“Is this the same place?” is a question that John Doe Records owner Dan Seward gets a lot. Though he has been in the business of record retail for almost 20 years, Seward has relocated plenty of times, and he has only been at his current location in Hudson since April of 2013. Somehow, he has managed inadvertently to build a brand around anonymity.
It started in the mid-’90s, when he and his then-wife decided to set up shop in a tiny red shack with no electricity or plumbing in the shadow of the CAT radio station on Route 9G. They settled on the name “John Doe” as a way to keep a low profile. Though the business has upgraded to a building with utilities, the name has remained the same, no matter where they were or what they were selling.
Ironically, “John Doe” has become a way for old customers to recognize the store in a new location. Still, the only signage that indicates that the shop even has a name is a small flyer on the door. “I wanted to see what people would do if they saw a store with no name,” says Seward. From a distance, one can only see the yellow façade that identifies it as a “Record Shopppe.” “Two Ps means you’re in Mystic Seaport about to buy salt water taffy with a whale on it,” Seward adds. “Three Ps means nothing.”
John Doe’s experimental atmosphere is what makes it so recognizable. Despite being a successful business for so long, Seward has got the new business attitude of “Let’s just try this out.”
John Doe has been known to sell a range of odd items, from books to vintage furniture, but records are its main attraction. Seward describes his collection as an “iceberg.” There’s a lot that’s on display, but that’s nothing compared to what he has packed away, ready to be sold whenever space frees up. “We’ve still got a lot to show people,” he says.
Seward loves to see the way people react when they find a record that they’ve got a history with, or one that they’ve been in search of for what seems like an eternity. Just recently, Seward says, one awed customer asked, “You have this?” when she discovered an album by UK pop/rock group Vanity Fare among his numerous records.
In a ceaseless effort to share good music with the masses, John Doe Records has been an active participant in Hudson’s live music scene. Seward claims that he got discouraged about bars as a venue for music because they’re only suitable for a limited audience. “Bar culture is very specific, and people who don’t drink don’t always have a place to go out,” he says. By paying bands out-of-pocket and having them play in the store, Seward hopes to create an environment in which good music is accessible to all ages and all kinds of people. The next event that the shop will host is a performance by Guy Blakeslee at 8 p.m. on October 25, with a cover charge of $5.
After years in the record retail business, John Doe is finally expanding. Seward recently opened a new store in Catskill, but, as is his accidental trademark, he’s trying to let things unfold organically. The store (which, by the way, does not have a name yet) may focus on books, but the concept is flexible. “We’ll see what the market is,” says Seward. If you’re out in Catskill and happen to come across a nameless store that looks like it’s making the most of an identity crisis, you may wonder, “Is this the same place?” The answer, most likely, is “Yes.”