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.
Mystic, Connecticut, has more than a few claims to fame; it’s home to Julia Roberts’ 1988 star-making rom-com Mystic Pizza, a top-notch aquarium and The Mystic Seaport, where Steven Spielberg once posted up to film 1997’s Amistad. For those more into vinyl than tourist traps, however, there’s also Mystic Disc — easily the best record store in the Nutmeg State.
Mystic Disc has been nestled down an alley in swank downtown Mystic for going on 40 years now, a seemingly incongruous addition to a stretch of shops that almost exclusively sell pricey clothes, glittering baubles and an avalanche of Martha’s Vineyard themed apparel. It’s a haven for tourists and locals alike who would rather listen to the Beach Boys than hang on the beach — and Dan Curland is its captain. An oft-grinning ex-musician who lives only to sell vinyl and talk tunes, Curland and his generosity of spirit and dedication to the music makes the Disc a decades-old institution.
“There are a lot of things that make Mystic Disc different, that make it special,” Charlie Hall of War on Drugs told Vinyl Me, Please. Hall has been shopping at the Disc since the mid ’90s. “While, of course, a record store is about what’s in it — what’s for sale, what’s on the walls, what it feels like, what it sounds like — what it’s really about is who is in it.”
Jim Wilbur of Superchunk also remembers the Disc and its owner fondly: “It’s been at least 25 years since I shopped there regularly, but Mystic Disc remains one of the biggest influences on my Life in Rock,” he told Pitchfork. “The store’s owner, Dan Curland, was an avowed and outspoken product of the ’60s, but he kept the store eclectically stocked with all the then-current hardcore, punk, goth, new wave and indie.”
Curland, now 67, grew up in Norwich, Connecticut, and played bass in the ’70s with the likes of Dan Fogelberg and Michael Clarke of the Byrds. He shunted his way across Nashville and Colorado in those heady days, where The Caribou Ranch Studio was in full swing, pumping out tracks from the likes of Carole King, John Lennon and Elton John. He moved back to Connecticut eventually and opened Mystic Disc in 1983, modeling it after New York record store mainstays like Bleecker Bobs and Midnight Records.
Thirty-seven years later, though, and Mystic Disc is still standing — while many of its more urbane predecessors have long since closed their doors. And that’s all on Curland, who has effectively made Mystic Disc a to-do item on every vinyl-head’s list through pure grit and consistency.
He works nearly 365 days per year; it’s all he wants to do. “They’ll find me dead on the floor of my store when I go,” he told Vinyl Me, Please. He has no IRA nor vacation plans; chatting with the next crop of what he calls “Mystic Kids” about John Prine is better than any cruise — and, for his retirement plan, please see above.
“After 37 years, I can tell you there are people that come back to me every summer,” Curland says. “People tell me they come to Mystic because of my store.”
A relative hole-in-wall next to fellow mainstays The Green Marble coffee shop and the Mystic Army Navy Store, Mystic Disc is a veritable palimpsest of Curland’s musical history. He has a Jimi Hendrix autograph he calls his “pride and joy” in pride of place by the door, along with Hendrix’s scarf in a safety deposit box offsite. The ceiling is a paper mache collage of promotional posters from the likes of Wilco and War on Drugs, and there’s a homemade R.E.M. T-shirt hanging from the rafters. You could spend a good hour or two just taking in the paraphernalia.
And that’s saying nothing of the vinyl selection itself. Curland handpicks most of his records from estate sales, with an emphasis on rock, jazz, blues and soul, but has also been known to special order newer albums for inquiring customers. Personal story: Dan put aside several Record Store Day special editions for me back in the day, including the much-sought-after 2012 The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends special-edition vinyl.
“Dan loves music,” Hall says. “And he loves reading people and introducing them to something that he knows they’ll love. Just as barbershops and churches, for example, are historically places where people congregate to be with others with a shared ethos, so too is a good record store. And Mystic Disc is one of those places.”
Hall recalls a young girl coming into the shop looking to learn about the Beatles: “I just sat back and watched as these guys encouraged her interest and talked to her about music.” When she was on her way out, one of Curland’s loyal employees and friends, Rich Freitas, gave her a Beatles figurine from the store’s collection of ephemera. “This is a place that nurtures the love and discovery of music,” Hall says. “That’s why I keep coming back.”
“And the records there are always, always clean,” he adds. “That cannot be overstated. To know that the record has 100 percent been cleaned with a VPI is pretty incredible. And they’re always guaranteed.” The drummer often stops by to clean his own records with the Discs’ machine — or just to help cleanse the merchandise and talk.
Mystic, Connecticut, isn’t exactly a hotbed of musical culture — Curland himself mourns the lack of dancing establishments — but Mystic Disc more than makes up for its lack of DIY venues and dancehalls.
“I had a guy in there yesterday and he was telling his daughter how he was shopping here 25 years ago. I love that. That’s what I love,” Curland says. “That’s why I’m doing it. I’m not doing this to be rich or to make a lot of money. I’m not motivated by money. My whole life, that’s how I’ve lived. It’s what I do.”