Only One Store 54: The End of Allston’s Most Beloved Basement Shop

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Photos by Eric Walker

If there’s anything that Store 54 owner Wayne Valdez wants stated outright, it’s that his business doesn’t abide by any narrative.

“I don’t wanna make this about me being forced out because of gentrification,” he emphasizes as he sifts through piles of bygone music zines, a life-size jaguar statue standing guard nearby. “Those things all exist and it is a little tough here, but I guess I don’t want to focus on that too much.”

The record store owner would certainly make a compelling David character going up against the city’s gentrification as Goliath. Valdez’s features draw reasonable comparisons to Lou Reed’s, his history in Boston’s music scene both as a lead singer of Valdez the Sinner and as a photographer is nothing short of prolific, and yet his store’s location is somewhat understated in its back-alley Allston basement.

Regardless, he wants to avoid making Store 54’s closing in May sound like another casualty in the ongoing story of disappearing record stores around the city. If anything, the store has been Valdez’s most enduring project for over thirty years.

Valdez (left) with a customer.

Valdez (left) with a customer.

“Originally, it started in 1982 on Queensbury Street in the Fenway,” he explains. “I’ve had a path since then; I had another store on the Fenway, then I went to work for the Pine Street Inn, and then I was at Goodwill for about fifteen years.”

Valdez also worked, played, and occasionally slept at the legendary Rathskellar in Kenmore Square, which saw the rise of Pixies, Dinosaur Jr., The Cars, and countless other scene shapers. “The Fenway was like the Wild West, but in a good way,” Valdez affirms with a laugh. “I was a big part of the neighborhood and I was a photographer, so I documented a lot of [the scene] at the time.”

Valdez eventually reopened Store 54 at its current location on April 2nd, 2011 after a few friends offered up the basement space on the corner of Harvard and Cambridge Street in Allston. “When I came in, I put a little bit of everything out,” he adds, “and I just wasn’t focused.”

One of the first customers on Store 54’s opening day was Valdez’s future business partner and girlfriend, Janice Maestas. After purchasing $200 worth of items that used to belong to Wayne himself, a friend introduced the two. “We met, I asked him out on a first date right there, and it’s been history ever since,” she adds with a laugh.

Maestas previously worked in retail and owned a thrift shop in Alaska for three years, so their business partnership came just as swiftly. “She brought it up five notches,” Valdez adds. “If it was just me, it would’ve looked like Sanford & Sons in here.”

“Being around here and the way gentrification has happened, there’s always been dumpsters full of amazing history,” Maestas adds, “and I love that stuff, but I sorted out what’s the best and curated it to keep the bar high. I came from a family that you worked really hard for what you need, so if you’re gonna get something, it needs to last a long time.”

DSC01268Over the next five years, Store 54 would become a hub not only for thrifters and record collectors, but also for drawing classes, movie showings, art galleries, book readings, and even birthday parties. Valdez is most proud of the store’s stage though, which he built with the intention of hosting shows.

“It’s a sense of history when the older bands play here,” Valdez says. “Some of these bands have been playing in Boston since the ‘70s and are still around, but in some cases, never quite made it.”

“For me, as a younger person at 29, I think what Wayne did that was so important was that he brought a lot of original rock and roll bands from the ‘80s and ‘90s to our shop for young people to hear,” Maestas adds, citing Thalia Zedek’s set and Warren Zanes of The Del Fuegos’s book reading as recent highlights.

The store’s favorite and most frequent act though is The Upper Crust, a cult favorite out of Boston that dress in Tea Party-era fops and aristocratic frills to every show. But Valdez cites a string of shows booked by Bob Colby, creator of landmark Boston zine Frenzy, as eye-openers to the scene coming up today.

“I never would’ve known about those bands otherwise,” Valdez admits of the younger acts on each show. “With Wayne and me as a team, I would often pick the young band and he’d pick the older band,” Maestas says. “It became far more than just events; people got to network and young people got to talk to people that were at the beginning of the scene.”

The equal opportunities for both younger and more seasoned music aficionados at Store 54 are most evident during its outdoor sales in the patio. College-aged shoppers are often Store 54’s biggest demographic, so mingling with multiple generations through clothing racks and record stacks is not uncommon in Valdez’s eyes.

“The kids actually know so much music-wise and in the clothes we offer here,” Valdez says. Leafing through copies of Hit Parade and Circus, he seems to find the most common ground with younger customers when they ask about his magazine and photo collections. “It’s funny because my friends and I read these and we’ll know the writer or half the people featured in an article about Boston.”

Alas, preserving local history is the exact reason why Store 54 is closing its doors.

“Wayne has this incredible archive of photographs that the world needs to see, but he needs to go work on them,” Maestas says regarding the closure, “I’ve been working on compiling it for a while, but now I’m gonna have blocks of time to do it,” Valdez adds, elaborating that the collection spans his Rathskeller days and beyond.

The duo is content about the end of Store 54, framing the store’s last weeks of sales and shows more like one of their famed basement birthday parties rather than a funeral.

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A line forms during one of Store 54’s final sales.

“I mean, it’s a great place, but I’m happy we’re going to have a chance to have a life together outside of the store. Our whole life has been the store and five years here is a good mark.”

“We’re trying to get some young people and some veterans to play,” he adds about the Store’s last shows. “I always try to do that anyway, but it’d be good to have a switch around and have the older band open for the kids.”

Although he makes note of Allston’s rising rent prices and drop in house shows over the last couple years, Valdez remains optimistic of Boston’s future for thrift shops, artists, and show spaces.

“One place closes, another one opens up,” he maintains. “You still have Justin [Pomerleau, owner of Vivant Vintage] across the street, who’s really active at POP Allston. A venue of Great Scott or TT the Bears’ size, like, around 300 capacity… they’re really important in a city, but when rooms like that close, another place like Cuisine En Locale in Somerville opens up.”

Still, the magnetism between Allstonians and a vintage treasure trove like Store 54 is undeniable. Hosting a two-day going away sale this past weekend, Valdez and Maestas buzzed around as the line to the register wrapped around the perimeter of the basement. Knowing how quickly the basement would fill up, the store’s patio and front lawn served as overflow for tapes, doll heads, art installations, and other ephemera stretching over six decades. With friends and fellow thrift shop owners pitching in outside to aid an equally massive crowd of customers, Valdez was again quick to dispel any mournful narratives.

“In my story, it’s not so much that gentrification is affecting my decision to be here. I think the bigger thing for me is that I’m getting a little older and I wanna do some other stuff,” he concludes. “I’m not gonna say ‘I don’t wanna do this anymore because it’s not affordable.’ It would be easy for me to get caught up in that, but that’s not me.”

Instead, a more powerful story comes out of their independence in building and dismantling one of Allston’s most beloved record shops. In a way, closing Store 54 on their own terms feels like a variation on the David and Goliath fable, but Valdez and Maestas would almost certainly prefer being remembered as the people that engaged in as well as showcased the weird bits of Boston’s music history.

“Wherever Wayne is, there’s good energy,” Maestas notes. “I keep telling myself I’m not sad because all the good stuff here outweighs the sadness, but I love doing this stuff. I don’t think this is gonna be the end. It’s just too much fun.”

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For more information on Store 54’s final store hours and shows, check out their Facebook page here.