By Christopher Gavin
Dave Perry didn’t plan on any of it.
The former Lowell Sun veteran reporter never planned on co-owning a record store in the Mill City, but alas, he has one now. Vinyl Destination, which he owns with his son, Dan, opened in 2013.
Nor did his family plan on the heartbreak of losing Perry’s daughter-in-law — the wife of his other son, Ben — to a specific kind of cancer in the digestive system, better known as GIST, in 2020. Nor how, now, every December, the vinyl shop transforms into “Cupcake Records” to raise money to help support patients going through the same as she did.
Nor how, early last Friday morning, amid the month of charity, someone waltzed into the shop and lifted from its cash box.
And certainly not what happened next.
“I swear to God, this is the weirdest thing, but that break-in was one of the best things that ever happened to my spirit in terms of being a business owner,” Perry told Boston.com earlier this week. “It’s very strange, but what’s come of it is amazing.”
Perry was one of the first to set up shop inside Lowell’s Mill Building No. 5, over on Jackson Street. The store was too good to pass up, and after casually selling records at shows every other month or so, Perry decided to go all in.
And his customers did, too.
Simply put, Vinyl Destination has done well.
Perry strives to keep the store’s focus on music not money. Whatever comes in for the latter generally goes back to the former — keeping his bins well stocked with a little bit of everything, from reggae and world music to hip-hop and country.
The shop was even able to survive a four-month closure during the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns in 2020.
Last year, as fans itched for live music to return to stages, Perry said many brought their fandom to stores like his.
“Ask any record store, I’m sure they’ll tell you their sales were up,” he said. “It was really good.”
But if there is one number Perry watches more than others, it may well be what happens every December.
For the last two holiday seasons, and again this year, Vinyl Destination — working under its alias, Cupcake Records — has raised $5,000 for the Life Raft Group, a New Jersey-based nonprofit providing support to patients with the rare cancer known as gastrointestinal stromal tumor, or GIST.
It was also around this time of year, in November 2020, when the Perrys lost Lorie Skelton Perry, his son Ben’s wife, only months after her GIST diagnosis took that final turn.
Ben, a former U.S. Army Ranger, and Lorie met online.
Before long, Ben, as Perry put it, knew “this one’s amazing,” and the family did, too.
“She ran the Boston Marathon, was surrounded by a great troupe of friends, and baked cupcakes like no one’s business,” Perry said. “We loved her immediately.”
The couple found a place in Ayer and moved in together.
“He had hit the send button on his master’s thesis and about 10 minutes later got a call from Lorie,” Perry recalled. “She said, ‘They just told me I’m, you know, I’m terminal.’”
“There began a thing of odd beauty — to watch your son care for someone like that. … They were very kindred souls,” Perry said.
That was July 2020. They got married in September (by Perry’s wife, at Lorie’s mom’s backyard in New Hampshire). Despite her illness, they were able to go on a little honeymoon in early October.
And on Veterans Day, Lorie died. She was 39.
Before that, not long after Lorie’s diagnosis, Perry and Dan wanted to do something — something good for others in Lorie’s name. In a nod to her incredible baking talents, they thought of this: of turning the shop into Cupcake Records, an-alter ego of sorts, for the entirety of December.
They got a logo made — and approved by Ben and Lorie — for their would-be record label and put it on T-shirts and tote bags, and whatever they made would go to the Life Raft Group, which had helped Lorie through her own experience with GIST.
“We always looked at the store as not like some big record (shop),” Perry said. “It was like a hangout and it was a fun place and it was everybody could go there and find whatever they want, and we wanted to do some good, too.”
And they have. The first year brought in $5,000, and last December played out just the same.
“It meant a ton,” Perry remembered of seeing that impact that first December. “It meant a ton because for Ben, he was still going through sort of the grieving process. He was able to see something good come of it. We did, too.”
Lorie’s mom comes in every year to buy bundles of shirts and bags.
“She just loves it,” Perry said. “It’s her way of telling her daughter’s story, too.”
Last Thursday was quite something for Perry.
He, his wife, and his son, Dan, got to go to a party in Framingham, with a special guest in attendance: the legendary Steven Van Zandt, E Street Band member and Sopranos star.
On the shop’s Facebook page, Perry wrote of a merry scene: “The walls were lined with guitars and the air was thick and redolent. Steven worked the room, mugged for pics or held court in a corner like a pro. Everyone was nice. Wine flowed. The food was better than it should have been.”
And the next morning was also something else.
As he woke up, Perry learned someone had broken into the store and lifted some cash, he said. Whoever it was got $185, and also got into a few of the mill’s other businesses, according to Perry, who had flashbacks to when the store was robbed a couple years back.
“I heard the guy who kicked in the door was captured on video and was fully masked and wore gloves,” Perry said. “I haven’t seen the video. I can’t.”
Interesting enough, as Perry is quick to point out, the thief didn’t even take any merchandise. Not the Mars Volta box set retailing for $525, and not even the signed Taylor Swift “Midnights” LP the shop was auctioning off for the Cupcake Records effort.
“They didn’t touch any of the good stuff,” said Perry, whose sense of humor is clearly among those things untaken. “I felt almost insulted.”
Perry isn’t down about what happened. He commiserated with the other community of business owners in the mill that day and felt better.
In that same Facebook post, Perry noted it wasn’t just the valuable records the thief overlooked.
“You can’t steal the bonds we’ve forged over nearly a decade, either inside that building or with customers near and far,” he wrote. “We’re fine.”
And as the shop entered that final shopping weekend before Christmas last week, those customers saw that story. And they showed up. Big time.
Vinyl Destination/Cupcake Records had one of its biggest weekends ever.
It felt alive, Perry said. It felt essential.
There was the person who brought cake. Another brought records to donate.
“My customers are freaking amazing,” he said. “They are just unreal.”
Perry said someone drew a parallel to “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Coincidentally, the 1946 masterpiece flickered away at the same time last weekend inside the mill’s in-house theater.
On the screen, undoubtedly, all of Bedford Falls came rushing in to help a man trying to do good, with Clarence’s bell ringing bright, making for that gooey-in-the-heart sense of community still desperately needed but dumbfoundedly hard to put into words, still, even in 2022.
“I don’t know,” Perry said, grasping at a description as he tried to recall it all this week. “It erased all that stuff.”
And if the old Bailey Building and Loan muddled through, so too will Cupcake Records in their annual push for the Life Raft Group this year.
Actually, make that a bit more than simply muddling through.
Perry, assuredly, said the effort will once again donate $5,000 this December — money raised through shirts and tote bag sales, yes, but also from the generously hefty donations they also receive, as well as whatever needs to come out of the shop’s cashflow to get them there.
For anyone who wants to help out, there’s still time, as the Cupcake Records efforts continue through Dec. 31.
In the meantime, Perry, perhaps a bit like George Bailey, knows just how much his cup runneth over and that love, holiday kinship, and the music — yes, the music, of course — plays on in the Mill City.
“You know, Lowell, for all its issues, can be a pretty supportive community,” he said. “It really can.”
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