Smile Politely

Vinyl Junkies Unite in Rantoul

One gallon of gas north of Champaign-Urbana is Backbeats, a used records and books store situated inconspicuously on the main strip in Rantoul. It is, in a literal sense, a mom-and-pop shop. Don Boskey runs the used record store, and his wife, Rebecca, sees to the used books, art and other eclectic collectibles that line the walls of the store.

The pair has been at it since July of last year, when Rebecca closed up her antique store and moved a few doors down the street. She consolidated her shop’s inventory to shift focus away from antiques and toward books, and Don added a hefty selection of LPs to the mix.

“I started out with my collection,” Don says of his inventory, which is almost exclusively vinyl. “I got to a point where I decided I didn’t need to have this stuff. Besides, if you want this record, chances are I can always find another copy of it if I decide I want it for myself.”

Don’s two brothers and one sister chipped in their record collections. He then bought out the inventory of a couple small shops, and before long he had over 2,500 used records on display. Space and time prevents him from doubling his inventory, so a considerable amount of records remain tucked away in the basement of the shop, off limits to customers.

The depth of records he has for sale is well worth the drive. After an hour-plus of combing through the new arrivals and the rock, soul and country sections — I didn’t have time to scrounge through the jazz or the boxes of $1 records — I had a diverse stack of vinyl 30 deep to show for my efforts. Among the treasures I dug up in his crates were The Impressions’ essential R&B album The Young Mods Forgotten Story ($6), Gary Numan’s first record ($6), the final Box Tops album I needed to complete my collection ($6), Jefferson Airplane’s 1969 release Volunteers ($4), Merle Haggard and the Strangers’ Mama Tried ($6) and a near-mint copy of The Residents’ The Tunes of Two Cities, for which I splurged and spent $15. I found Lee Hazlewood’s Friday’s Child for $13, then asked Don if he happened to have any more Hazlewood lying around. After a brief trip to the basement to peruse his off-limits inventory, he resurfaced with a beat-up copy of Hazlewood’s first album, Trouble Is a Lonesome Town, which I already own on CD but purchased anyway as he graciously offered it to me for a buck. I was especially on the lookout for some good soul records, and I walked out of there with an original issue of The Temptations’ Psychedelic Shack for $10 — worth the one gallon of gas all by itself.

It’s refreshing to find a record store in central Illinois that actually prices its records fairly, in accordance with condition, rarity and demand. You won’t find any $12 beat-up copies of AC/DC’s Back in Black at Backbeats.

Don says that being located in Rantoul hasn’t been a deterrent to making ends meet, as one questioning the lack of foot traffic in downtown Rantoul may suspect. When asked why he doesn’t relocate a few miles south to Champaign-Urbana, he lists a litany of reasons that, frankly, make sense. One, to find a comparable retail space in downtown Champaign would cost him about four times his current rent, which would necessitate a price increase for his records. Two, he’s had a steady flow of customers that have found out about his store from word-of-mouth and now make the trek over to Rantoul with regularity. (I too found out via word-of-mouth from Don’s son, Adam Boskey, otherwise known in these parts as DJ Bozak.) And finally, he and his wife hold down day jobs in Rantoul.

Backbeats has not afforded either Don or Rebecca the opportunity to quit their 9-to-5 jobs, although it’s easy to tell that Don could be happy carefully hand cleaning 45s, as he’s doing on this day, for the foreseeable future. He mentions the fact that he’s in the process of adding his collection of 45s to the mix when I ask him, bluntly, about the economics of owning a brick-and-mortar record store in the year 2008 (let alone, one specializing in used vinyl).

“Well,” Don says, elongating the word while searching for the right explanation.

Rebecca jumps in quickly: “So far, so good.”

“Okay, okay, so far, so good,” Don admits. “I want to get to the point where I can hire people so I don’t have to do anything but collect the money.”

Rebecca chuckles and adds, “It’ll never happen.”

“Hey!” Don teases back.

“Once you get the bills paid you go out and buy more stock,” Rebecca continues. “That’s all there is to it.”

And there you have it: the secret to success for a good used record store. Replenish, replenish, replenish. Don uses tips from customers and his own watchful eye to search out albums to refresh his new releases section every two to three weeks. He also plans to add to his selection of genres, with an easy listening section, an exotica/spy music/bachelor pad section and a K-Tel section in the works. Don adds that the section for K-Tel, a “record label” that made its mark in the 1970s releasing as-seen-on-TV compilations, is “for the people who just gotta have ’em.”

Rebecca’s selection of books, which line the store’s walls, consist of volumes that she says she would read herself. She claims she doesn’t keep up with the latest trends in fiction, but lists plenty of popular fiction authors among those in her inventory. Like Don, she has a significant number of books that are still out of the public eye in storage. Unlike Don, she hasn’t sacrificed — nor does she plan to — her private collection.

The couple clearly enjoy running this shop, which they describe as a hobby. As such, they keep limited hours: Thursdays from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. and Fridays and Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Bring cash, as Backbeats doesn’t accept credit cards and it’s surprisingly hard to find an ATM in Rantoul.

Once I did find one, I asked it for $200, headed back to the store, then gladly put a significant dent into Don and Rebecca’s monthly rent. For a small town of 12,000 people that’s possibly best known for its defunct Air Force base, Rantoul is lucky to have a store like Backbeats. And for a crate digger in central Illinois, it’s nice to know that Backbeats has my back.

Backbeats is located at 122 E. Sangamon in Rantoul, Ill. Reach them by phone at 217-892-4400.

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