Fall of the House of Rock
A talk with Bill O’Neil
Heading south along Route 1 into Saco, past the amusement parks and car dealerships, there’s a sign you’ve surely seen before:
Bill O’Neil’s House of Rock n Roll. And there it is, set back off the road on a little hill behind a stand of tall trees, one of the last independent music stores on the planet.
Chances are O’Neil was there when you sped by on your way to somewhere considerably less cool. For the past 24 years his shop’s been open 67 hours a week, from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. every Sunday. O’Neil said he has not had three days off in a row in nearly a quarter century.
Even if the shop was closed, he was probably there. It is, after all, a house, and for the past 13 years O’Neil’s been living in the residential part of the one-story abode. The shop used to be the garage.
And not just any garage, O’Neil can tell you. The Wakefield family used to live here, and in the ’60s Dave Wakefield’s garage-rock band, Euphoria’s Id, practiced on this very spot. The two 45s they made “are among the most collectible garage 45s known to man,” according to O’Neil.
O’Neil worked in radio for 16 years before opening the shop. He had a late-night show on WLOB called Rock Perspectives. “It was a Top 40 station all day … but they fortunately gave me three hours to play whatever I wanted at night.” He soon got especially interested in spinning the oldies, ’50s and early ’60s soul and rock ‘n’ roll, and he still does DJ gigs (weddings and reunions) and part-time radio work.
After a stint at WIDE in Biddeford he bounced back to ’LOB and then on to music director and program director jobs at WCSH radio, WJBQ and WGAN. “I think I took both ’CSH radio and ’GAN radio to the lowest ratings they ever had,” he said with a chuckle. “I got fired when I was 29 as P.D. at ’CSH, and then at 38, when I was program director at ’GAN. I didn’t really want to be fired when I was 49.”
So the House of Rock was born.
“There was nothing I liked better than going out to visit the record stores,” O’Neil said. “As music director at the radio station, I used to go out every week to find out the actual sales. I didn’t call ’em up, I went into the stores. I loved going through to see Ruthie at Recordland, Richard Julio at The Wax Museum … I ended up in this God-forsaken location because I knew a few of the people who owned record stores in Portland and I didn’t want to really compete with them — and those guys were out of Portland within about two years thereafter.”
Bill O’Neil’s House of Rock n Roll will be closing in late January, another casualty of the download age. The Bollard spoke with O’Neil in late December at the store.
— Chris Busby
When did you open the record shop?
I opened on June 10 of 1988. The first thing I ever sold was a Blood Sweat and Tears Greatest Hits cassette.
What was the business like back then?
When I first opened, I remember the first week of ordering the new releases. One of them was Ooh Yeah! by Hall and Oates, and you ordered like an equal number on cassette, vinyl and CD. By the end of 1988, the LP dropped dramatically … by 1990 there were very few being pressed at all.
I remember Billy Squire had a single that charted — it was the first single that there wasn’t a 45 for at the time. There was a promotional 45 — I got the promotional 45 — but there was not a stock copy of that. That was the beginning of the end of the 45 end of things, although a lot of stuff was still being pressed, especially country 45s, because they still had jukeboxes that played records. As the ’90s progressed there was more and more jukeboxes that had the CDs. Now there’s nothing in the machines at all, in more ways than one!
By 1990 or so, you’re probably selling two CDs for every cassette. Ten years ago, the wall right there was nothing but cassettes. That’s amazing how that has totally dried up, whereas vinyl has had a small resurgence over the years, but it’s still very much of a niche thing. It isn’t like everybody is going to have records in their house. It’s going to be a very small percentage. It might be a small percentage for CDs soon!
Compact disc sales have really plummeted over the last couple of years and you can’t make up the money difference, even with the increase in vinyl sales that has occurred over the past couple of years. The funny thing about the vinyl sales is, years ago I used to sell a lot of 45s. Now it’s almost strictly LPs. If I see somebody coming into the store who’s under 30, they’re buying vinyl. They’re not buying CDs. They get the music via download now.
Years ago, somebody would either buy a CD or a 45, because we always carried 45s the whole time we were
here. ‘Hey, you want to spend $10, $15 for a CD? Fine. But if you just want the 45, we have that as well.’ Now, every now and then I’ll get a call from somebody who says, ‘Uh, what’s the song that goes something like …’ whatever, and then I’ll say whatever it is, and they say, ‘OK, thank you very much.’ You know they’re not coming in to buy it, they’re just gonna download it.
You know, that’s the way it is. Times change, and I’m at peace with it more so than most of my customers are. I’ve had a few people in here say, ‘What am I gonna do? You’re the last one.’ There’s a lot of stores that are very much niche stores that carry only vinyl and used product, but we always carried new and used.
What about online sales?
I’ve been doing it halfheartedly for a number of years. I just like dealing with people. I like the money I get from Japan and Korea and Europe, but it’s nothing like actually dealing with a person.
What are buyers overseas mostly getting?
A lot of soul records, more than anything else. A lot of the higher-end things that I sell will be called Northern Soul records, which are these dance records that are similar to the Motown sound but they’re not Motown records. They have that type of beat that they’ve been playing in the clubs there for years and years. A lot of [Northern Soul] 45s go to Europe.
What is your customer base like? Do you get a lot of locals or mostly people passing through on Route 1?
We used to get a lot of locals for current music. I always had a lot of people who came a good deal of distance for the different stuff. The sign used to have a tagline on the bottom: Maine’s Oldies Specialist. We were going after a little older demographic than your average record store. Certainly we’d have the current Eminem album, but by the same token we’d have artists that had maybe one hit or two hits, their CDs, like The Best of Dick & Dee Dee. Or, for instance, Ronnie Dove’s Greatest Hits has been one of my biggest sellers over the years. I’ve sold probably 50 copies of that at minimum. You just can’t find that at Wal-Mart or Best Buy.
You talk about the experience of dealing with customers face to face. But what about the customers’ experience of browsing through albums in the store? That’s always been a big part of buying music. Don’t people miss that?
You would think so! One of the funniest things I ever did was I sold a CD online to somebody who lived less than a mile away down the road — a CD that they could have bought in here for $7.99 that I had online for $29.99. It was an out-of-print Van Morrison disc at that time, and somebody down by the Dune Grass Golf Course [bought it online]. They could have driven up here.
Some of the other funny things I’ve sold online — I remember selling Judy Collins a Judy Collins CD. I don’t know, maybe she needed one for a friend or it was out of print or whatever. I always put a little note when I sell something online: ‘Thanks for your order. Enjoy your CD.’ And in this instance I added, ‘I mean your CD.’
Have any famous musicians been in the store?
Fred Schneider was in here from the B-52s. Southside Johnny was in here this summer. He was looking for soul and R&B records … some heavy-duty R&B singles. I told him, ‘I’m like the alcoholic who owns the bar. Unless I already have it, it probably went into my own collection.’