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Just Add Curiosity

On Hudson’s fashionable Warren Street, John Doe Records and Books and owner Daniel Seward have carved out a niche that defies description

by E.S. Cormac on October 17, 2013

 

Photo by E.S. Cormac

If you wander in to John Doe Records and Books, whatever you do don’t say the word hipster. “I don’t care one way or the other. It’s just that word, ohhhh God, it’s too much,” Dan Seward says. “I mean really, they’re just people in sunglasses.”

The record store and Seward himself are beyond categorization, both standing as enigmas at Hudson’s 434 Warren St., daring anybody to fit them into a neat little package with a descriptor. And maybe that’s the point.

Seward co-owns John Doe Records and Books with another Hudson transplant, Tommy Sharp. He also is the frontman of the experimental band Bunnybrains, hosts a radio show named Battlefield Earth on WGXC 90.7, and organizes DIY shows for local musicians. None of those activities truly defines Seward, though.

His store is the same. Yes, there are records, lots of records. Sure there are books, volumes of them. But John Doe Records and Books is way more than that. The space on Warren Street is a destination. “This store has become a hub for all sorts of things, and it’s not always things that you’re interested in it being a hub for,” Seward says.

Seward and Sharp moved to their newest location in April of this year. The store has occupied retail spaces on just about every block of Warren Street since its first incarnation opened almost 10 years ago. The most infamous location was a cavernous, mazelike affair that stood at a former service station a block away. “This is the first location I’ve had in 10 years that has any sort of light at the end of the tunnel,” Seward says. “It’s a more tightly wound version of all the other stores.”

From the street the store stands apart from the high-end antique stores, art galleries and dining establishments that line Hudson’s main thoroughfare. The building is painted in bright yellow with the words “Record Shopppe” written in cursive above its two windows. A chalkboard sign that sits on the sidewalk reads nothing more than “Fear and Loafing.” Next to that is an extremely large head of a bald man whose eyes stare into the open door. Several orange chairs from the 1970s, a table of books, and other miscellany sit in front of the store, forcing foot traffic to slow as it passes. The inside of the store is little different from the scene on the exterior.

 

Photo by E.S. Cormac

This is not the kind of store you go into pick up a copy of your favorite album, pay the man and then off you go. This is the kind of store you get lost in for hours. It is part of a service that Seward sees as necessary for visitors to Hudson.

“People come here and they know they want to get coffee, but after that they just wander around town aimlessly. Aimlessness can provide some decent retail.”

The store is set up in what Seward calls a racetrack layout, forcing his customers to move in a circle around the walls and then toward the island in the center. His current collection of records includes a $300 recording by famed bluesman Lightnin’ Hopkins to a $7 debut album by the 1980s hip-hop trio Salt-n-Pepa. Books range the astute Poet in New York, by Federico Garcia Lorca, to the contemporary Geek Love by Katherine Dunn. Lining the bookshelves and racks of records, and in every square inch of space left on walls and floors, are the various items and curiosities that complete the adventure.

Are you looking for the Camp Snoopy glasses that McDonald’s sold in the early 1980s? Seward has those. How about a fringed leather jacket or paisley polyester print dress? Yup, right over there. Action figures? An antique television? How about a smaller version of that strange bald head on the sidewalk? Seward has managed to tuck away so many interesting artifacts and objects in the store that you could spend the day there trying to absorb it all.

And in case the name of the store got you wondering, John Doe, singer and bassist from the band X, has visited the store. “He came in and bought a bunch of records,” Seward says. “I said, I guess you want some royalties, and he just started laughing. He loved it.”

Seward has an eye for music and a good sense of the retail world, according to his business partner Sharp. But after having a conversation with him for a little while you realize what Seward is truly passionate about is his community, and ways to improve Hudson.

 

Photo by E.S. Cormac

“Every single one of these places has their own little micro economy. Everyone just kind of carves out their own little thingy they can do,” Seward says about the small business community that attracted him to Hudson 10 years ago, moving further upstate from his original home in Danbury, Conn. “I just can’t imagine anywhere I could go back home and be able to do what I’m doing here,” he added.

Seward’s vision of Hudson is not idealized however; he is vocal about many of the issues in town and expresses them on his radio show. “I play music and can be funny. It’s mostly satire. People say, ‘Oh he’s just making fun of people,’” he says. But according to Seward, his show also acts as a sounding board.

One of the main points of contention for the store owner is the amount of attention celebrities that live in the area receive in the press. He points out an article in the New York Observer that features a map showing where celebrities live by pinpointing their locations with pictures of their faces.

“I have a problem growing this town in that way culturally,” he says. “Take that energy and figure out how to make jobs with it. There’s gotta be a widget out there that needs to be made for whatever cents a piece but you pay people good money to do it.”

Seward believes that the main problem in Hudson and other communities in the region is a failure to move out of the industrial economy of the past. According to him, one way forward is to improve education and to invite youth to participate in the community.

“There is a lot of frosting but there is no cake,” he says. “These kids will have no fucking clue when they get out of school in four years. Let them see that they too can grow up to sell cheese and antiques.”

Seward gave an example of a program in Catskill that allows craftsmen to build goods, such as silverware and furniture that are then used in local restaurants. “You can integrate services into commercial spaces on blocks and make it work in a way that makes everyone feel good.”

For Seward, what is important is that everyone is included in opportunities to pursue the kind of choices he made. “I hope that kind of dream lasts for other people. I hope they can get a $500 space and in two years they can get an $800 space.”