At Belltower Records on a sunny afternoon, Wesley Nelson is looking through avant garde jazz — William Hooker’s percussion, Cecil Taylor on piano.
Music can bring people together and create change, he says. Nelson and his co-owner, Andrea Belair, have been involved in underground music in many genres, for many years — that’s how they met — and they moved up here from New Haven five years ago to open their own place here.
“There’s music on vinyl you can’t find online,” he said. “ … I think a record store’s purpose is to turn people onto music they haven’t heard.”
‘There’s music on vinyl you can’t find online … I think a record store’s purpose is to turn people onto music they haven’t heard.’ — Wesley Nelson, co-owner of Belltower Records
In 2018, they took over a well-known local destination, Toonerville Trolley in Williamstown, from Hal March, who had run the vintage record shop for more than 40 years. They moved into the Norad Mill in North Adams. And now you can look through reggae and Nigerian contemporary Afrobeats and Lui Collins …
In the pandemic, Nelson and Belair have seen a voracious appetite for records. Vinyl is growing in the Berkshires, Nelson says. In the past years they have seen a new energy and enthusiasm grow around records, and record stores are drawing in new audiences with live music and events.
Hundreds of music enthusiasts have come to the Central Berkshire Record Show at the Stationery Factory in the spring, since Andrew Garcia launched it in 2022 and 2023 through his own BerkshireCat Records in Dalton.
Belltower is expanding their own concert series now, Nelson says, with events at the Clark Art Institute and Williams College Museum of Art, outdoors at the Norad Mill, and in a new venue at the Dusk Chapel in Adams. They will also release new albums on their own label, Half a Million Records.
Their programming ranges widely, Nelson says, like their collection — from off-beat jazz to punk and indy rock and world music … to electronic and experimental. He enjoys the gently used and unique albums that come through the shop and the fun of looking for them.
He also has a hand in the music shop at FreshGrass, when contemporary bands from around the world bring their music to Mass MoCA. And many of them are creating new records. Technology has come full circle in some ways. And the results can vary.
Vinyl’s recent surge in popularity is becoming a challenge for independent record labels, Nelson says, as they’re harder to make their own records. Way back when, major labels had their own pressing plants, he says. Many of them shut down as new technologies emerged, and now that vinyl is making a comeback, major labels are taking over.
Even in this digital age, people value vinyl for many reasons. Nelson likes having a record in his hand. He likes being able to find and listen to music in his own ways — not having to rely on massive distributors. And he likes supporting musicians directly.
Even in this digital age, he says, people value vinyl for many reasons. Nelson likes having a record in his hand. He likes being able to find and listen to music in his own ways — not having to rely on massive distributors. And he likes supporting musicians directly.
As technology has reshaped the ways people find music, he sees services like Spotify work against independent musicians’ hopes to make a living from their music. He likes searching for rare finds, and he likes the variety.
And for him, some of the joy comes less from the medium than from the sound. He enjoys finding music that may only exist on vinyl — vintage, international, original. Some records hold music early enough never to have been digitize, and some are one of only a few ever made.
Brought together like this in an old mill, they can have a flavor of originality, of friends playing music at dusk and jury-rigging homemade recording studios, and all kinds of people coming together … a spoken word poet in the 1960s, a Boston punk band, women musicians among the Tuareg in North Africa, and Dorothy Parker with the confidence to set aside her barbed with and say we are all human …