aboveground records to close at year’s end after 18 years

aboveground Records owner Mike Barnes with one of his prize recordings, "At Play with The Playmates," a 1958 release by The Playmates, a vocal group from Waterbury, Conn. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

The Vineyard’s sole music store, aboveground records, dealing in new and used CDs and vinyl (records) is headed below ground, in a manner of speaking, after almost 18 years of business at the triangle in Edgartown. Proprietor Michael Barnes plans to close down at the end of the year.

“I hope everybody finds peace in my decision,” he said. “People will find a way. I am respectful of those who may have a hard time with my decision. I realize that the Vineyard may never have another record store. That is sad. The possibility of me reopening sometime in the future is not out the window.”

Mr. Barnes has a secure, climate-controlled storage space ready to house what remains of his extensive collection of vintage CDs and records after the store closes. His plan is to occasionally set up tables at concerts and community events and perhaps even open a site online to keep a presence in the used record business.

He said that he will be better off financially not keeping his store open than continuing to compete with a music business that has moved online. “I’m not losing money, and my kids are not going hungry,” he said. “But I realize the real estate is much more valuable than the business. I can make more money by walking away and not showing up.” The business has been subsidized in recent years by the rent he gets from an adjoining unit he owns, and he plans to rent the space the store is in, which he also owns, after he closes.

“I started the store as a way to avoid getting a real job,” he said with a laugh that punctuates much of his conversation. “The idea of exchanging money for goods has never appealed to me, but I will miss the customers and dealing with the music.”

The father of two 12-years-olds, Mr. Barnes is the son of Island mover Clarence “Trip” Barnes and Judy Cronig, whose family owned Cronig’s Market. He remembers buying his first music at a music and video store called Sight and Sounds across from the post office in Vineyard Haven when he was a student at the Tisbury School.

“I bought the audio-cassettes of ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic in 3-D’ and Run DMC’s self-titled album with my own money. I remember being in the music room at the Tisbury School with my little tiny tape deck playing them for my friends,” he recalled.

While a freshman at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, Mr. Barnes got a job working at Island Entertainment to earn money to buy more music. He was eventually put to work in the downstairs music department. “They knew if I spent more time down there I would spend all my earnings on music,” he recalled.

After graduating from high school in 1993, he spent six months working for a major record label, MCA, in Chicago. “I worked in regional promotion, on Meat Loaf’s comeback album, ‘Bat Out of Hell, II.’ I got to meet Mr. Loaf. He was exceptionally nice.”

It didn’t take Mr. Barnes long to realize that very little of the music business involved music. “It was mostly public relations and working with images, not what I wanted. I had the idealistic idea that music should be about music.”

It was back to the Vineyard then to Wilmington, N.C., where Mr. Barnes worked for a record store for six months. “It was a very influential experience for me. I learned that a record store could make it selling more than just the promoted, popular music and that I couldn’t make enough working in a record store to live in Wilmington.” He returned to the Island, back to Island Entertainment.

With the encouragement of friends and family, he decided to open a record shop in Edgartown, aboveground records. Using $15,000 he had saved, he purchased inventory, put up shelves, and opened on June 17, 1995. He didn’t take a salary for the first two years.

The business thrived. aboveground made more money each year for almost 10 years. He doubled the size of the store, purchasing a second condo unit in 2002, and at one time employed two full-time and a handful of part-time people to handle the steady stream of customers. He sold a lot of new CDs.

“Then it flip flopped and we made less money every year,” Mr. Barnes said. “It went from when people had no choice but to get their music from a record store to when they could buy things on the Internet or download music from the Internet.”

He reduced the size of the store by half in January 2012 and rented the space he no longer uses. He uses the money he gets from the rent to help subsidize the record store. “We used to sell a lot more new CDs, now we sell mostly used records and anything I can sell for less than you can get it on iTunes. I sell a lot of collectable records and cheap records I purchase from private record collections.”

When asked what he listens to now, Mr. Barnes said with a laugh, “Talk radio, I like to listen to music made by my friends, by people I know.”

His fondest memories of his years in business are of the live music events he staged at the store and in the parking lot outside. “We staged somewhere around 200 events,” he said. “I tried to use money I would have spent going to Boston to hear musicians I wanted to hear to pay them to come here.”

One customer overheard in the background during the phone interview asked Mr. Barnes if he had any Jethro Tull albums. He had two: “Benefit” and “The Best Of.” The customer then talked about the closing: “It must be bittersweet, but it must be nice to move on. I’m glad I got to grow up with your store.”

“It’s been two generations now who have been buying here,” Mr. Barnes said. “It’s great that there are people playing music, in bands of their own, who got their first music and listened to some of their first live music here at aboveground,” he said. “It’s been really cool. There have been so many people who have come through here and have helped shape what we have done. I couldn’t be any luckier. I have always been surrounded by good people. The door’s not closed forever.”

aboveground records, located at the Triangle in Edgartown, will stay open at least through the end of 2013. For more information, call 508-627-4678, or visit the store.