What makes America great? Conversations in Union Square, Portrait 6: Dave

Dave: the owner of Grooves, a secondhand record store in Union Square which is riding the wave of the vinyl revival. The long plate glass window is full of old album covers — from Dylan and the Stones to Devo and ‘Mickey Mouse Disco’ — as well as posters for guitar lessons, violin lessons, ukulele lessons, a frontperson for a band, an Antique Radio Flea Market.

Dave is perched behind the wooden counter next to a record player, which is not state-of-the-art perfectionist, but a cozy, simple looking thing which probably dates back to the 80s. He has long, frizzy, reddish hair, complicated facial whiskers, an aquamarine t-shirt, and glasses which he puts on whenever a customer comes up to the counter, then quickly takes off again.

Dave looks like he is in his late 40s, but still has the shy, sweet air of a teenage music nerd. When he replies to a question, he looks down in concentration while he is speaking and then, when he is finished, looks up out of the corner of his eye with a questioning smile. And then laughs when he relaxes into his answer.

Dave grew up in Lowell, one of the formerly industrial cities north of Boston, and had “a normal suburban childhood.” He was “not a participator” and mostly hung out with friends who also liked records. “Like what I do now.”

“My family didn’t have broad horizons, but I was lucky as a young man to travel around the States and Europe a bit. England once, Holland once. It didn’t really change my perspective on the States, but it did drive home what the rest of the world thinks about Americans.

“They expect an American to be self-centered, to have a sense of self-importance about them. There’s a general feeling that Americans are loud and dumb.

“That’s not something I got confronted with directly. I dressed non-descript. Not a fluorescent t-shirt. Not a Coke t-shirt.”

Dave’s favorites from his travels around the States are California — “it’s a totally different place” — and New York City. “There’s so much going on.” He shrugs. “It’s the capital of the world.”

I ask him if he thinks there are parts of the country that are more American than others.

“We’re lucky around here — we live in the nice Massachusetts bubble. Not so much part of the idiocracy.”

I didn’t quite hear him, and ask, “Did you say theocracy?”

He laughs. “Idiocracy. But both could apply.”

He pauses.

“There’s been a lot of negativity in the media lately. But it’s not affecting my daily life. People are still friendly.”

A young guy with bleached, punk-inspired hair comes up to the counter with a stack of records. Dave looks through them, taps at the register, and says, “That’ll be $107.45”

The young guy starts fumbling with a sheaf of twenties and Dave says, “If you’ve got cash, $100 is fine.”

The guy thanks him, and Dave gets him a box, which looks rescued from a wine shop. The young guy walks out of the shop with his finds clasped to his chest.

Before he opened Grooves, Dave was a copyeditor at a publishing company.

“Then I got laid off at 45. This was in 2011. I noticed that a lot of the record stores I was shopping at were getting busier, so I thought it was a viable option.”

It’s been five years.

I ask him how he ended up in Union Square.

“Oh, randomly. But I like it. There’s a lot going on. People are nice. Part of that Massachusetts bubble I was talking about.”

I ask if there are things about America as a whole that he thinks are great.

He gives me a sad smile. “We have a lot of great traditions I hope we can continue.”

– “What traditions?” I ask.

He raises his eyebrows. “The Constitution.” Pausing, he steps over to change a record on the player, then steps back. “Our free liberal culture makes America great.

“I hope we still have it in five years.

“And there’s our love of knowledge, of science.

“Things many Americans don’t seem to value currently.

“I hope they hold up.”

I ask him what American music traditions he likes.

“Oh, there are countless traditions. Jazz, blues, hip hop. That come and go based on audience. You’ve got programmed electronic music now. People gravitate towards what’s new.

“I wouldn’t choose any over the others. I don’t want to represent myself that way. That’s not interesting.

“But I don’t think our musical traditions are in danger the way our liberal culture is.”

Dave gets busy with customers again and I look around the store. The room is small and boomerang shaped, with only narrow aisles between the full album cases. The records are meticulously organized but the store’s décor is cheerfully, messily eclectic. Bright pink walls. Posters everywhere, Talking Heads, Iron Maiden, Peter Frampton. You get the feeling you could find anything in here and, according to the Yelp reviews, you can. Grooves gets universally high ratings, for Dave’s knowledgeability and for what he stocks. And, because this is Somerville not Cambridge, the prices are lower.

When Dave is free again, I ask him if he wants to be anonymous.

He looks at me seriously.

“No. Put my name on it. Dave Plunkett.”

He spells it for me, and I walk back out into Union Square, cheered up by his confidence that America’s music traditions will last no matter what.

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