One day a little black pig walked into Deep Thoughts on South Street in Jamaica Plain. This was not the first animal to show up in the store. There had been a “rat situation.” And a squirrel once tried to hibernate in the store’s electric organ. But a pig was unusual. It wandered in from the pet-grooming store down the street, whose owner had a thing for exotic pets.
“We just chilled with the pig for a couple of hours,” recalls Nick Williams, who co-owns Deep Thoughts with his wife, Alaina Stamatis. “When the owner came back she apologized, and was like, ‘Do you want to buy a piglet?’”
A pet pig would not be entirely out of place at Deep Thoughts. The store is idiosyncratic. From its archaic, analog inventory of vinyl records and used books, to its semi-cooperative business structure, Deep Thoughts is a unique model of success in a fast-paced capitalist environment pushing toward homogeneity. The store’s walls are plastered with paintings, posters, and fliers, and on its ceiling is a dense web made of yarn with various kitschy items woven into it—stuffed animals, tinsel streamers, fake flowers, oversized plastic candy canes, paintings, and record sleeves. It’s based on similar collages at houses that regularly functioned as underground music venues, many of which have been shut down since Boston’s “Nuisance Act” of 2012. The White House in Jamaica Plain, for one, had a web that stretched three stories and extended through the middle of the house’s central staircase. It was filled with wooden instruments.
If Deep Thoughts, which has been open for six years as of April 1, is an oasis of weirdness, then Nick and Alaina themselves are its rare species. Cheerfully non-conformist, they make music and art and run a successful business—all the while having an enviable amount of fun. Like a lot of owners of retail establishments, they spend a lot of time dealing with eccentric characters, yet Nick and Alaina are affectionate toward those living on the fringe. More so than they often are toward other clientele. One interesting regular, for example, lives in the woods near Turtle Pond. He used to buy Kid Rock CDs but didn’t want the cases; he just shoved the CDs in his pocket. He claimed that the music, which he played on a discman, helped to ward off the coyotes.
“He would come back and say, ‘These are all scratched,’ and I’m like, ‘Dude!’ Nick says.
Another guy asked for Nick’s help filling out paperwork so he could move from his family’s house into a group home. Sometimes the quirkier customers have to be asked to leave due to minor infractions; the Turtle Pond guy, for example, once left a half-eaten chicken leg on top of a record bin. In most cases, Nick finds himself worrying slightly about their wellbeing.
Overall, Nick and Alaina are not easily fazed. Working in music has exposed them to a wide range of personalities.
“Nightlife people are just messed up,” says Nick. “Poor health, mental and physical. Both of us have a nightlife background, and at a certain point we just realized enough is enough. We quit drinking three years ago. We’re basically teetotalers, just for longevity and general happiness.”
Nick also performs at the store with his Grateful Dead jam band on Friday nights, and says, “I thought that we wouldn’t be able to handle it because we do at least one, maybe two shows a week at the store. But in reality,” he adds, “I still love that aspect of it, it just doesn’t involve me getting drunk.”
“In our line of work,” Alaina says, “you can drink all day and all night. It’s just better to say I don’t drink.”
Nick and Alaina met while performing at the venue house Gay Gardens in the fall of 2011 (the space was shut down in 2012). Alaina was subbing for someone in a duo called Loud Objects—but on the night she performed, she dubbed the band Meowed Objects. Such is Alaina’s charmingly wacky sensibility. She is tall and slender, with long, sandy blonde hair cut into bangs that highlight her light blue-green eyes. One of her front teeth is missing, which only adds to her allure. When she laughs or grins, which is often, it looks like her teeth are waving hello.
By the time Alaina met Nick, she had lived in a number of different venue houses in industrial New York neighborhoods like Ridgewood in Queens. These were commercial spaces—buildings that formerly housed an auto mechanic, or a nightclub—that offered rehearsal or studio space for cheap, while landlords either didn’t know or didn’t care that tenants were sleeping there. At one of these group houses, Alaina recalls that one guy was training to be a yoga teacher, and led classes every day on the rooftop—the nearby roar of the subway notwithstanding. Sometimes the instructor would say, as she puts it, “cheesy stuff,” so she was inspired to start “Evil Yoga,” a performance art in which, during a normal yoga class, she would hold a microphone close to her mouth and whisper diabolic comments in a low voice, putting the subwoofer on the floor so it vibrated ominously. “Feel the angry earth,” she intoned. It was a hit, but the yoga teacher leading the class was disturbed by the project, so it ended.
Today Alaina writes erotic poetry, which she also performs, sometimes while wearing a fishnet bodysuit with plastic lizards slipped beneath it as pasties. She has a ten-piece backup free jazz band, the Jazz Massagers, in which Nick plays bass and is also the band leader. Alaina used to write a horoscope column for Boston Compass as a testing ground for the zippy one-liners that make up her poetry. Last June, for Virgo’s horoscope, she wrote, “If you have sex with a virgin while somehow positioned on a wheelchair you could potentially pop a cherry, a boner, and a wheelie at the same time.”
Nick and Alaina’s style is somewhat confounding. Their taste in music tends to skew hippie—Grateful Dead, Phish—but they are also quite dark. On the day we meet, Alaina is wearing a vintage jumpsuit and a silver pendant around her neck with the angel of death on it. Nick is sporting a stupendous combination of tie-dye shirt and ’80s-era pants with tapered legs and a jazzy pattern, both in vibrant teal, and a reflective silver fanny pack which he appears to be wearing unironically.
When I visit them at Deep Thoughts, I try several times to nail their particular vibe, even asking what decade they would like to live in. A record by Emil Richards, a jazz vibraphone player from the ’70s, plays on the turntable. It’s a weekday, and a lone customer methodically rifles through the bins, quietly amassing a pile of records and periodically emitting gleeful cries of discovery.
Alaina says she would go back to the ’70s for a Dead show, but both she and Nick maintain they are perfectly happy with being alive right now. Business is healthy—even younger people continue to be drawn to vinyl—plus, they’re in love—with each other, with their choice of career, with living in New England. Nick, like Alaina, is effortlessly social, a fast talker who always seems to be one or two beats ahead, his restless roving eyes scanning the room, evaluating and assessing. Slight of build, with a mildly manic intensity, he sometimes punctuates his speech with high-pitched giggles.
Nick felt drawn to New England from a young age—perhaps due to having gone to overnight camp in Cape Cod. Growing up in New York City, he also spent summers in the Catskills. When I ask him where in New York he’s from, he tells me “100th and Broadway,” which I later learn connotes the home of a group known as the Sullivanians. Nick’s mother was an active member and became dedicated to the philosophy of its therapist/leader, who strongly disapproved of nuclear families and the authoritarian nature of parents. Thus the therapist, Saul B. Newton, who started the Sullivan Institute, dictated who would engage in procreative relationships, and created a quasi–free love environment in which children were raised by caretakers, often without knowing who their father was.
Nick, who was the youngest child in the group, did know his father. The group dissolved in the ’80s, partly due to AIDS-related fears Nick posits, though he and his mother left shortly before the end. “It was sort of like growing up with a bunch of brothers and sisters,” he recalls. “I was like, What, you mean all of a sudden I have to just live with my mom? It didn’t make any sense. I liked having all the people around.” The Catskills resort was also owned by the Sullivanians, and they would do things like have Marx readings every Thursday. “It had an old-school leftie vibe—but with this vibe of being like, ‘Parents are bad.’” Nick still spends holidays with some of the other former members.
In Jamaica Plain, Nick has an uncanny ability to run a record store well. He got the music bug while in college for a year at Hampshire out in Western Mass, where he booked shows. Later he moved to Northampton, where he ran a record store with a few other friends. Though he learned a lot, extracting himself from the business was painful. So with Deep Thoughts, he made sure to iron out all of the details in advance. When his initial partner’s band moved to New York, Nick bought him out, eventually bringing Alaina on in 2015.
Other partners sell goods at the store, which can make it seem like a cooperative. But as Nick puts it, “A true cooperative would be everyone’s there, we all own our own records, we take a percentage and put the rest into a common fund that pays the rent. And then we would all theoretically own a share.” Instead, Deep Thoughts is “a somewhat capitalistic cooperative in that Alaina and I own the common fund and we use it at our discretion.”
Four consignment sellers currently help with the store. The more the sellers work, the lower their consignment rate. Books, stereo equipment, and records are all handled by different people. Still another works four hours a week in exchange for using the basement as a rehearsal space for his band. The relationship among the partners is friendly. At the store I meet Nadav Havusha and Jim Shep. Havusha, who just completed a degree in library science, says he brings a specialty.
“Certain aspects of ’90s indie rock,” he muses, “which isn’t even something I’m that into anymore—but I lived through it.”
“It’s just better if you work with nerds,” Alaina says. “If you work with people who see themselves as cool and they have this toxic masculine kind of aggro thing, you’re going to have problems. They’re the kind of people who are always going to have a thing with the boss, even though we’re not really the boss.”
“I would say I’m not the boss, I’m just a vessel,” says Nick.
“If you don’t want to be here,” says Alaina, “just go.”
Nick’s take it or leave it philosophy extends to customers too. The store’s Yelp page includes a couple of grumpy reviews to which Nick responds, unsurprisingly, with artfully crafted, absolutely uncompromising, acerbic responses. Valerie L. of Brighton gave Deep Thoughts a grievous two-stars, writing at length about her experience: “After failing to return the box of records I was recently browsing through to their pristine resting position … the sales assistant approached me and said condescendingly, ‘Does this look proper to you?’ Stunned, I took the .2 seconds to return all of the records so they were all facing the same direction.”
Nick’s response: “Yesterday, after you were done browsing, you had left my new arrivals bin looking like a bomb hit it. Multiple record jackets were dented based on the way you had handled them. From this treatment I went ahead and assumed that you didn’t know that you were being disrespectful of my shop, and so out of courtesy to you and the places you will shop in the future, like Tres Gatos, I politely asked you, ‘Does this look proper to you?’ And then you took .2 seconds to tidy the area, and then 5+ minutes to write a petty review on Yelp.”
In the rest of the world, the customer may always be right. In Nick’s world, no one is entitled to special treatment.
Things in Boston used to be different. Damon Krukowski, a local writer and musician who performs with the band Damon & Naomi, has lived in the area since the early ’80s, when Cambridge was still mostly a hippie town, before the government eliminated rent control.
“Back then,” he recalls, “we had an enormous number of record stores, used and new. Rent was cheap and vinyl was one of the few ways to hear music.”
There were also numerous places to see shows, and Krukowski could pay his rent by playing live music at various bars and clubs. Rehearsal space was also cheap—EMF in Central Square in Cambridge was among the last buildings offering practice spaces in the area. It closed last year. Before that, EMF gave musicians more than a space to work; it also provided a sense of community, which is not easily replaced.
“The real estate explosion in Boston and Cambridge has put pressure on the entire cultural underground,” says Krukowski. While he believes there is enough interest to keep record stores in business, rent remains an issue nonetheless. “Lack of stability comes with the territory of being at the fringes of mainstream economic culture,” Krukowski adds.
Not that Nick and Alaina show signs of strain. The lease for Deep Thoughts is good for another two years, and while condominiums are starting to crop up around them, Alaina believes that residential housing in JP is in greater demand than retail space. Meanwhile, she and Nick got married in August, at the Audubon Center in Mattapan. The ceremony started fairly conventionally, but in short time two of their compadres, dressed in rabbit costumes, jumped out from where they were hiding and led the wedding party to a beautiful field in the woods. The rest of the afternoon unfolded in predictably unpredictable fashion, complete with Nick’s Grateful Dead cover band playing music. According to Alaina, it was a perfect day.
Soon after their wedding, the couple moved to Wendell, a town in the Pioneer Valley with a population of approximately 800. They commute to Boston on the weekends, putting in long hours at the store. Nick and his band continue to perform on Grateful Dead night every Friday—“That’s our pride and joy,” says Alaina—while life in the country suits them. Alaina started a new business designing T-shirts, which are already being sold at a pub near their new place where Nick sometimes plays.
“We’re in heaven,” Alaina reports. “And our rent is never going to go up.”