The real Repo Man: A look inside the life of Repo Records owner Dan Matherson

It was early spring in 1984. In select movie theaters across the country, Repo Man, starring Emilio Estevez as a punk rock rebel living in Los Angeles, made its premiere on the big screen. Initial reviews of the film were so positive, they ultimately left a lasting mark on a number of cult movements.

But Repo Man also made an impact on a college student in Philadelphia, who at the time believed he found the perfect name to his future business. 

In 1986, Dan Matherson opened Repo Records in the southeastern Pennsylvania suburb of Wayne. Located in an old abandoned brick building along an alleyway, the store didn’t receive many street walkers. But in two and a half years, Matherson began to see a gradual stream of customers, and with customers also came cash in his register.

“People had to search me out,” Matherson said. “Back then in ’86, there wasn’t the internet, so word of mouth spread quite quickly. The store is like a thing of legend now. I did it because rent was cheap — I wanted to get my feet on the ground.”

Now, at 56 years old, Matherson can be found back in Philadelphia. His first store in Wayne shut down over two decades ago, as well as his second location which was once in Bryn Mawr. But he’s still running Repo Records on the 500 block of South St., which has been a popular attraction to music lovers since 1998. The rent has been much higher, but so has the store’s daily traffic. 

Inside the walls, the casual classic rock fans or punk rock junkies will find their musical sanctum. Whether the prized possession is an LP of The Eagles’ greatest hits, a CD of Lady Gaga, or a cassette tape featuring The Doors, the variety of items is vast, and that’s how Matherson likes it. 

“Every store now has a niche because you can’t carry everything. We have a certain direction, too,” Matherson said. “Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd and stuff from The Smiths, that stuff is huge. It sells like crazy. I kind of get the feel of my customers, too. You get the feel of what the trend is about to be. But there’s so many things to buy. Instagram has been our best promotional tool. You have a good product, people talk about it.

“There are some people who are intimidated to come in here, though. This place isn’t a glitzy, comfortable store, but it definitely caters to different age groups.”

When the store first opened on South Street, there were about 10 record stores within a Four-block radius, according to Matherson. But when the digital revolution came at the turn of the millennium, local businesses started to fail, and competition in the area vanished. 

Luckily for Repo Records, its owner was prepared for cultural and techonology changes, and still is two decades later.

“I feel like we were always a little bit ahead of the curve. We never stopped selling records,” Matherson said. “We have a reputation. We are one step ahead of what is going to happen.”

Although the digital age of music was a curveball to Matherson’s consumers, his decision to keep records in bins and on tables has paid off. According to the Record Industry Association of America (RIAA), revenues from vinyl sales reached $416 million in 2015 — the highest mark for the niche since 1988. 

Matherson could be considered an old soul because he appreciates the sanctity of vinyl, but his reasoning toward the product’s recent rejuvenation among all age groups is simple: People enjoy music at its tangible form — not to mention a record’s euphoric crackle on a turntable.

“I think they just like how it feels, how it looks,” he said. “You have to sit down, put it on, play it. It’s the artwork — you can open it up. People spend time with the artwork. I think it’s just the whole feel of it.”

Although he tries to keep up with the current pop sound and its artists, Matherson doesn’t listen to local radio often. If he’s not listening to old vinyl, he’ll find his favorite artists (which are The Cure, Teardrop Explodes and The Buzzcocks, to name a few) on his iPhone or through Spotify. 

He’s caught up on most trends. He’s caught up on technology. But if something is fresh and new, Matherson’s younger employees are also there to catch him up.

“He’s the best boss I’ve ever had,” said Jackie Weaver, who’s worked under Matherson for almost four years. “The location, the store, it’s been around longer than most record stores.”

Over a 30-year span, Matherson has encountered several challenges. He overcame the digital revolution in the late 90s and nearly had his business go under during the Great Recession in the late 2000s. At this point, he has no interest in selling the store. He’s stood the test of time because he’s driven and passionate — just look inside the shop. 

“People who like to drink think they can own a bar, so people who like music think they can run a record store,” he said. “It’s a business. You don’t just sit around all day and listen to music. People who get into this don’t realize how difficult it is. I love being in the city. This is what I do.”

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