The vinyl countdown
After nearly 30 years, ‘Stereo Jack’ Woker closes shop
CAMBRIDGE — One by one, the customers coming through the doors of Stereo Jack’s Records last Saturday afternoon couldn’t quite believe what they were hearing. It wasn’t the sound of jazz flute being piped through the stereo system, or the usual banter among employees about a rare Elvis Presley Sun single, or whether a certain bandleader drank himself to death.
Rather, it was the news that after nearly 30 years, one of the region’s longest-running record stores would soon be shutting its doors for good. The man delivering the news to the customers he greeted on a first-name basis was Stereo Jack himself — store owner Jack Woker. He was seated in his customary place across from the cash register, where for decades he’s inspected stacks of used records, fielded customers’ questions, and held casual court on all manner of musical topics.
“It’s the end of an era but I’m actually OK with it,’’ Woker said, shrugging off the somber tone of one stunned customer who called the news sad. “No, not really,’’ Woker replied, as if to minimize the solemnity of the moment. “It’s time to go.’’
Woker originally opened Stereo Jack’s in 1982, a few doors down from its current location at 1686 Massachusetts Ave. (he moved here in 1993). Although his lease expires at the end of March, Woker just got word he’ll be able to stay on through April or possibly even May, after which the building’s owner plans to move their pizza business into the space. Despite the temporary reprieve, Woker knows his store’s days are numbered. And he’s made his peace with that.
“Completely,’’ says Woker, who has no plans to relocate. “I’m 65 years old. I’m ready to retire, man. About five years ago, business started getting rough and I thought if I could just keep the store open until I can get Social Security, I’ll be fine. So I’m OK.’’ Besides, Woker says he’s known for 10 years that Stereo Jack’s would someday have to vamoose. “They always told me, when the time comes we’ll give you several months’ notice, and they have. So this didn’t come as a complete surprise.’’
Still, Woker knows what he’ll miss most: the camaraderie and conversations. As anyone who’s ever stepped into Stereo Jack’s can attest, the room can feel as much like an opinionated neigh borhood salon as the place to purchase a Bessie Smith box set or score that scarce Sun Ra LP. “I have those conversations online, but I enjoy looking somebody in the eye and talking,’’ he says. “I’ll miss the day-to-day. You develop longtime friendships doing this. And I probably won’t see most of those people anymore.’’
There is, for instance, the group of guys who used to hang at the store when it first opened. They were all in high school then. Now they’re in their forties. “But they developed a bond with the place,’’ Woker says. “And every time they’re in town, they come in.’’
Then there are the employees, for whom Stereo Jack’s long ago became a way of life. Store manager Matt Starr, the guy who redecorates the storefront windows every month with an LP cover display (this month the theme is Valentine’s Day) has been here since 1983, as has cashier Dorothy Dwyer.
“I’ve spent almost every Saturday of my adult life here,’’ says Dwyer, who is one of the few non-musicians or record collectors who work at the store. “If I wasn’t here, I was at a wedding.’’
Mark White, an Eric Dolphy fanatic and preschool teacher who lives in Central Square, has known Woker since the late 1970s, when Jack worked at Cheapo Records in Central Square. The atmosphere of Stereo Jack’s he says, “has been extremely welcoming, and Jack’s always been very patient with me.’’
“Mark is a kindred spirit,’’ says Woker. “He’s got that passion. You recognize it in other people.’’ Early on, Woker, who grew up in Wakefield, recognized that fanaticism in himself. “I was a record collector and musician, but there was no way to make a living doing that.’’ Eventually, he wondered, “What am I going to do with my life?’’
For decades, Jack’s been surrounded by the answer, along with those curiously cropped headshots of Rod Stewart plastered everywhere. “Somewhere along the way, I let it be known that I thought Rod was a horse’s ass,’’ explains Woker. “So as a result, people torment me with pictures of Rod all the time.’’ (No, the autograph on the poster isn’t real).
Alas, those pictures will soon be taken down along with everything else, and Woker will adjourn to his Everett home. But Stereo Jack won’t completely vanish. He plans to keep buying and selling records online, with most of the stock plucked from his personal stash that numbers “many thousands’’ of albums.
“I have reached a point in life where I realized I don’t need all of these records,’’ Woker says. That seems to be the one thing Jack’s certain about. Where he sees himself in a year is another question entirely. “I have no idea. I don’t imagine I’m going to be taking up golf or anything. But you never know.’’
Jonathan Perry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.