How Dirty Dollhouse's Chelsea Mitchell found herself running the show at Newtown Book and Record Exchange - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart

Chelsea Mitchell, lead singer and songwriter of local indie-Americana outfit Dirty Dollhouse, was filled with promise leading up to the pandemic. With her effervescent vocals and country-leaning soundscapes, Mitchell’s 2020 release Queen Coyote, was set for celebration right before the live music shutdown.

Taking the project through quarantine’s uncharted territory and performing earnest songs for Instagram audiences, songs that float through lo-fi to country to pop, she also discovered a way to stay firmly connected to music in her non-performing life. Back in December, Mitchell took over ownership of Newtown Book and Record Exchange in Bucks County, after working at the local business for more than 15 years. She decided to use this last year of downtime to formulate a new management plan for the store and reconnect with why she and her community love — and need — music now more than ever. 

Mitchell and I chatted over email about stepping into her new role, work-life balance, and continuing to make time for her own music.

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The Key: You worked at Newtown Book & Record Exchange for several years before you took over ownership — had the decision been in the works for some time? What pushed you to take the leap? 

Chelsea Mitchell: The former owner and founder, Bobbie Lewis, had discussed this with me a few years ago. The funds weren’t there and the timing just wasn’t right. So naturally, I waited for a global pandemic to strike and suddenly all the pieces fell into place. Just kidding — I’m not insane. It was a bit of a struggle and of course it was terrifying, but it was something I knew I wanted. The shop is a second home for me and I need it to survive another 40 years. I know I have the passion for this work and the love for my community to see it through.

TK: How has COVID affected the store? What challenges have you overcome, and how have you gotten creative with your business plan?

CM: Obviously it wasn’t ideal to purchase a small business in 2020. The state of the world and the shutdowns nearly scared me off. But it still felt like I had a responsibility to forge ahead and ensure that the legacy of the store was in good hands. After 16 years of working here and May marking our 40th year of operation, the thought of this place not existing anymore was too much to bear. So we got creative. I did – and still do – FaceTime virtual shopping with customers who live far away, curbside service, door-to-door delivery, and several daily posts on social media to keep our clientele updated on inventory and COVID procedures.

We had a few quiet months when I couldn’t let customers in the building, but around June everything really picked up. Every town needs a neighborhood record store and a place to buy used books, and we happen to be both. I think when life turned upside down, Newtown needed us to comfort them – and what’s more comforting than your favorite book in your hands and a new vinyl on the turntable? Maybe a nice bourbon and several cats, I suppose, but we don’t offer those things at this time. And as much as Newtown needed us, we needed Newtown. They showed up time and time again, choosing to shop small and local and helping us recover our losses. I’m incredibly grateful and utterly privileged to be in this position and I do my best not to forget it.

TK: If you frequented other record stores, what did you hope would make yours stand out among the rest? What’s the heart behind your store?

CM: I wish I could say I spend a lot of time at other stores, but I work every day at my own shop. It’s something I’d like to change. When I do get out, I really like saying hello at Siren Records. My second job for many years was right up the street from them, so they’re special to me. I would say our shop stands out because, to put it plainly, the inventory is overwhelming. In a good way. If you ever stop in I will undoubtedly be surrounded by piles and piles of books and vinyl – and when one pile is sorted, another always seems to appear.

I can’t officially say that the store is magic, but off the record? Yes, it’s absolutely magic. 100 percent. Another part of that magic is how easy it is to start a conversation here. I’ve overheard two crate-digging strangers talk for 20 minutes about their first concerts. Customers sending me their rainy day album picks. Older generations advising younger generations on the “must-haves.” I’ve even managed to make some amazing friends by curating our Instagram account. So I guess the real heart of our store is sharing what you love with others…which when you boil it down, is just love.

TK: What’s your day-to-day work routine like? How do you balance your music career on top of management responsibilities?

CM: Day-to-day is a lot of messaging via email or social media, posting on Instagram, researching new artists and new releases, cleaning and listening to records to check for imperfections, running normal retail operations at the store, appraising trade-ins, placing orders with the vinyl distributor, and drinking an irresponsible amount of coffee. How do I find balance? I do not. I’m very much a person of extremes and balance is not in my wheelhouse. I’m working on it.

Since live music was not a viable option last year, I put my artistic career on the backburner – the burner is hot! She’s still a-cookin’! – and threw myself into the store. It was kind of traumatic to release my labor of love, Queen Coyote, on March 6th, 2020 only to watch the world shut down a week later and then cancel every show I had for the rest of the year. I’ll get back to it soon. That’s a huge part of me that I refuse to lose. Plus I really miss my bandmates. I’m actually doing a direct-to-vinyl session with Leesta Vall at the end of April, so that should be fun!  

TK: Did you do any sort of inventory revamp when you took over ownership? Are there any specific genres you specialize in, or is there a little bit of everything? How would you describe the overall vibe?

CM: I think our inventory has always been great and eclectic, but I wanted to take it even further. I invested heavily in vinyl when I took over. My goal is to be known as the shop with something for everyone.

TK: What’s your all-time favorite record?

CM: Joni Mitchell’s Blue. A timeless record. I currently have 4 copies in my personal collection. You can never have too many Blue-s!

TK: What’s a record that you own that’s really special to you

CM: Aside from all the Joni Mitchell albums, I inherited my dad’s Martin Mull vinyl. He used to play it for me often, and no matter how many times you hear the track “Eggs“….it just never gets old. It’s a completely ridiculous song about not wanting eggs for dinner, and after all these years, it’s still funny to me. My dad and I had the same sense of humor.

TK: Do you have any advice for other women running their own business, local or otherwise?

CM: Follow your gut, don’t be afraid to ask for help, and believe in yourself. Embrace kindness and compassion as part of the business model. Support other women. Love what you do.

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