Located in the outskirts of Dedham—an Arcadian river, pizza shop, and 7-Eleven are its neighbors—Rob Walsh’s record store, Cheap Thrills Music, is home to a massive collection of tunes that includes everything from 1970s rock and soul, to iconic movie soundtracks of the 1980s, to ’50s and ’60s lounge and garage jam. Their specialty: used analog vinyl.
In racks, bins, and crates and on tall shelves, customers are greeted with the exciting near-certainty that they’ll find some gems to ogle over and bring back home for their own players since there’s so much—affordable!—vinyl to choose from. Due to an overflow of inventory, the bins, in particular, seem disorganized. But give Walsh a specific artist or title, and as swift as a guitar lick, he knows where to start looking.
Habitually inspired by in-store conversations with his customers about all things music and the changing times—he’s a natural storyteller, with incredible insight on music history—it’s common to see Walsh queuing up a record by the window, or feverishly searching for a Motown or rock track to play on YouTube. Prior to Cheap Thrills, he worked at local Boston radio station WZLX and In Your Ear Records, played in a band in his twenties, and later was anointed manager of Tower Records when the Boston flagship still stood on Newbury Street. We asked Walsh why vinyl still matters, and what classic albums have yet to lose their cool.
Cheap Thrills has a low digital profile. Why is that?
It’s kind of a unique situation. I’m not trying to get more business. It’s all word of mouth. I don’t put it on Facebook or anything like that because I also have a three-way thing going on here. I give guitar lessons, I do online sales, and manage this store. So with those three things, I’m kept pretty busy.
During one of my earlier visits, you mentioned you were a manager at Tower Records…
I was the rock buyer and also bought soundtracks, country, soul, and oldies. Over the course of being there for 15 years, I was the weekend manager the first year, became the rock department head, then the manager. I wore a lot of different hats and I was at Tower from 1987 ‘til when we closed in 2002.
I remember the store and loved it so much! Could you share some tidbits about working at Tower back in the 1990s?
It was a lot of fun working there. We had a great time. A lot of in-store appearances, a lot of artists played there. We had in-stores with people from Cher, to Duran Duran, The Clash, Marilyn Manson. The main thing that’s changed [about record shopping]—which everybody knows—is the internet. It’s changed the way we buy and do business. It’s an entirely different model from 20 years ago.
How and where do you get your records from? The store is stocked and I have found almost every album I’ve wanted in mint condition and analog format here.
I’ve got a huge backlog of music. I’ve been in the music business for over 30 years, maybe closer to 35 years, so I’ve secured a lot of stuff. I got a huge inventory. Other stores even come to me and buy stuff, and so some wholesaling. A lot of it has just accumulated from such a long time.
It’s really impressive. There are records everywhere.
This guy came in two Saturdays ago with a long list. I virtually had everything! He was amazed. He couldn’t believe it. He wanted music from bands most people aren’t aware of. He was asking for the Lounge Lizards, they’re kind of like a jazz-pop band and I had one on vinyl. He said he had never seen one on vinyl before.
What are some of the oddest requests you’ve received from customers?
I’m not sure what I would consider odd because I don’t think of too many things as odd being that I listen to a lot of different stuff. When people come in, you never know what they’re going to want. There’s a guy that came in recently and bought a lot of Tom Jones, which was really strange. The other records I can think of are like psychedelic/garage bands.
Which albums are hard to keep in stock?
Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours. It’s a common one that people just love. Practically any Bowie album from Ziggy Stardust to Hunky Dory. James Taylor’s Sweet Baby James. They’re not rare records. Fortunately, they made a lot of them but they’re still in demand. Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush. Harvest. It’s a lot of stuff like that. Common stock. They consistently sell all the time. AC/DC. Talking Heads. The Police.
Is there a common genre or artist and bands young people want on vinyl?
The bands and artists that always seem to appeal to people are the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Black Sabbath. Those bands are [still] gaining new fans. I went to an Iron Maiden concert the other night and there was an age range of probably eight to 80. It wasn’t just one demographic. There was a woman behind me who had to be 80. So those kind of bands [have remained relevant]. I also went and saw Queen last night at the [TD] Garden and Queen is getting new fans. Their music still appeals to younger people.
Where do you think that preference for vinyl comes from since a lot of them grew up listening to music on streaming services and the Internet?
Mostly, people are not getting what they want from digital. It’s not a personal experience. They’re looking for something a bit more tangible. Something to hold, a physicality to it. You can read the liner notes. Albums tend to come with lyrics. Sometimes posters are inserted. When you listen on your phone or computer, it’s a very solitary experience.
If music’s just wallpaper to you, that’s fine. But for people who are into music or more passionate, they’re not getting the full experience from digital. That’s what I’ve heard and it seems to be true… On vinyl, sound actually sticks to the magnetic tape and you can hear the actual performance in analog. On digital, what you’re hearing is a recreation. It’s like looking at a painting and then at a copy of the painting. It’s not the same thing.
I’ve noticed that when I look for R&B or hip-hop records on vinyl, stores tend to have a limited amount. Is there a reason why?
Depends on what it is. Older albums just may be out of print. They have to be in good condition [for resell]. They are jazz records and soul records that go up for a lot of money because they are so rare.
There’s [also this] to keep in mind. Like in hip-hop and rap, such as The Fugees and Arrested Development, [they came out during the] CD age and they released albums but very few of them. On top of that, they didn’t make them here in the United States. You can take the whole ‘90s and almost no US album was made here. If you wanted an album pressed—such as vinyl format—you had to go overseas. They were still making 12-inches for the club. But it was a time everyone was also replacing records with CDs. That’s important to remember.
Do you remember the first records you had or bought?
Oh yeah. That was a long time ago. I used to buy 45s because, let’s say you didn’t have enough money for albums—and back then they were only $3, $4, but that’s a lot when you’re a kid—so you got a 45 which was like 39 cents. So the first 45s I bought were the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields” backed with “Penny Lane.” And The Doors’ “Hello, I Love You.”
What’s your favorite “cheap thrills” reference in music?
There’s so many I don’t think I have a favorite. There’s a song by Frank Zappa [on Cruising with Ruben & the Jets] called “Cheap Thrills.” It’s really fun and kind of doo-wop. Then there’s the Janis Joplin record [with Big Brother and The Holding Company]. The most influential in choosing the name of the shop was that the first used record store I ever shopped at was called “Cheap Thrills.” They had one location in Kenmore Square and then another on Mass Ave in Cambridge. My shop is kind of homage. Before that, I always bought my records regular retail, like at Woolworth, but never saw someone sell secondhand records. When it came to naming my store, I thought, “Well, how about the first store you ever saw used records at.”
CHEAP THRILLS. 10 RIVERSIDE DRIVE, DEDHAM. 781-864-9213.