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On the Hunt for Records—and Some Magic—in New Brunswick

Andrew Spina Credits: Jack Murtha
Credits: Jack Murtha

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ — The interior of Spina Records looks like it could pass for a very over-the-top friend's basement music collection.

Boxes of records fill the room, and more recognizable album covers—from acts like Metallica, The Smiths and Prince—line the walls. Antiques and novelty items, like a ceramic dog and a pair of antlers, fill whatever space is left. And the music doesn't stop playing.

But this subterranean storefront, 25 Easton Ave., is no mere hangout. It represents years of dedicated work by owner Andrew Spina, who opened his namesake shop about three years ago. At Spina Records, he sells the fruits of his ongoing treasure-hunting—but instead of gold, it's all about gold records.

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“I know what it's like to get turned on to new music that really affects you,” he said. “It's great to help people looking for suggestions. They come in, and they're listening to music, discovering it, sharing it. It's all positive.”

New Brunswick was once the go-to place for music lovers. The Hub City was home to any number of record stores—from Cheap Thrills and Music in a Different Kitchen to Planet X Music and All Ears Records.

Those days are gone. And they have been for quite some time.

So when Spina Records launched in 2014, it became the first in this city in more than a decade, he said.

The painting on the bottom right depicts a French Street diner that used to house a record store whose owner went to prison on drug charges. Spina bought the piece of art from a customer.

Music had gone digital—and many listeners had turned their backs on CDs, never mind vinyl. But even as records gave way to cassettes, which yielded to CDs, which surrendered to illegal mp3 downloads and eventually legal streaming, a squadron of hardened record collectors lurked and, by all accounts, grew.

After graduating from Rutgers University in 2008, Spina went to work for a now-closed antique shop on George Street. As the business slowed down, its record sales seemed to only pick up, he said.

“That was my proof of concept,” he added.

It was dead-on. Now in his own endeavor, Spina said, he's making enough money to stay in business, and then some. If he had to guess, 75 percent of his sales come from the brick-and-mortar shop, with the rest occurring online.

He has more than 5,000 records on the auction block. Many sit on the sales floor, waiting for that Rutgers or New Brunswick High School student to grab it and fall in love. The rest are tucked away in a back room and a stuffed storage unit, Spina said.

Spina Records sells a bit of everything. Last week, just before the death of singer-songwriter-drummer Grant Hart, a copy of Hüsker Dü's “New Day Rising” hung behind the counter—a preemptive, unintentional homage to Hart and his groundbreaking band. Nearby, records by The Notorious B.I.G., Miles Davis, Velvet Revolver and other groups brightened the walls. Spina even displayed a copy of the soundtrack to a “Star Wars” movie.

His biggest sellers, however, are albums by rock bands from the '60s and '70s.

“A lot of that music holds up really well,” Spina said, noting that Stevie Wonder, Madonna, The Beatles and Nirvana prove particularly popular.

When he can, he stocks the shelves with New Brunswick bands, Spina said. Just last week, for instance, the Screaming Females released a new 7-inch in just one store—you guessed it: Spina Records.

That connection to the local scene might one day help boost both the bands and the store. But the very existence of Spina Records, he said, revives a sorely-missed part of New Brunswick's history.

He said he enjoys reuniting middle-aged fans with records they haven't heard since they were 18. An in-store listening station, meanwhile, connects younger fans to new music.

Yet there's one record Spina won't sell: his copy of The Beatles' “Magical Mystery Tour.” Why? He bought it when he was just a kid, in 1997, in Ocean City. It was his first. A record store owner, of all people, better see the magic in that.

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