If you’re not looking for Dr. Records, you might just miss it.
Tucked almost underground near the intersection of Main Street and Mill Street in downtown Orono, it is the only record shop in town since 1984.
After walking down the concrete steps and opening the weathered red door, the sheer amount of CDs, tapes and, of course, records is surprising for the small space that could have been lifted from “High Fidelity,” the 2000 John Cusack movie about a record store owner with whom Dr. Records owner Don Menninghaus surely shares a similar passion for music.
“I’m a musician, so I admire musicianship,” Menninghaus said. “Virtuosity, whether it’s as a performer or as a songwriter. The shockingly new, the stuff that you never imagined, somebody else imagined it. I still find them.
“When I was a kid and even into my young adulthood, every spare penny I had, I spent on records. It was my thing.”
Menninghaus travelled across the state of Maine for four years, wholesaling records and seeing how record stores worked. He grew tired of working for his employer, so with about $3,000, Menninghaus opened shop in 1984 and had a hopeful beginning.
“There was no one in the area in Orono doing it,” Menninghaus said. “It seemed like a good market and the rent was reasonable and it was something I loved doing anyway, so it just seemed to be the right thing to do.”
As the mediums for storing music have changed, so has the success of Dr. Records.
“It’s had its times where business was very good and times when business is pretty crummy and right now, we’re somewhere in the middle,” Menninghaus said. “Kind of on an upswing, which is encouraging.”
That upswing can be credited in part to the resurgence of Dr. Records’ specialty: the vinyl record.
Sales of vinyl records have increased every year for the past six years, including a 36 percent jump in 2011, according to a New York Times article.
Despite that particular format being the focus of the store, Menninghaus believes CDs have better sound quality.
“It’s a true digital picture of the sound as opposed to a record, which is … people call it ‘warmth’ or ‘nostalgia’ or whatever: it’s really distortion you’re listening to, and if you become used to that, it sounds familiar and comforting,” he said.
Menninghaus realizes the power of that nostalgic appeal, which is why records are the product he really pushes. Another reason is that price-wise, he cannot compete for CD sales with bigger vendors like Walmart, so he doesn’t try to.
“I really can’t compete price-wise with the bigger vendors, so rather than spend all my money on inventory that I can’t price competitively or I can’t make money on if I want to price it competitively, why not find a niche?” Menninghaus said. “Right now, records are a niche, particularly used records.”
The aforementioned New York Times article states that for the first time in 2011, digital music sales surpassed physical ones. That can be a scary thing for small independent record shops, but Menninghaus admits there are many advantages to owning music digitally.
“I think the tangibility is somewhat overrated,” Menninghaus said. “Not only can you get the music downloaded online, but you can also download the liner notes. If you chose to print it, you could print it. If you chose to burn it, you could burn it.”
The emergence of streaming services like Spotify can also be credited with the lowered number in physical album sales, but again, Menninghaus realizes the advantages they have over buying CDs or records.
“I think between Pandora and Spotify and the other online services, there’s really no need to own product if it’s available to you all the time,” Menninghaus said. “It’s kind of like the dictionary. I mean, why have a set of encyclopedias when it’s right there on the net for you? You can just Google it.
“Why memorize a bunch of facts when you know you can, in two seconds, get it on your phone or whatever and have the answer to your question? It’s changing more than just music consumerism: it’s changing society.”
As much as society changes, it always finds a way to come full circle and revive trends of the past. Old movies are constantly being remade. Fashion constantly borrows from the past. NBA players are increasingly sporting flat top haircuts straight out of “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.”
The same thing is happening with records.
“You wait long enough, [like] 20 years, records came back,” Menninghaus said. “That was a long 20 years, but 20 years from now, maybe CDs will be back. It happens with clothing, it happens with music, it happens with … you name it […] People get … it’s so square, it’s hip.”
Regardless of the format, Menninghaus believes that music provides the same thing to all of its consumers.
“Everybody’s looking for that same thing, looking for that release, looking for that emotional connection,” Menninghaus said. “Whether it’s good emotions or negative emotions or anger or joy or whatever, they’re looking for … basically, it’s a release of brain chemicals.
“Whether you’re listening to Rancid or you’re listening to Lawrence Welk, if those brain chemicals are going off, it’s working for you. It’s all valid to the right person. It’s kind of like food. Not everybody likes Brussels sprouts, but to the people who do like them, they love them.”
Menninghaus’ passion for music began as a kid, when he would hear songs on the radio that he really got into and wanted to own. The first vinyl singles that he owned were by The Rolling Stones, Johnny Cymbal and Kyu Sakamoto. Today, he still gets a thrill out of finding something new that he connects with.
“I enjoy it because I get to hear endless amounts of music,” Menninghaus said. “Occasionally, you find that thing that changes your life, and you can’t put a price on that.”
Menninghaus rejects the argument of many of his peers that there is no good music being made nowadays.
“I constantly hear people tell me there’s no good music being made anymore, particularly people my age, and it’s not true,” he said. “The issue is that they can’t find it. You got to look harder and you got to have the time to look, which as you get older, time gets taken away from you in different ways […] But it is out there, and I’m in a position where sometimes I can find it. If I can share that with other people, people telling me that, I can say, ‘That’s not true, listen to this.’”
The most recent modern performer Menninghaus has really enjoyed is Canadian singer-songwriter Feist, best known for her song “1234.”
“I thought [she was] not necessarily groundbreaking, you know, but well-constructed, appealing,” he said. “There’s stuff out there in every era that, if I’m lucky, I find it.
“I do it because I love it, you know. It’s a passion, but I’m not getting rich doing it.”
That passion is what drives Menninghaus to keep on going in what some might call a dying industry. Although factors like piracy, digital downloads and online streaming services are a bad omen, the revival of the vinyl record is promising for record shop owners.
It may seem that Menninghaus is almost disenchanted by vinyl, the format he specializes in, or at least that he recognizes it’s not the “superformat” audiophiles will have you believe, but as the music that was playing in the background of our conversation stopped, he didn’t walk over to a laptop or CD player to pick something else. He went for the record player, turned the Depeche Mode compilation album “The Singles 81>85” onto its other side, put it back on the turntable and set the needle on the edge of the record.
Perhaps all the records in his shop remind Menninghaus of growing up, saving every spare nickel and dime for the next Rolling Stones single and the sense of wonder he felt listening to it for the first time. As he put it, records can provide a “mac and cheese” coziness for those who love them, and maybe he’s one of those who likes that comfort.
Regardless of his motivation or what happens in the next few years, vinyl will provide Menninghaus with a sense of warmth in one way or another.
“Who knows: Maybe the whole grid will go down at some point and I’ll be the one burning records in my stove with the big black smoke coming out my chimney, but I’ll be warm.”