An impressive cloud of scent stops me on my way down the south side of Mt. Auburn. I freeze and inhale again, doubting my senses. Is that incense? Eucalyptus? Some new blend of potpourri?
Looking for a source, I squint across the street at the plate-glass storefront of Insomnia Cookies. Eh, maybe.
I look to my right, noticing the sunken cement staircase there for the first time. At the bottom, a heavily tagged door seeps pale smoke and thumping base. A dangling black-and-white sign marks the entrance to In Your Ear Records Ltd. I follow my nose into the shop.
Inside, I find the ’70s. Black Sabbath howls on vinyl in the corner. Bon Jovi and Def Leppard scowl out from crates of CDs and 45s. A man in a checkered cap cradles a bulky cell phone behind the cash register, chatting softly above the volume of the store. I browse through racks of jazz and grunge, tempted to buy a record despite my lack of a record player, then approach the counter.
I tell Albie, who wears the checkered cap, that I’m curious about this place and its music, and he calls out the owner, Mark Henderson, from the back. Henderson clears a stack of CDs from the counter and leans against it as he talks.
As he tells it, In Your Ear started with a crate of scratched records and a sidewalk. In the late ’70s, Henderson began working for Déjà Vu Records, an indie music store on the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Mt. Auburn with a strategy of selling “guerilla-style” down by MIT. “[A co-worker] guided me in his car down to MIT, showed me where to set up, and put a bunch of records out there. We probably got kicked off [the street] after two or three hours,” Henderson says. “There’s a long tradition of street records in Cambridge.”
Eventually, Henderson and a partner bought inventory and a van and started selling on their own. In 1982, they opened their first In Your Ear; today, they and a third partner run stores in Cambridge, Boston, and Rhode Island.
Despite the store’s rapid growth, however, the process of collecting music remains distinctly personal: In Your Ear’s inventory is dependent upon what locals are willing to buy and sell. Though Henderson and his staff do curate for quality, in theory they’ll buy almost anything from the people who walk through the door. “[We stock] the history of recorded music,” Henderson says, adding, “We do get a little flotsam and jetsam along the way. It’s part of the panache around here.”
Judging by his excitement, he is as proud of his misses as he is of his hits. In fact, as Henderson goes on, I begin to suspect that he considers his work as much an exercise in history as in retail.
“To us, the holy grail, the reason for living, is when a good record comes in the door. There’s nothing like it.” He is gushing. “Especially collections.… It’s just seeing how a person’s compiled their collection. [It’s not] just random selections of stuff.”
Though he ultimately dissembles all the collections that he buys, Henderson does not mourn their loss. Instead, he finds value in their exchange, in the fleeting bond they create between buyer and seller. “If you’re looking at it, archiving it—you learn about someone. It’s amazing.”
“I wonder what my collection will look like,” he muses. Looking around at this psychedelic, overflowing, gorgeous time capsule of a store, I think I already know.