a bittersweet benefit.
For people who love a great music store (like me), it’s all pretty worrisome. But then…
“People are starting to come back,” says co-owner Paula Kretikiewicz from behind Exile’s counter on a recent Monday morning. She’s playing the new Neil Young album, loud enough that it’s more than background music, but not so loud that we can’t have a conversation. New and used CDs and a small but impressive collection of vinyl line walls and fill bins in the middle of the crowded space, but this is a happy crowd indeed. Right away, I spot handwritten plastic tabs marking a few of my favorite bands (and plenty of others with which I have yet to become acquainted).
Kretikiewicz co-owns the store with Al Lotto, a joint venture they opened in 1993 after working in music retail for some time. Right around 2000, says Kretikiewicz, the advent of music downloading affected their business in a major way. Sales at the store—which offers mostly rock music and is named after a famous Rolling Stones album—fizzled.
We’ve all witnessed the format evolution over the years, from vinyl to tape to compact disc to MP3 to cloud streaming, but few of us have had our livelihoods challenged by it. Exile kept going, however, and lately, business has been looking pretty good. People are coming back.
Of course, some loyal regulars—a couple of whom showed up to leaf through the horizontal stacks and make a few purchases while I was there—never gave up on in-store shopping. Still, according to Kretikiewicz, others less diehard are returning to an experience they once knew. They’re back to browsing titles not on a computer screen, buying albums you can hold in your hand, ripping off the cellophane and scanning the album art before taking that first listen; back to watching the needle drop gracefully onto the grooved black surface of an LP; back to listening to entire records from start to finish while enjoying the crisp, clean sound of a compact disc.
Exile on Main Street is just the spot to revive these rituals. The shop has never really deviated from its musical core (for example, by offering unrelated kitsch or novelties). The inventory is pretty much comprised of albums, t-shirts, posters and other music fandom mainstays. A huge neon sign displays the shop’s name brightly from the back of the store, in case you forget where you are while getting a little lost in the David Bowie section (it could totally happen).
As mentioned, this is mostly a rock store. Indie, classic and metal feature heavily. Exile also carries rock’s roots—jazz and blues—and are happy to special order anything for store pickup at no extra charge.
People who have moved away travel back, she says, explaining that there’s nothing like Exile where they live. Others, perhaps more to the point, have said to her, “‘You guys can never close. You just can’t.’”
She laughs, and says she replies that they’ll try not to, adding that this isn’t a “get-rich business.” But she genuinely likes what she does, and enjoys mingling with others who share the interest.
I can suddenly understand exactly what those impassioned customers mean. Talking to Kretikiewicz, it’s the first time in forever that someone has been genuinely interested in learning about the music I like. It’s been ages since I talked about how much music meant to me in high school, and how, in the grownup world of family, work and myriad obligations, I’ve lost the connection to bands—like Yo La Tengo and Built to Spill—that once meant the world to me.
Here in the midst of all this tangible music, with others who can relate, it feels very much like I’m reconnecting.
Exile on Main Street
267 East Main St, Branford (map)
Mon-Fri 10am-7pm, Sat 10am-6pm, Sun 11am-4pm
Written and photographed by Cara McDonough.