The 50 Best Record Stores In America is an essay series where we attempt to find the best record store in every state. These aren’t necessarily the record stores with the best prices or the deepest selection; you can use Yelp for that. Each record store featured has a story that goes beyond what’s on its shelves; these stores have history, foster a sense of community and mean something to the people who frequent them.
Finding the best place to get music in the state of New Hampshire, in all honesty, isn’t that difficult of a task. There’s a lot more objectivity when it comes to defining the “best” of something when the terms are a bit more comparable to something more universal like a restaurant. For those instances, you have points of comparison that transcend state lines and line up more with individual experiences. A more difficult thing in this instance is defining what New Hampshire truly is. Fortunately for us, Skele-Tone Records in Rochester not only stands as the best record store in the Granite State, but it also perfectly represents what New Hampshire identity really is.
Situated right in the middle of New England and almost entirely landlocked, the ninth state in the union is a bit of an oddity compared to its neighbors. Population-wise, it ranks 41st for the highest population, and also 46th in area. But don’t let this fool you even in the slightest. Thanks to New Hampshire, industry skyrocketed in this country, and for a solid period of time, the state served as one of the largest exporters of cotton textiles in the world.
But for tourists or those not really familiar with the state, New Hampshire feels kinda kitschy. The name evokes imagery of moose, forests, maple syrup, and odd dilapidated amusement parks — things that one can argue are also common in all the states that border it. So, this begs the question: What is New Hampshire, if it isn’t all these generic images?
The “Granite State,” nicknamed after it’s vast quarries, was a juggernaut when it came to factories and work, but as time marched on, this faded. Now, many of the cities that once served as industrial hubs have brick-faced factory buildings standing as a testament to what things used to be. However, even though those industries left, the residents did not. And, instead of letting the moss take over these old industrial titans, the people of New Hampshire have reclaimed them as their own.
One city that is marked by this perseverance is Rochester. Situated strategically by the Cocheco and Salmon Falls Rivers, the power provided by these two rivers proved to be a perfect location for a series of mills and factories that still stand as a sort-of shell today. Yes, at one point the E.G. & E. Wallace Shoe Company (later the Rochester Shoe Corporation) was the largest employer in the area and the cornerstone for the prosperity of the city. Now, in 2019, this is just a historical footnote. But, did the town itself die with the shoe industry? Not exactly.
New Hampshire’s identity is inherently based around a lack of true identity, and the “Live Free or Die” state would be damned if a shoe mill was going to define what the state is in the eyes of the nation. In fact, this lack of decisiveness has long been a calling card for the state, most notably in the form of presidential elections. This particularly strong swing-state sees visits from every major candidate each cycle, and not only is it the first in the series of party primary states that vote, and a lot of the time, the way that towns like Dixville Notch vote comes fairly close to what the end result ends up being. So, this notorious battleground state that refuses to adhere to one side or the other wasn’t going to just roll over when the mills left. They adapted, they evolved, and they embraced what makes New Hampshire so unique: marching to their own beat whether other folks like it or not.
In the dead center of the downtown Rochester area, there’s no place that flaunts this better than Skele-Tone Records. Even externally, the purple storefront adorned with records immediately stands out and turns the seemingly generic downtown center of a mill city into its own canvas. As I walked in on a beautiful afternoon, the record store workday was already in full swing: Todd Radict, sporting a Stray Cats sweatshirt, was elbow deep in a crate of records someone brought in to sell while Becky Maloney was cleaning some of them in the corner and working out a price to offer the person who was selling them. Meanwhile, through the expansive two rooms Skele-Tone has to offer, about a dozen people were scattered silently thumbing through the selection while “Breakfast in America” by Supertramp was playing.
Expansive is an understatement with Skele-Tone, as there’s music offerings and music memorabilia stretching from the floor to the ceiling. Directly across from an entire wall dedicated to various pressings of the Clash’s discography are classic KISS action figures still in their yellowed boxes, while shirts from various shows or various bands hang from the ceiling and dangle over the vast array of new and used product. Promo posts from bands like Nine Inch Nails and Rush sit side-by-side on the walls with no rhyme or reason and feature little sticky notes to remind everyone that they are indeed for sale. After Radict finishes up with his buy-back, his eyes light up and he says “come on, take a look around, I’ve got so much crazy stuff here that I forget what I have sometimes.”
Born and raised in New Hampshire, Todd Radict left the Granite State when he was 18 to go to New York City, where he immediately fell into the punk scene. He played gigs for several years and made acquaintance with some of the titans in the punk world and, even though he came back to the place he grew up, he would never truly leave that world. As he pointed out, a lot of the merch suspended around the store was actually worn by various musicians who made a colossal impact in the punk scene.
Above us while we were talking hung a T-shirt worn by Joey Ramone, and next to it were two rings on a chain worn by Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen. “This is what my favorite record store in New York City looked like,” he says. “Almost! This is like three times the size, but when I came back here, I wanted people to see what it was like down in New York. ” Indeed, after several world tours and five years of playing, Radict returned to New Hampshire, and the story of Skele-Tone Records began.”There’s nothing like this really out there, so I don’t really have to go to New York anymore. It’s here now.”
Even though Radict was done with the band that he formed in New York, he was far from done with the music. “When I was done with playing music, I still loved it, so I thought that I could help out other bands by opening a record store and introduce these bands to people that never heard of them before.” As luck would have it, Becky Maloney (also a New Hampshire native) happened to come in the store one day, and the rest was history. “I had a friend that was working for [Radict], and I was just blown away with the space, and I never stopped coming here,” she says. “One day he offered me a job, and I said yes!”
But why here? Why, of all places, open a CBGB influenced punk rock record store in the middle of New Hampshire? “All my friends were still up here, so I wanted to be closer to them and, honestly, if I opened up in New York city, I wouldn’t last,” he says. “This is my home, and I wanted to give people a taste of what it was like for me to visit record stores when I was a kid.” He started in Portsmouth, but the more affluent vibe of the town didn’t really jive with Radict’s vision, so he picked Rochester, because he knew people were eventually going to come there. And he was right; the downtown area of Rochester is full of shops, bars, cafes and apartments, which didn’t even exist a decade ago. The people of New Hampshire wanted to reclaim the forgotten mill cities, and Radict saw it coming a mile away.
But with the people coming back came another external conflict when it came to selling music in New Hampshire. Bigger chain record stores from Massachusetts started moving up north, and the same thing came from New Hampshire’s northern neighbor Maine. Did this concern Radict? Absolutely not. “They’re not record stores anymore,” he says. “Once you start to sell video games or a lot of toys and knick-knacks, you’re not really a record store.” Indeed, Skele-Tone records has virtually no other product besides things related directly to music. While talking, a person came in looking to sell back some movies, and Maloney directed them to a store down the street. “I probably have more 8-Track tapes in my store then they do records, really.”
The other thing they offer that other stores don’t really have is a true desire to treat every customer as a member of the family. “We can’t know everything all the time,” Radict says. “But no matter who comes in, we ask them if they need help finding anything, and if we don’t have it, we help them find something they’ll like anyways.” This customer service has not gone unnoticed over the years. “We get Christmas cards from a lot of our customers,” says Maloney. “They bring in records for us to listen to because they think we’ll like it. It doesn’t feel like a store sometimes, it feels like a community.”
And community is really what ties a state like New Hampshire together. “I think it’s a melting pot here, I really do,” says Radict. “We have all these different sections in our store like reggae, classical, hard rock, and country and you see all of them get equal attention from all the kids that come in, so there’s no one defining thing besides a lot of cool kids coming in and loving awesome music.” For Maloney, it’s the attitude in the Granite State that really keeps it from adhering to any norm prevalent to the states that surround it. “It’s as home as you can get, but everyone around here puts out a really hard New England-y exterior,” she says. “But we’re all really softies, honestly. New Hampshire is like a family reunion. You see some of the same people all the time, but you never know what they’re going to do.”
New Hampshire, in the end, is best summed up by the first thing Radict said to me as I walked into Skele-Tone Records: “Come on, take a look around, I’ve got so much crazy stuff here that I forget what I have sometimes.” Instead of a generic picture of a moose or a bottle of syrup, maybe New Hampshire is a collection of armbands worn by Kristy Wallace hanging on a wall next to an album by The Beatles, or a rare Rolling Stones misprinted album next to a 20th anniversary CBGB poster. The lack of cohesion is, in itself, as cohesive as it can get, and the glowing pride in one New Hampshire resident’s eyes as he proudly flaunted it is enough of an answer to the question at hand.