Johnny’s Records was a place that changed my life. If not for owner John Konrad and his little shop on Tokeneke Road in Darien, CT , I have no doubt at all that my life would be very different today. Growing up in Fairfield County, Connecticut, we were pretty sheltered. Yes, we were a short 45 minute train ride away from Manhattan, but as young kids, we were ridiculously far removed the from culture, music, books and art that were so easy to find in the city. When Johnny’s opened in 1975, the area was a good 5 years away from even having a mall. Johnny’s became the only place for any music lover to go in the area.
I began to frequent Johnny’s in 1981 at the age of 13. I had discovered punk through a much older friend who lived in the city. He would play this music for me and I could not get enough of it. But where in the world would I find it in these upper middle class suburbs of NYC? The first time I stepped through the doors of Johnny’s Records was like reaching Nirvana. It was instantly home. John Konrad, the owner of the store knew all of his customers by name. It didn’t matter if we were kids or adults, we were all treated with dignity and respect. John was quick to recommend new music and always remembered the music he had sold you the week before. If he didn’t have a record in stock, it would be ordered for you right away. And when no other store could track it down for you, he magically always could.
This tiny little record store opened its doors in October of 1975. Konrad has overcome some pretty rough times over the years. One such instance was when a group of town resident’s were determined to close down the shop because they were convinced it was a drug haven. ( In its earliest years, the store sold bongs and pipes, but certainly never drugs). This reputation was something it took John years to overcome.There was another very difficult time when revenue was really down and he was ready to close the doors of the store. As the world watched record stores come and go, gathering places for musicophiles, art lovers and those that appreciated an old school store where the owner knew you by name were disappearing. Napster and online shopping were doing a number on the industry. Konrad had spent a few years allowing employees to take the reins while he went back to school and pursued other interests. Something, in retrospect, he knows was a huge mistake. As he prepared to say goodbye to the store he had put most of his entire adult life into, he realized that it was too much a part of him to allow that to happen. With tenacity, hard work and a love for what he does, Konrad was able persevere and ride the wave right into the vinyl record resurgence that the world has seen over that past 8 years or so. One day, seemingly out of nowhere, Konrad began to get calls and requests for vinyl. In two months time his vinyl inventory had tripled. And the demand for vinyl is increasing by the day.
Standing in this little shop, walls lined with artwork and posters, records stacked neatly in alphabetically ordered bins, what you notice first is the feel of the place. Konrad makes you feel as though you belong there. This becomes even more evident when other customers come walking through the doors. Konrad knows them all by name. Chats with them affably. Orders records that no-one else seems to be able to track down for them. It’s immediately clear that music, and this store, are his life. And that he really loves and excels at what he does.
Back in the 80’s Konrad was famous for driving around town in checkered Volkswagen Beetle, hand painted by himself and some friends. Everyone knew that car. It was a calling card. A come on down and see what you’re missing kind of advertisement that was, once again, uniquely Johnny’s Records. But the image fits. Comfort mixed with non conformity. Familiarity coupled with discovery. That’s what Johnny’s is about.
When people found out I was going to interview John for my blog, the stories came pouring in. There was the one from the guy that got caught trying to leave the store with a 12″ Misfits LP down his pants. When John caught him, he didn’t call his parents or the police. He just made him work it off at the store. And the one that felt like his home life was too turbulent and violent and spent as much time as he could in the store to avoid going home. While John never knew why, he welcomed him in the store for hours at a time, sensing he just needed to be left alone. Many people commented that Konrad was able to open their minds to music they would have never even considered listening to before. Every single person that sent me a message had the same sentiment. Johnny’s Records was a one of a kind, life changing place. Countless people mentioned how they’d never be the people they are today had the store not existed. How often in life do we find places or people who mean so much to so many? Johnny’s is that kind of place.
When I first walked into the store for my interview, John was helping a Father and his little girl find a Beatles shirt that would fit her so they could go see a Paul McCartney concert later that evening. John observed that the little girl would always remember the time she and her Dad shared such an experience. When I was getting ready to leave the store and wrap up my interview , I watched John say hello to a Father and Son walking in. The son, who was about ten years old, made a beeline for the 45’s. Intrigued, I asked a few questions. It turns out that the son, Ethan Walmark , is on the autism spectrum and is somewhat of a musical savant. This incredible kid and his band have already opened for the likes of Lez Zeppelin, and have even played to a crowd of about 30,000 people at Jones beach. When I asked Ethan about the store and his favorite artists, he told me that Steve Winwood was probably his favorite and that he loved buying 45’s. As I chatted with his Dad about Ethan’s love of music, he told me that he asks to come to Johnny’s as often as he can. And how important buying this music was to him and his family. As they left the store it struck me, yet again, what this store and its owner have meant and continue to mean to people of all ages and all walks of life.
After 41 years, Konrad has seen children and even Grandchildren of his customers come through the doors. I hope to bring my own Grandchildren here one day. And to be able to share with them, like I have with my kids, what music means.
J. How long has the store been open?
JK: It will be 41 years in October.
J: What inspired you to open a record store?
JK: Well, I’ve been asked this question so many times. We are looking back an awfully long time and whatever I say will probably be made up! The more I’m asked this question, the less sure I am of the answer. I wish I could go back and ask myself “John, what were you thinking?” I guess I was just looking for something to do.
J:What is your favorite kind of music and when did you first start really listening to it?
JK: I’m all over the place. I’ve always been all over the place. When I was about 5, my Dad had a friend in the industry and he was always bringing home bags full of 45’s. There was no specific genre. It was all types of music. And I’d sit there with my little victrola as happy as could be. So I was exposed to tons of different music from very early on.
J: Do you find that people coming into the store are looking for one specific genre, or are they more open to exploration?
JK: A common thing I find when people come in here is that they’ve never really gotten past the music they were listening to in college. So I have guys coming in that are only about the 70’s. So I find them what they want, and suggest a band or 2 that are similar. But sometimes people only want what they want. Other times, they become more open.
J: In the late 70’s and early 80’s Darien produced musicians such as Clint Conley from Mission Of Burma and Moby. Stamford, the next town over, had the Anthrax Club, one of the best punk venues in the country. I know that these musicians were customers. Did any other musicians we know ever frequent the store?
JK: Yes. Clint would come in, and Moby worked here as a teenager. The guys from Kiss would come in once in a while, or send their managers. Ronnie James Dio would come in when he was in Rainbow.
J: Did you ever get any pushback from residents of the town about the shop and those of use who were customers?
JK: Yes, but not due to the people that shopped here. It was more due to the fact that in the early days I sold bongs and pipes and rolling papers. So the store developed a reputation as a place that was selling dope. I would have kids come in here asking. I’d tell them “Are you crazy? Do you think I’d still be in business if I were doing that?” People in the community really believed this was a radical drug haven. That stigma was with me for years.Maybe 15-20 years in, it switched. People began to think of the store as an institution and they think differently of the place because of that. But, yes. People did want to shut me down for a long time.
J: There must have been times over the 41 years the store has been open that you questioned the sustainability of brick and mortar record stores. How did you work through that?
JK: That’s a complicated question.Sometime in the early to mid nineties, I got tired of doing it. I’d been doing it for 15, 18 years or so. I started to go back to school and take classes, pursue some other interests. I more or less turned the store over to people I had working for me. In retrospect, that was a huge mistake in terms of the business, but something I just had to do at the time. The store was strong enough to carry it through for a few years. But then I began to notice a big drop in revenue. I watched things like Napster become big, and made the assumption that it was Napster and the Internet, not the fact that I wasn’t here , that were leading to the decrease in sales. When I came back in 2002 or 2003, things were bad enough that I was going to close. But I began to realize that I just loved the store too much. And that I’d been mistaken about why sales were down. Running a store is so much of a personality thing. You can train people, but you can’t train them to be you.To love the store and what it is as much as you do. There were a couple of years where I really had to scramble to bring the store back. But I was able to do it.
J: We are seeing such a resurgence in the popularity of vinyl. What do you attribute that to? And do you find that the people buying vinyl are more likely to be of a certain age group?
JK: I think people like to collect. They are natural collectors. As far as age, since vinyl came back, the first people I saw coming in here looking for it were college kids and the hipper high school kids. Then it expanded to people in their 30’s 40’s and 50’s and then back down to kids in junior high and even elementary school.Every year at Christmas more people are getting turntables, and every year after the holidays I get a whole new group of people coming in to buy vinyl.
J: Do you think vinyl is here to stay?
JK: I have a friend in the industry. Last year he sent me an article about how vinyl is over. Meanwhile, I’m selling more of it than ever. Last month he sent me another article saying the same thing. This is a guy that wasn’t even born when I opened the store. I think it’s going to last a while. Records are just so much more of a social thing. People gather to listen to them. I think the music industry was headed to a very anti-social place. People looking down at their phones and not sharing. With an album, Father’s will say to their sons “Let’s sit down and listen to the record I just bought.” Families and friends are doing the same thing. It’s much more of a social experience.
J: So many people have asked me to ask you about the checked VW bug you drove around in for so many years. Can you tell me about it?
JK: Yes. There were actually two. They both eventually developed Flintstones syndrome where the bottoms rusted out. I was in the store after closing one night with some friends and we were drinking. One of them thought it would be a great idea to play checkers on the car. Then somebody else said “Why don’t we paint the hood of the car checkerboard?” It was really that dumb. I think the first one was light blue. We took it to one of those discounted paint places and had it painted white. Then we took masking tape and painted on every other check, The worst part was pulling the tape off without messing up the paint. So we actually developed a square that we could put on and use to touch up the paint. It was about a 3-4 day process to do it.
J: Everyone knew that car. Grandmothers, little kids. It was really great advertising. Do you feel it brought people into the store?
JK: Oh yes. I’m flirting with the idea of doing it again. And the police certainly recognized it. I got pulled over so many times.I actually had to change it on the back of the registration to say “Black and white” because originally the color of the car didn’t match up with how it looked now. So I can remember getting pulled over and they wanted so much to bust me, but the colors matched up, so they’d throw the reigistration back at me and let me go on my way. (Laughing).
J: You must have the kids, and even Grandkids of some of your first customers coming in here. What’s that like?
JK: It’s really fun. I’ve had people coming in here since they were little kids. Moby used to come in here as a little kid. He was in here all the time. So it’s really cool watching the kids that come in here grow up.
J: Moby worked here as a kid. Do you keep in touch with him?
JK: He came back a bunch of years ago and did a talk in the area and he asked me to sell some stuff for him, maybe 10 years ago. He had that book out recently, and I heard he was doing a book signing a couple of months again Stamford. And I heard he was on this street. But he didn’t come in. He’s sort of moved into a different realm.
J: Do you think you’ll always do this?
JK: Yes. When I was flirting with the idea of closing, I got to the point where I thought “What would I ever do without this place? It is so much of a part of who I am.”