Angela Sawyer is the owner of Weirdo Records, the premiere independent record store for anyone seeking to step off the beaten path of music aesthetics. Located near Central Square in Cambridge, and jammed into a space smaller than some college dorms, this seemingly unassuming shop is a gateway to sonic bliss. 80% of my record collection accumulated since coming to Boston has been found on the shelves of Weirdo records, everything from Sunn O))) to Sun Ra, garage rock to gypsy jazz. Sawyer is also a prominent part of Boston’s music scene, periodically DJing events around town, as well as throwing a show every monday night at her store. Go on April 21st and celebrate Record Store day with the folks behind the Boston Hassle!
TJ: What are you doing this year to celebrate record store day?
AS: Last year we did this as well and it was so much fun, Sam and Dan (of Needy Visions and Boston Hassle fame) are gonna do karaoke on the sidewalk and I’m gonna give away like a case of beer. I also hide things around the shop that I’ve intentionally priced too low or I’ve been saving up as a rare release and I just sort of hide them around the shelves. It’s a nice, self congratulatory holiday and I think it’s great, I’m always happy to have people show up and go “Great! I’m glad you’re alive!” and that’s nice enough to make me happy. Owners of stores get more business, and people get more records, it’s great for everyone.
TJ: Do many more people really turn out each year for record store day?
AS: Yeah! For whatever reason I think it’s not going to happen and people wont show up and then it gets here and I get slaughtered.
TJ: Have record stores and working in record stores always been a big part of your life?
AS: Kind of, I’ve been working in record stores for more than 20 years so basically my record store was also my job but I feel like working in a record store saved me from a life of crime.
TJ: What was your first job in the world of music?
AS: When I first was in college I volunteered at the radio station and really liked it there, it was the first place I’d ever been to where I felt I fit in.
TJ: How did you move from the radio and that slice of music culture, to the type of music popular in small record stores?
AS: When I moved into town, I wanted to work at a record store, the first person who hired me probably did it to piss off the other employees, I was a super green kid who didn’t really know much, I remember very distinctly learning how to think about music. before I hung out in record stores a lot I just listened to whatever was on the radio, and in college at stores I learned there was more than was on the radio, and there was music for people like me.
TJ: How did working in a store like that change your view of music?
AS: People actually paid attention to small indie bands at places like the stores I worked, and I learned from those people that music can be good whether it’s popular or not, that every record had to be judged on its intrinsic musical quality. I learned not to pick a record the way that I picked a shirt.
TJ: What stores did you work at before starting Weirdo?
AS: Before Weirdo I worked at a bunch of stores around town, Twisted Village, Pipeline, Cheapo records, In-Your-Ear and Looney Tunes.
TJ: How did you transition from working in these stores, to wanting to start your own outlet?
AS: Truthfully it was the internet, I always wanted to own a store, but I always worked in record stores so I had no money. Ever. I was really lucky, because the collectors around town and people who own stores around town, they went out of their way to help me figure out how to survive off 3 dollars a week or gave me work when I needed it.
You’re supposed to need 100,000 dollars to open a business, I don’t think I’ve ever had more than 500 dollars at one time and I’m in my 40’s.
I realized anyone could build a website, so I tried that. It took me about a year to figure it out, and I just figured it would be a little mail order thing that makes 20 bucks on a weekend. But I got into it, basically I had a bunch of little part time jobs at the time to supplement that. The stores I worked at barely survived though, so I was working at a million different places, and when the economy dipped I was the first one laid off first from all those places because I worked part time, so when I became unemployed I just dumped all my free time into working on the store.
TJ: At what point did you realize you needed to move the operation out of your home?
AS: It outgrew the space I was in, it was about the same size but you know it had a TV and furniture. When it started getting ridiculous, when I realized “oh I’m kind of fucking up the living room,” I figured it was time to move out, and I also kind of wanted it to get real. I spent 9 months looking for spaces before I found this one, it’s small but it works and its problems actually help me do my job better. If I have too much stuff I haven’t dealt with yet I’ll trip over it, I don’t have a back room, so it just piles up.
TJ: What’s the hardest part about running a store that caters to music outside the norm?
AS: It’s like having a baby that’s 6 months old and won’t get any older, I love it do death, even the stupid shit like doing accounting at 6 in the morning, it’s cool because it’s like “I’m doing my thing!” but the most annoying part is that you have to do it all the time, you have to love it, there’s no other reward. You gotta love the thing it is or else you’re screwed. There’s sorts of businesses I’m sure that aren’t like that, but for me the line between work and my life is almost non-existent
TJ: Is there any secret to your success in running this store?
AS: Part of the reason this place can be the way it is is because of how Boston is, there is a long standing community of people around here who are into avant garde stuff. People talk and find out there’s neat records, so they come and get them. The community is extremely important, it’d be hard to live without it.
TJ: What was the first record you ever bought?
AS: Well, I was born into a record collection, I learned to read from records, had them before I even knew what they were but the first album I ever bought with my own money was back in black, I got it on cassette and I would listen to it while playing on a pogo stick in my parents driveway when I was about 9.
TJ: What’s the weirdest or rarest record you own?
AS: The strangest record I own is this 1 of 1 cassette box set by a band I really like, Sun City Girls. It’s just a weird item, I listen to it in my car, it’s not a hugely rare thing or anything like that, people probably don’t care about it, but to me it’s worth more than my car!
TJ: How has the business of working in and owning a record store changed in the last 20 years? Has it changed much at all?
AS: It hasn’t changed that much in 20 years, not to me! Little things change, surface things, but I suppose it changes slowly, and it doesn’t seem that different. There’s a little fashion to what cool records people want and don’t want, little things people are excited about or don’t give a shit about at all, it’s your job to pay attention so you don’t fuck yourself. People come in and say “OH! Vinyls coming back!” but I’m so specialized that it doesn’t make a difference for me, just because I’m in such a tiny tiny corner of it, it’s so narrow. For the general industry, like tower or best buy, there have been big changes, but for mom and pop places, especially those that are all avant garde stuff like me, it hasn’t changed.
TJ: Why do you think record stores are important?
AS: It’s like a defense against all of the bull shit in the world. It was the one place in the world where bullshit doesn’t fly. To me a record store is a place to go to grow your ear. Everyone I know who collects records spends their time filtering what is or isn’t good and articulating what makes good music to them, even if they’re autistic or have aspergers they know what makes something good and how to spot it. That’s a genuine and meaningful community. To me, a record store is the only place I want to spend my time ever, I don’t even know how to operate in the normal universe, I can’t cook a chicken or talk to an 8 year old, none of that shit, I just wanted to break down all the fences in my head and get to that place so that’s what I do.