Toonerville Trolley Records Closes, Legacy Lives On
Toonerville Trolley Records in Williamtown, Massachusetts, has shut its doors after 41 years. But the store’s legacy will live on.
On April 28th, a short message on the Toonerville Trolley Records’ Facebook page marked the end of an era. The brief statement announced that the store was closed after over four decades in its storefront on Water Street.
“When I first came to town with my van, selling records on the streets, they weren’t really too happy,” said Hal March.
March, 77, was the owner and proprietor of Toonerville Trolley Records before deciding to retire. Raised in Brattleboro, Vermont, records were close to his heart from a young age.
“My grandfather ran a vending machine business, which included jukeboxes," he said. "And my father worked for him, so I was always associated with records, because they were putting them on the jukeboxes. And my father got the trade magazines like Cashbox and Billboard, and I’m reading ‘em.”
He remembers the first record he ever bought.
“Jimmy Reed, ‘The Sun Is Shining,’” said March.
March’s first foray into the business involved driving a van stuffed with records to colleges around New England in the mid-70s.
“In good weather, it was a whole lot of fun. Most of the colleges were pretty happy to see me come, especially Bennington College that let me park right in front of commons on campus," said March. "And- but, it was pretty limited. And when I almost put the truck off the road one day, I thought, I gotta get off the road. So, that’s what I did.”
And so, it was off to Williamstown.
“When I opened the store, it was the punk boom," said March. "You know, late 70’s.”
March chose where to plant his business strategically.
“It’s a good place to sell records because it’s a college town, and there’s a lot of musical interest at the college, and a lot of performances and that stuff," he told WAMC. "Plus there’s Bennington College and Mass College of Liberal Arts, so I can sell to them. And then Williamstown is a pretty good tourist destination with the theater festival and Tanglewood and all that stuff. So I sold to those guys.”
In the early days, Toonerville Trolley was one of three record stores in Williamstown.
“It was the rack job boom, where records were placed in gas stations and supermarkets and everything by the distributors," said March. "It was a big time. You didn’t have to, but everybody bought records to get music.”
March, understandably, has his own passions in collecting music.
“Well, I like almost everything — rock, classical, blues, whatever — but I like jazz best of all, and Sun Ra is my big favorite,” he said.
As the years passed and new musical forms emerged, March discovered new passions.
“Well, I flipped over industrial noise," said March. "Of course, I accumulated a lot of that, and I still stock that kind of stuff. I have a lot of leftover stock, and I’m always looking for it — like Throbbing Gristle, Merzbow, Laibach, that kind of stuff.”
As far as sales, March says funk, soul, and jazz always led the pack at Toonerville — as well as punk and metal.
“A good record store — if by good, you mean good, not just ultra-profitable — should have something for everyone, and carry stuff that’s unique, which I’ve always tried to do, and I do,” said March.
While the lights are off at Toonerville Trolley Records, its legacy as the county’s longest-running independent record store will live on.
“Belltower Records is aiming to be open in North Adams on July 1st of this year," said Wes Nelson.
He and his wife, Andrea Belair — who currently live in New Haven, Connecticut — bought March’s back stock to open their own shop in North Adams’ Norad Mill. It’s their first foray into owning a record store, but Nelson says they learned a lot from March.
“It seems to me that Hal has a very casual approach, which is nice," said Nelson. "I think he has a sort of humbleness to him that belies how awesome he is and how much knowledge he has, and I think that kind of humble attitude that he has is a real boon to the community, and I think — it seems to me that he has a lot to teach the surrounding area.”
March said declining sales initially moved him to close Toonerville — but in doing so, he had a chance to feel the impact he had on the Berkshires.
“Once I decided to sell the business and retire, I got such a response from people who wanted to buy the store and came in said, yeah, we rode our bikes down and we bought these records, and it made me feel much better about the whole thing,” he said.
March suggests anyone trying to get into Sun Ra start with his 1956 record “Super-sonic Jazz.”