“At the end of the ‘90s, most of the Providence, [Rhode Island], record stores were closing,” Ben Barnett explains. Barnett is the co-owner of Armageddon Record Shop and plays guitar—as he has for 25-plus years—in Dropdead. (Both “Armageddon” and “Drop Dead” are song titles from Massachusetts noisecore proto-powerviolence lords, Siege.) Creating a soundtrack for the end of the world is easy when you are embedded in local and international DIY and underground scenes. Armageddon specializes in metal, hardcore, and punk, but the small, 484-square-foot space boasts many genres and formats. Set upon a quiet street, the unassuming façade explodes with decades of rebellious music. A few years ago, Barnett and co-owner Chris Andries were able to open a second location in historic—in terms of both the U.S. and punk rock—Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Barnett—standing at six feet with a long goatee, always clad in black—elaborates on his motivation to and the subsequent logistics of opening a store in Providence, saying, “I thought that Providence should still have a store of underground stuff and independent music.” Surrounded by years of flyers, vinyl box sets, VHS horror films, and an expansive magazine and book selection, Barnett and Andries expand on the store’s beginning. “It took a couple years of hunting stuff down and trading records with people to get enough to crack open the doors,” Barnett explains. “I was working full-time, traveling, doing construction,” not to mention touring with bands, either driving as roadie or playing in Dropdead. “On days off, I would go around and hunt stuff down and started making a big pile of shit until it was time to get that big pile of shit out of my house.” Having amassed vinyl in variety and volume, Barnett “opened with a couple thousand LPs, a thousand CDs, and a thousand 7”s” on Friday the 13th in January of 2001.
Are there you any they miss? “Nah,” Barnett replies, “nothing of the stuff I got rid of. As a record collector, you get to a point where you’re set.”
The space at 436 Broadway, on the West Side of Providence, sits among large Victorian houses, mostly converted into law offices and shops. Among the triple-deckers parading down side streets exists a gateway to many subcultures. “We looked all over Providence,” Barnett says. “The different neighborhoods on this side of town and all over the East Side: Wayland Square and Wickenden Street and Thayer Street.”
Barnett’s explanations are casual. His matter of fact approach is contrary to the blistering grindcore his guitar manifests. It’s odd to think that the genesis of a shop so responsible for introducing passionate and intense music was so random. “This just happened to open up,” he says of their spot on Broadway. It was a flower shop, who moved one store over to be on a corner lot. It’s there to this day, run by “Tony, our neighbor,” as Barnett refers to him. Now, Armageddon exists among an independent film and music venue in a Vaudevillian theater, The Columbus Theatre; many upscale cafés and brunch shops; bistros; expansive trees; and, of course, a bike shop, another record store, and a few vintage clothing shops.
But back in 2001, Julian’s—a mainstay culinary and craft beer restaurant specializing in high quality and vegan options—and White Electric Coffee were the only DIY businesses running. “When we opened, we were a destination. The students did not move here yet,” Barnett says, depicting the colder version of Broadway: a mid-section for people wandering through from Olneyville to get downtown. And the Columbus was showing porn.
“[The students of Rhode Island School of Design and Brown University moving in] took five years,” spouts Andries. He is lighter in demeanor, sporting big blue eyes and a persistent smile. As far as being a destination, Andries adds, “It still is. People between here and Boston come here because it’s easier to park.” He continues frankly, “Now, we get some brunch runoff on the weekends.”
Barnett supplements, “They cruise in and out.”
The pair’s bread and butter are the lone fans looking for more music. Most customers tend to come solo, staying for about an hour to peruse the mountainous shelves of metal and punk and other genres. That foot traffic is, again, sanctioned to mostly weekends. The pith of their demographic is older guys killing time as the pick a few pieces of vinyl: a sanctuary for people, from their jobs and the outside world.
The previously mentioned Thayer Street was the hallowed hall of independence at one time, namely in the ‘80s, ‘90s, and even early 2000s. At its zenith, it boasted four record stores in four blocks—also three bookstores, a piercing shop, and two skate shops. This oasis of DIY and alternative culture has withered to a corporate graveyard with rotating food joints for the college kids. In between—perched upon downtown, next to the former space of Art Freek Tattoo on Steeple Street—housed two other record stores, Fast Forward, then Contrast. Armageddon has held down Providence as the record store for DIY and aggressive music for 16 years. (There are two other great record stores now, Olympic and Analog Underground, but none fill the metal and hardcore sections as well as Armageddon does.)
Barnett contributes his tenacity to their approach. “This is our primary thing that we do,” he says. “We don’t have side jobs. We’re pretty serious about it.”
Andries adds, “In the beginning, we still had side jobs. But as it snowballed, we were able to focus. Which is great. Plus, Ben’s a machine.”
Reflecting back on the collapsed indie stores, Barnett concludes, “They didn’t hit it quite as hard. They were more like hangouts than stores.”
Andries again lauds Barnett, “It’s hard to match his work ethic—which is amazing.”
Barnett quips, “I’m slowly turning into a pile of dust.”
Andries entered the picture in 2005, four years after the shop’s birth. He recalls that, at the time, Barnett was driving AVSKUM on tour. “Ben was still driving tours. So, I got to man the shop and figure it out,” he relates. “Trial by fire.”
Together, the two propel the two shops forward. They build their brand, for lack of a better term, by being entrenched in the scene, featuring live bands—seriously big bands—from all corners of the globe: The Sonics, The Dwarves, Swans, Tear It Up, Total Fury, Hard Skin, Tragedy, From Ashes Ride, Slang, Weedeater, Burning Love, Kylesa, Slapshot, Church Of Misery, Boston Strangler, Siege, Windhand, Sumac, Satan, and many more. Barnett and company just do it because they like having shows for kids—and really old dudes—to enjoy. Andries confirms, “Shows we just do for town and for fun.”
Barnett agrees, “That is not a money thing. That’s just for fun.” While the early year was lightly peppered, the last few months have seen five Armageddon shows. The prior year saw the shop present Pallbearer, Elder, Torche, Summoner, All Pigs Must Die, The Spits, Coven, a Mayhem book signing, DS-13, and Doomriders, along with stunning local acts like F.I., Lolita Black, Churchburn, and HellBent.
The duo also run a label. Well, they run Armageddon Shop, and Ben runs Armageddon’s label, since 1998. Again, the unassuming Barnett downplays his task, arguing, “That’s mostly just Dropdead stuff.” But just “Dropdead stuff” consists of a few collections and dozens of splits. Since 2010, Armageddon has released such current bands as Elder and Magic Circle, while repressing Deep Wound, Fit For Abuse, and Brainbombs. Barnett states, “The shop label is way more active than what I do. That’s just to keep Dropdead stuff in print and have something to sell at shows.”
As far as the daily output of the shop, customers can dive deep into some bebop jazz and Delta blues, heavy on represses. A few times a year, Barnett will buy a chunk of Soul Jazz, Pressure Sounds, and other labels to keep the reggae and rocksteady section ample. Rap always has about two dozen LPs. A plump indie rock section attracts the still-hip adults. And obviously, about eight to 10 boxes of cheap, used rock records from the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s beckon to be flipped through. There is always a plethora of soundtracks and other great rock; rare garage and rockabilly continuously represents. An enormous wall of CDs still supports the frame of the building and the till. Metal seems to expand its real estate each year, anchored by the back left corner of hardcore. They keep prices fair, even on discographies, wanting to share the music and never simply turn a buck. Records sold at Armageddon for $30 run for $50 to $60 on Discogs.
The Armageddon site is a search engine showing what they currently have for sale at both locations. As far as Armageddon’s selling ratio, what funds the store, the guys meander through a balanced agreement. Barnett says sales are “creeping up to fifty-fifty” between mail order and the stores. He then adjusts, “Maybe forty-sixty.”
Andries offers, “I’d say, 35 percent mail order, 65 percent store—conservatively.” As they bandy, they ebb and flow. It’s fun to watch them. Andries chuckles at the nitpicking and concludes, simply, “We haven’t had to figure that out yet. So, that’s good. When we get to the point of having to figure it out—” he trails off, then decides that doing well has spared them from having to be so meticulous. “Let’s just say mail order balances out slow store days.” Barnett is sufficed.
On any given day, the store is overrun with packing and shipping boxes. The entire left wall is bombarded with wholesale second pressings of Elder’s new record, Reflections of a Floating World, in all its colored variations. Mail order is buzzing. Andries apologizes, explaining he can move any boxes. “We’re always reconfiguring and getting as much stuff in here as possible while keeping it browse-able.” The three middle-aged men in the store do not seem disturbed in their 30 minutes of flipping. But conversation quickly turns to the Boston store.
“The Boston store came from searching for a bigger space,” Barnett says.
Andries quickly adds, “We wanted a bigger one here, but nothing was viable.” They looked again, as Barnett did a decade earlier, all over Providence, but no space seemed appropriate. “We looked on and off for a couple of years—different neighborhoods.” So, they started considering Boston, but even that was over the span of a few years. Andries wonders with a laugh “how Boston could sustain so many picture framing and nail stores?” They shopped the standard real estate areas, Central, Porter Squares in Cambridge, and Davis Square in Somerville. “Then, we stopped,” Andries concludes.
Barnett says the search was reignited when “we heard Twisted Village, [an independent record store in Harvard Square], was closing. We were customers. So, we stopped in and asked.”
The shop resides in a legendary location, the old Taang! Records spot. They stand defiant—“passing the torch,” Andries claims.
They have to, as Harvard Square, like Thayer Street and many other cherished spots of punk’s past “are being bought up and changed,” Barnett states. “It is an outdoor mall.” GAP, Urban Outfitters, IHOP, Shake Shack. All there.
Andries adds, “Our block is the last of the independent shops, bookended by corporate stores.” But ever the positive dudes, they focus on their success. They give to Boston, and Boston has given back to them. Andries settles, “It has been nice to be up there and to be part of the scene.”
Between the two shops, there are three other employees, two full-time and one part-time. Dylan Demolition is one of them, and he also sings and plays guitar in Demolition Boys alongside Andries on drums, Chris Annunziato on guitar, and Nick Pellegrino on bass.
Through the 2000s, the music industry has witnessed the decline of CDs, the resurgence of vinyl, and the odd rebirth of cassettes, but Armageddon has always sold all formats. They have also always sold doom and thrash and powerviolence and NWOBHM and garage and punk, despite what tidal fads are crashing on the sands of the market. Their employees’ interests determine some of the items. When asked if that helps them keep up with the trends, Barnett humbly offers, “I feel we have a fingernail on the backend of a t-shirt on someone walking away. We try to hang on. There’s so much coming out. And everyone has an Etsy page or an online store.”
To run a record store, to ensure the doors stay open, there is one surefire way to keep operating. “There’s so much information out there. One thing we always try to do is have stuff that we like around,” Andries shares. “That’s never going to go bad. It is never bad to see a Roky Erickson record. Staple records that we love, that’s the base of what we try to do. If we find out about a new band we like, we get a bunch of those. Or an old band that puts out a reissue, like that Angel Witch record last year: I bought 20 of them. It was fine to have them around.”
Barnett adds, “And then we don’t have it.” Through the years, when rumblings began with Boston Strangler, Guilt Lust, Annihilation Time, Peacebreakers, Public Trust, Rixe, Midnight, and Municipal Waste; The Fix, Breakdown, and Life’s Blood reissues; labels like 4 Men With Beards, Crypt Records, or the Numero Uno comps, Armageddon were always ahead of the curve—simply because these dudes are fans of the culture. The buffet of every essential metal album repressed is enough to drain any wallet.
“People help us too,” Barnet admits.
Andries is quick to follow, “Customers keep us in the loop. They ask for a record; sometimes we have them or we can find them. People, they put it on our radar.”
Barnett rejoins, “We have a circle of labels and distributors that we hit on the regular. We hit them once a month. Stay fresh. We order the staples and top it off with new stuff.”
Appearing as a paradox, Armageddon casts a wide net while remaining niche. Their consistent customer types are not beholden to one genre. Today, visitors come in talking about old jazz CDs and Allison Kraus. On another day, some guy just wants to talk ‘70s metal. Of course, hardcore, punk, sludge, doom, and death metal kids waltz in and pilfer bounties. But their foundation is the music fan, the record buyer. “People who come in every week; dudes who buy a bit of everything. They come for an hour and hang,” Andries says, adding that it’s “still metal dudes who buy CDs. That’s still a thing. It’s hard to put a finger on which genre we sell the most.”
Barnett laughs with satiated pride, “Somebody today came in and bought three CDs. It was a perfect Armageddon pile: a Geto Boys CD, a black metal CD, and an F.U.s CD. This is exactly what it’s supposed to be. Three totally different things. One person. All cool shit.”
Peruse Armageddon Record Shop at their two brick-and-mortar locations – 436 Broadway in Providence, Rhode Island, and the basement of 12 Eliot St. in Cambridge, Massachusetts – or online at armageddonshop.com!