CD racks at Merle’s Record Rack

Record Holders

Merle’s Record Rack in Orange is a record store in more ways than you’d think.

At its main counter, a woman heard her dead mother’s voice for the first time in 50 years. Another woman’s grandchildren listened to a glowing aria that once sprung from her now raspy voice. Vietnam veterans’ one-time sweethearts listened to decades-old messages recorded for them from the front.

Merle’s gets visitors from all over the state looking to salvage audible mementos like these. Arriving with material housed on vinyl, cassettes or 8-track tapes, customers leave with that same material on more user-friendly CDs and mp3s.

But the audio transfer business isn’t the only thing keeping Merle’s going. The Record Rack also sells vintage hi-fi equipment, band posters and other memorabilia, quirky items like incense and, of course, a large number of records from vinyl to tapes to CDs. Popping out from the vinyl racks during my visit were Michael Bolton, the hard rocker-turned-pop balladier and New Haven native, and Whitesnake, which is rolling through College Street Music Hall next month. Superman was racked, too: the first two volumes of the Man of Steel’s original radio broadcasts could be found in the store’s children’s section.

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With its first set of doors opening in 1962, at one point the Merle’s empire encompassed storefronts in Derby, Milford, Wallingford, Guilford, East Haven, Middletown, Hamden and New Haven. Current owner Michael Papa was 15 when he started working part-time at the Derby location, staying with the store through high school and college before taking over as the manager in 1984.

Yet the Derby spot, and Merle’s overall, hit rough times with the rise of CDs in the ’90s. “People were leaving boxes of vinyl on the store’s front step,” Papa says. “I was dedicating a lot of floor space to vinyl, and floor space is money. I wondered if I was doing the right thing.”

The Orange location, the last one standing, has managed to stay open thanks to customers who still like the sound of what Merle’s is playing. No doubt the closure of competitors, like much-missed Cutler’s in New Haven, helps out, as does the store’s diversified business model. But it’s also buoyed by the resurgence of vinyl. Now, people tend to leave boxes of old CDs, not big grooved records, on the shop’s front step.

And there’s good reason for that, beyond mere nostalgia or retro social cues. According to Papa and shoppers like Justin Shay, a DJ at WPKN 89.5 FM, there’s a “warm feel, a crackle and pop,” to vinyl that you don’t get from digital recordings. Meanwhile, Shay says, the impact of the cover art—by virtue of sheer size—is something you can’t get from CDs or digital downloads.

Even with a lot of good things going for it, Merle’s has garnered an outspoken set of critics in the age of Yelp. Online reviewers of the store have repeatedly complained that much of the vinyl merchandise carries no price tags, getting the sense that Papa invents those items’ prices on the spot. The store’s customer service has come under fire as “rude.”

Papa—who can definitely be surly, as he was with a shifty-looking guy who came into the store and tried to unload a bunch of coffee-stained, mildewy records—says the lack of price tags are a matter of respect for both the records and the customers, especially the more serious collectors. “I choose not to put tags on my records. If something has survived for 50 years without a mark on it, why am I going to stick a gummy label on it for some guy to have to peel it off and rip the label?”

Other record shops solve this problem by investing in plastic sleeves, which protect the records from any damage caused by price stickers. Then again, filmy, sheeny plastic might obscure the classic vision you get at Merle’s—of those artsy record sleeves packed into the racks, inviting music hunters to do some good old-fashioned browsing and flipping.

Merle’s Record Rack
307 Racebrook Rd, Orange (map)
Mon-Fri 10am-5:30pm, Sat 10am-5pm
(203) 795-9033

Written and photographed by Daniel Shkolnik.

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