Play it again: Toonerville Trolley Records still going strong

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Photo Gallery | Toonerville Trolley Records

WILLIAMSTOWN — From the gravel parking, up the steps and through the screen door of a quaint, Water Street house, lies a world of yesterdays.

Inside, there are rows and rows of albums — thousands of them — graced by covers that burst with color and memories of a time when albums were treasured, rock 'n' roll was new, and vinyl wasn't considered an artifact of the distant past.

Such sights were once common, with record stores on nearly every block.

But after decades of competing with dozens of record stores — Williamstown alone once was home to three or four at any one time — Hal March is last music man standing.

March is the owner of Toonerville Trolley Records, the last of its breed in the Berkshires. With the flood of online music options, most retail music stores have closed their doors. Even mall options like Best Buy and FYE have abandoned the Berkshires.

"I do it because I like it, and I'm not finished doing it," said March, 75, who sees himself as a simple music lover. "I'm too old to do anything else anyway."

For music-loving baby boomers, the music industry has been a wild ride. Many have purchased some of their favorite albums repeatedly as the media of choice changed — from vinyl records to 8-track tapes and then cassettes in the 1970s, and on to compact discs in the 1980s.

Then came the Internet. The golden age of Napster in the 1990s brought a (short-lived) flood of free music downloads, and suddenly millions of music fans were learning how to download songs to their computers.

When the use of iTunes and iPods came on like a tidal wave, the decline of hard-copy music collections ensued. And now streaming music subscriptions are eating away at sales of digital downloads.

March has collected and sold it all. Even today, with more than 8,000 records, he still may have the largest collection of vinyl in the county. That doesn't include more than 1,000 CDs, and a even few cassettes on top of that.

He started out in 1976 selling records out of the back of an old bread truck around Western Massachusetts and sometimes further. He called it The Toonerville Trolley.

By 1979 or so he was getting tired of selling records out of a truck, especially in the wintertime, so he opened a store in the front half of what is now The Water Street Grill. But a couple of years later, the owner needed the space, so he moved to the building next door, where Toonerville Trolley Records still resides.

And in contrast to the collective wisdom of music retailers nationwide, he is still selling new and used CDs, although substantially fewer than in the past. Since his location is around the corner from the college campus, the loss of the college student market when digital downloads took hold knocked his business back by about 75 percent, he said.

"My CD sales have declined about 20 percent a year for the past six years," March said. "And Williams College students got out of CDs 15 years ago. You take away 2,000 students and you're going to lose a bit of your sales."

So he has reduced his inventory of CDs, but keeps trading in them because "there are still people who like to take their CDs in the car with them."

Before FYE and Best Buy left the county, the Tune Street music store in Great Barrington got out of CDs sales last year, opting instead to concentrate on its home audio/visual technology sales while still offering vinyl records.

"It's impossible to make a living selling CDs anymore," said Tune Street owner Luke Germain. "We looked at the numbers — the number of CDs you'd have to sell to break even — and it's just not sustainable. For the customer, it's tough to justify purchasing a CD anymore."

As streaming music explodes in popularity, the bottom has fallen out of CD sales, which declined 14 percent in 2014.

According to reports from Nielsen Music, which tracks sales and streams of albums and songs, there were 78.6 billion audio streamed songs sold in 2014, a 54.5 percent jump over 2013. In 2015, audio streaming grew another 83 percent.

Total digital music consumption rose 3.7 percent in 2014. But digital music sales that year — not streaming — declined 9.4 percent.

Chain record stores watched as total retail music sales plummeted 20 percent in 2014. But as a group, independent shops like Toonerville Trolley fared better, seeing only a 0.5 percent drop in sales collectively in 2014.

For vinyl, things have come full circle.

After being decimated by the arrival of CDs decades ago, vinyl sales jumped nearly 52 percent in 2014. And that rise continued in 2015, marking 10 straight years of growth. Independent record stores accounted for 45 percent of vinyl record sales in 2015.

Toonerville Trolley is known in many circles as the place to go for rare music and hard-to-find vinyl. And despite the fact that online sellers have been hacking away at the retail market for years, March bolsters his music store sales with his own online trade.

"Without (online sales) I wouldn't be able to keep it going," he said. "My sales have gone up in the last few years because of the Internet sales, the resurgence of vinyl, and because everyone else is closed."

Flipping through March's collection of blues records is like strolling through a museum dedicated to the blues. His collection encompasses rock, country, jazz, rhythm and blues, Motown, and other esoteric genres.

In another wrinkle related to the downturn of CDs, March is finding it harder to find wholesale sources for new CDs.

"The distributors for CDs and DVDs are going out of business," he said. "The biggest distributor went out of business five or six years ago."

March foresees a time when the market for new music on hard copy largely evaporates.

"Eventually it'll just be the collectors coming in 'cause the old guys that are still buying actual, physical, things that contain music are all going to be dead or downsizing," he said. "It will all be digital."

But until he's forced to stop, he'll keep right on trading in vinyl, cassettes and CDs.

"I've still got stuff I still want to sell and listen to," he said.


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