For those of you who are unaware—namely if you don’t live in the New England area—Newbury Comics is a New-England-based store that first opened on Boston’s Newbury Street in 1978. It started out as a comic book store, but, over the years, gradually evolved into a music store that sold cassettes, vinyl records and CDs as well as posters, T-shirts, DVDs, buttons, patches, trading cards, novelties and other pop culture paraphernalia.
Despite the fact that the store first opened in the late-1970s, I would have to say that the heyday of Newbury Comics (code name: “Newbs”) was likely the mid-to-late 1990s. It was around this time that I was in middle school/high school and I used to make a special trip via train from Walpole to the original Newbury Comics in Boston once every few months or so. This trip was totally worth it because you could get new-release CDs there for 12 or sometimes even ten bucks a pop. The alternative to this was going to the local suburban shopping mall where you would find a Record Town that sold the very same CDs for about 18-20 bucks, sometimes more.
I bought many a CD at Newbs over the years, but the ones that stick out the most are Offspring’s Smash(bought when I was in 7th grade), Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique (also bought when I was in 7th grade) and I also used to get a lot of those miscellaneous techno compilation CDs there as well. And I’m not talking about Real McCoy or Culture Beat techno, folks. I’m talking underground house music, man. Jungle, dude. Drum and Bass. Electronica. I mean, this was pop-a-pacifier-in-your-mouth-and-swing-some-glowsticks-around shit. We’re talking Astralwerks here, boys and girls. Ever heard of it? What I’m getting at is that these trax were much more obscure than your standard, run-of-the-mill Fatboy Slim or Chemical Brothers jams. Exhibit A: Infinite Beat Vol. 1 Track #2 (listen to this and then come talk to me, mmkay? https://youtu.be/mIv6QFw0Bt8). Long story short: I’m so cool.
Now, the employees at the Boston Newbury Comics were fascinating creatures seemingly from a completely different dimension or planet. Honestly, it seemed like it was mandatory that you had to look like a freak in order to work there and I say that in the most loving way possible. These people had every piercing imaginable—ear, tongue, naval, eyebrow, nose and probably some others in unmentionable places. Hair dyed up the wazoo—pink, purple, green, black, blue, red, rainbow colors. They likely had tattoos as well, but I’m not even sure there were that many tattoos during those days. It was all about the piercings in the mid-1990s, the odd hair colors and a lot of makeup with the focus being on the dark eyeliner that lined the eyes, yes, but also extended out, just beyond the eyes, into cat-like sideways-triangles. You know what I’m talking about ( > ). Fishnet stockings were also commonplace as well as Doc Marten boots. I always wondered where all these “freaks of nature” came from. Where did they live? In the city? Did they commute in from the suburbs? Did they dress like this when they went to family parties or visited their grandmothers? Did they even have families or grandmothers?
Newbury Comics became a slightly different animal as it became more popular in the late-1990s. Franchises popped up all around the suburbs and it was suddenly no longer necessary nor practical to make the exciting journey via train into Boston’s Newbury Street. For most people living in greater-Boston suburbia, there was likely to be a Newbury Comics either in your town or in a bordering town. The employees at these suburban stores were still on the weird side, but they were a tad watered-down from the kind you saw working at the Newbury Street location. I mean, these employees were more like wallet-chain-wearing-hipsters as opposed to the total freaks working on Newbury Street who you literally only saw at Newbury Comics and nowhere else in everyday life.
During late high school and also during college breaks—especially before turning 21—my friends and I would often find ourselves bored with nothing to do at night and we would more-often-than-not “hit up Newbs” and we would subsequently waste many a dollar on both CDs and DVDs. Since Newbs was so accessible and damn-near-ubiquitous at this time, it was easy to become jaded and Newbury Comics consequently became much less of a special store. I mean, I can’t tell you how fun an experience it was making that special trip into Boston in the earlier 1990s and finding all those great CDs and great deals that you couldn’t find anywhere else. The employees were weirder. The music playing in the store was better, the bass louder and the stereo system overall sicker. When Newbs came to the suburbs, it lost a lot of its mystique. Granted, it was still probably the coolest store around, but it wasn’t quite on the level of Newbury Street Newbury Comics in the mid-1990s, know what I mean?
However, one cool thing that the suburban Newbury Comics tried doing around the year 2000 or so was having live music in the store. I think it was the summer of 2000, shortly after I graduated high school, that the band Tree was playing at the local Norwood Newbury Comics, maybe at around 3:00 or 4:00 in the afternoon, smack-dab in the middle of the week. It was an odd time to have a “concert” in the middle of a Newbury Comics, but—let me tell you—the place was PACKED with teens, punkers and rockers. As soon as Tree played the first note of their first song, all hell broke loose in the store. There was moshing. There was some crowd surfing. There was also a gang of teens wearing rebel-flag-like bandanas over their faces and they were FSU’ng (i.e. f’ng sh** up). One dude I had gone to high school with got his nose smashed in. The vibe was sinister, indeed. I was actually there with a few friends and we mostly hung in back, watching the chaos from a distance. Newbury Comics basically got destroyed that day. By the end of the show, all you could see around the store was the plastic wrapping of CDs that had been stolen amidst the chaos. The shoplifting gate at the exit of the store kept beeping as people filed out into the parking lot. I wonder how much money Newbs lost that day off of stolen CDs. I don’t think Newbury Comics ever had any more live music after that Tree show.
Another cool thing Newbury Comics did around this time period was release CD “samplers” with a mix of various songs by both well-known artists and lesser-known ones.
Once Napster came about in the early-2000s and then iTunes/iPods shortly thereafter, CDs became much more obsolete and Newbury Comics became less and less…well…necessary. Since DVDs were popular at this time, Newbury Comics focused much more on selling DVDs, both used and new. In the mid-to-late 2000’s, I spent A LOT of time selling used DVDs at Newbury Comics since I had a large collection that I wanted to downsize and was somewhat desperate for cash (ok, very desperate for cash). In fact, I would pop into Newbs almost once a week at times to sell DVDs. They most likely began to recognize my face and thought I was a drug addict looking to make some quick cash for crack or heroin. I probably would have made better money had I sold my DVDs on eBay, but, for convenience’s sake, Newbury Comics was my best option and I usually walked away with a decent amount of money each time I went there.
Of course, DVDs eventually became obsolete around or not long after 2010, so Newbs suddenly was not a good place to sell DVDs anymore. In fact, the store found itself in a pickle because now both CDs AND DVDs weren’t selling well. For a moment, it looked like the future of Newbury Comics was grim and they may have been officially doomed had it not been for a resurgence in vinyl’s popularity. Newbury Comics capitalized on this resurgence and started selling a TON of vinyl records. Had it not been for vinyl suddenly selling like hotcakes, it’s quite possible that Newbury Comics would have gone extinct several years ago.
Around the year 2015 or 2016, I remember going to Newbury Comics in Norwood—a new and different location from the one Tree performed at, perhaps one of the biggest and best stores in existence at that time—and I was amazed by how many records they had in their inventory. There were several new ones, yes, but there were several used ones as well and it was their bins of used records that impressed me the most. You could get some decent records for a dollar there—I’m not kidding. I picked up an ‘80s rock compilation record for a dollar and also a ‘Best-of’ Donna Summer record there. Jackpot, right? I mean, selling a Donna Summer Best-of record for a dollar is almost a sin. But, hey, I’ll take it! This guy’s not complaining.
This is a video I took inside the Norwood Newbury Comics store in 2015. Look at all those records!
Fast-forward to our current foul year of 2023 (ok, it’s not that foul yet, time will tell—all’s I’m saying is it better watch its ass cuz it’s on thin ice already). Just the other day, I was passing through Norwood, right by Newbury Comics, and I says to myself, I says, “You know, I don’t even think I’ve been to Newbury Comics in several years, maybe not even since the aforementioned time in 2016 when I bought that one-dollar Donna Summer record,” but then I realized that this was likely a lie because I think I had gotten a Beastie Boys T-shirt at Newbs sometime around the 2018 area. Either way, it had been a number of years since I had stepped foot into a Newbury Comics and I wanted to check it out!
Well, my friends, Newbury Comics is certainly still alive and kicking but clearly struggling to stay afloat since both music and movies are predominantly streamed digitally these days and the popularity of vinyl that was born out of the resurgence 10 years ago has now seemingly cooled off a bit. Also not helping the situation was/still is COVID-19 and the lockdowns that negatively affected virtually ALL small businesses. Nevertheless, it was still an awesome feeling to be in a Newbury Comics after a few years or so.
Here are a few things that I noticed while I was there:
1. The store still smells the same as it always did. It’s the plastic of all the CD cases, I suppose. Maybe a faint hint of BO in there as well? That’s kind of what it smells like, anyway, but it’s probably not BO. And it’s not unpleasant BO, at least not to my nose. Maybe a better way of putting it is that it smells like somebody may have eaten an Italian sub with extra onions in the store maybe two or three hours ago.
2. There is something great about going to Newbury Comics when there are hardly any people in the store and there is some hipster-sounding, “in the know” music playing over the store stereo, meaning you have to be “in the know” in order to identify the band or the artist that the music belongs to. You enter a kind of trance while you are browsing through CDs or records, DVDs etc. In between songs, there is silence or maybe a light crackle over the speakers if they’re playing a vinyl at the time.
3. The Newbury Comics employees surprisingly haven’t changed THAT much (emphasis on *THAT* much). They still sport the wallet chains and the dude who checked me out at the register looked like Beck (the musician and not Jeff Beck, the other one—you get it). I give them props for that, but they are not even close to being as cool as the aforementioned Newbury Comics “freaks” who worked at the original Boston Newbs on Newbury Street in the mid-to-late 1990s. Those people were from another dimension, I’m telling you.
4. As I mentioned before, there was a period of time—maybe five years ago, maybe six—when Newbury Comics had an insane amount of vinyl records, new and used, and for great prices, especially for the used ones. This, unfortunately, is no longer the case. There are still many vinyls in the store, but they are mostly on the new side and rather expensive (20-30 bucks on average!). Gone are the days where you can go there and find some decent used records for a dollar or so. Seriously: the cheapest records I saw were Eurythmics 45s with only two songs on them and they were about three or four dollars a pop.
5. Newbury Comics has begun to sell cassette tapes again but very few of them and I mean there was only one shelf of cassettes at the end of one aisle. I’m hoping that cassettes eventually have a similar resurgence that vinyl did because I happen to be big into cassettes right now (I’m listening to a Mighty Mighty Bosstones tape as I write this; what, you want me to be specific? Jaheeez, it’s Let’s Face it, ok? Will ya stop ridin’ me now?). Hopefully, for a period of time, cassettes will be cheap and plenty until eventually going the way of vinyl and becoming too damn expensive for their own good.
6. While it’s no longer a great time to be buying vinyl, it is, however, a great time to be buying DVDs and Blu-ray if you’re into that kind of thing. Newbury Comics currently has a TON of great DVDs and Blu-rays and we’re talking for cheap. For example, I saw a Blade Runner Blu-ray as well as an Eyes Wide Shut Blu-ray for only five bucks each. Full seasons of Seinfeld for only five bucks each. Christian Slater’s Pump Up the Volume for only, like, three or four bucks. Most notably, the original 1990 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie for only a few bucks as well. I suppose the cheap DVD prices are indicative of the demand for such items and, at this time, demand for DVD (and Blu-ray) is low because everyone is streaming movies via digital platforms like Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, Peacock and countless others. I’m sure there is bound to be a DVD resurgence somewhere down the road where they’ll be much more expensive, but right now, damn they are CHEAP! Great time to buy DVD and Blu-ray, folks.
7. The bags that Newbury Comics gives you when you purchase an item are not quite what they used to be. Back in the 1990s, the bags used to be plastic with bright colors—mainly, yellow and red. You would even get a special bag if you bought a poster. Honestly, this latter bag (also in bright yellow and red colors) was kind of like a condom for your poster. Today, however, the bags are not the same. The bag I got during my recent visit was a dreary paper bag with subdued, somewhat-depressing brown and blackish colors (see photo below). Don’t get me wrong: the bag is still kind of cool in a hipster way, I suppose, and it’s probably more earth-friendly, but, man, I miss those colorful bags from the 1990s. Hell, getting one of those bags was almost as exciting or just as exciting as getting whatever you purchased at the store, whether it be a CD or a DVD. I used to keep the bags for a long time and use them as everyday tote bags. You know, I would use the bag kind of like my man-purse. It was a great and fashionable way to carry my reading glasses, Chapstick, some emergency Advil and maybe even a granola bar.
8. One of my favorite things to do when I used to go to Newbury Comics was to fill my bag with all the flyers and free copies of the Boston Phoenix newspaper that they used to have right by the exit of the store. At the Newbury Street store in the 1990s, most of the flyers were promotional material for the DJs who played at Lansdowne Street clubs, such as Axis, Avalon, Karma Club, all of which no longer exist (a House of Blues and a couple of other lame bars took their place). Upon leaving the Newbury Comics during my most recent visit, I was saddened to see there were absolutely no fliers. Granted, this was not the Boston location (it was Norwood), so there likely wouldn’t be any promotional club fliers, but I at least wanted to see a few copies of the Boston Phoenix despite the fact that the free greater-Boston-area newspaper was discontinued in 2013.
Now for the big question, which is perhaps the elephant in the room that nobody ever wants to even think about:
What will become of Newbury Comics?
It’s hard to say. Like I said before, there could be a resurgence in something like cassette tapes in the not-too-distant future. You never know: there could also be a resurgence in VHS for a while and perhaps Newbury Comics could capitalize on that trend. Eventually, I imagine there will be a resurgence of CD and DVD, but I feel like that resurgence is further down the road—maybe ten years or more from now. Maybe Newbury Comics could strictly become a nostalgia store, a place where you can go strictly for retro-audio and visual mediums, like cassette, vinyl, VHS, DVD, CD etc. Maybe they could get into the retro-videogame market as well, sell both used and new 8-bit Nintendo/16-bit Sega and/or Atari games, for example. Maybe they should hire me as a consultant because I’m coming up with some good ideas here!
In the end, I think the future of Newbury Comics will all come down to how badly they want to survive. Getting into the retro-videogame and retro-VHS/cassette business will probably take some gambles and also some ambition. It may be easier for Newbury Comics owner/CEO—Mike Dreese—to cut his losses at a certain point, sell off and retire.
Whatever becomes of Newbury Comics, one thing is for sure: it was a place that, for a good 20 years or so, one could buy some REALLY cheap CDs, DVDs, posters, T-shirts and, oh, of course comics as well. But who really went there for the comics? I mean, come on. Ok, maybe some nerdy folk went there for the comics. Most people went there for the CDs, though. Others went strictly for the DVDs. In later years, many people only went there for the vinyl. But you know what everybody went there for, whether it was in the late-1970s, 1980s, 1990s or 2000s?
SOME WICKED GOOD TIMES!
MATT BURNS is the author of the hit Kindle singles My Raging Case of Beastie Fever, Jungle F’ng Fever: My 30-Year Love Affair With Guns N’ Roses, I Turned Into A Misfit!, I Used To Be A Gamer: The 8-Bit Nintendo Years and I Dream of Dream Machine. He’s also written several novels, including his ‘punk novel’ Supermarket Zombies!as well as Weird Monster, Johnny Cruise and The Woman and the Dragon. Check out these books (and many more) on his Amazon author page HERE.
Other trending articles by Matt Burns that may be of interest to you:
I Dream of Dream Machine (a memoir of the local video arcade)
NEVER FORGET the Fun-O-Rama (a traveling carnival memoir)
A Love Letter to the Emerald Square Mall (about the death of the shopping mall age)
 Niasse, Amina. “Vinyl Records Sales Climb Just 1% After Years of Rapid Growth.” Bloomberg, 14 July 2022, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2022-07-14/vinyl-record-sales-climb-just-1-after-years-of-rapid-growth.