WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — After 40 years in the record store business, Hal March wants to see if there’s a worthy soul to come on deck and put a new spin on his iconic Billsville shop.
Toonerville Trolley CDs & Records is the last known independent record store in the Berkshires. While it has humble beginnings in the back of a used bread truck that March used to peddle vinyl records from on Spring Street, it’s best known as a music lover’s destination located at 131 Water St. Swing open the screen door and to your right, you’re likely to find March at the counter, flipping through files, talking shop with customers or just swaying slightly, likely to a jazz recording of his liking.
But don’t let this genre or his age deceive you; at 76, March has had the time to absorb an encyclopedic knowledge of the industry. From studio to warehouse, song to shop, he’ll talk Blue Note to Tower, soundtracks to Soundgarden, German industrial music to all-American pop.
Formerly a high school English teacher for Burr and Burton Academy in neighboring Manchester, Vt., he and his wife were lured to Williamstown by friends and fellow jazz lovers, and that March had become “more and more interested in chasing down records” than grading essays. Back then, they used to frequent shows at Chapin Hall at Williams College, where then-student Tom Piazza produced the Williams College Jazz Festival from 1973 to 1976, booking the likes of Count Basie and Rahsaan Roland Kirk.
“He had me convinced that Williamstown was a jazz mecca,” March said of Piazza.
While his friend left and went on to have a prolific career in music and writing, March happily began his move from the classroom to the record racks.
“It’s a great business if you like music and dealing with people, and I like it,” March said. “And you can make money if you love doing it and working hard.”
As mad as March is about music, though, he’s also passionate about other things in life, like birding, hiking and biking — things he can’t do from a shop counter. So he’s been thinking about how to turn the tables around.
He first mentioned his plans for retirement in an interview with iBerkshires.com last week. On Sunday afternoon, he invited this reporter to meet him at his shop and elaborate, playing a session from an old favorite, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, doing gymnastics with the saxophone and flute in the background.
“The record business isn’t what it used to be,” said March in a matter-of-fact tone, noting that vinyl sales at best these days still only make up 5 to 6 percent of the market.
In the age when tracks are streamed through digital devices billions of times over, “I can’t do it the way I used to do it,” he said.
Then, there are some other facts, including that most of his friends are retired, “and I don’t have the energy and drive that I used to,” said March.
While Toonerville Trolley isn’t officially on the market, selling the business is something he’s been thinking about for some time. So he’s given himself a deadline to work through Christmas taking stock of all the thousands of pieces of inventory he’s got so he can then present a portfolio to potential buyers and begin actively advertising his company’s sale.
The 131 Water St. building itself is owned by Eric Reinhard, who also owns the neighboring Water Street Grill. In addition to the record store, there are also a few apartments there. But March said ideally he’d find someone with the capital, the courage and the charisma to keep the shop running as he has for the past four decades.
“You have the name, you have the customer base, and the real sell is the inventory,” said March, who has worked with fellow record sellers and collectors from all over the world.
Though he’s trying to limit his intake of inventory, he’s a slave to his old habits. “I love records. When they’re brought in, you know that sometimes it’s you or the dumpster. It’s hard to resist deals,” he said.
March is less interested in your digitally recorded Adele or Harry Styles pressings, but he’ll take on an analog Miles Davis, Beatles, Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd record any day. And he can barely keep David Bowie on the shelves.
Of the casual bites he’s had for buying the business, March said some of the interested parties are “like me: record collectors who love to have music in their lives. And some are older customers, looking for a change in jobs.”
As for himself, March said he’s looking forward to being his own boss in a new way, worrying less about keeping store hours and focusing more on freeing up time to travel to Costa Rica and other places he’s yet to have been. Giving an interview on his wedding anniversary, he’s also thought about the importance of giving more attention to his wife than his inventory books.
But, March said, he’s also always looking forward to his next concert or chat about albums and eras.
“Music is still life,” he said.
Information from: The Berkshire (Mass.) Eagle, http://www.berkshireeagle.com