I t feels like a dream. A big, gray cube of a building. Open the door and the Beach Boys are blasting. Walk around the corner and there’s an arcade game on the rafters, a vintage Coke machine in the corner. And rows upon rows of records. The odd ones catch your eye—the one with the woman alien fighter, the Christmas album from the band you didn’t think made those. The Eagles.
And then around the corner, the coolest venue you’ve never heard of. A small stage with vintage, beautifully upholstered chaise lounges and armchairs plucked straight from Oscar Wilde’s imagination.
Then, suddenly, you’re in a working picture frame factory?
This is how dreams work—they don’t necessarily line up in sight, but some synapses went rogue and put the two together. This is Factory Records in Dover. That looks and feels like a dream makes sense; for Ethan Reiss, that’s how it all started.
“I had reached the end of the line. Divorced, [but then I] met up with my dream girl from high school. And everything took shape in my life. And then all of a sudden, that dream girl just didn’t turn out to be the dream girl that I had fabricated in my mind. And that’s when I had this dream,” Reiss says. “This dream kind of led me to this place where I was taking photographs and I was sending these postcards to her, and each postcard was a letter. And when she realized it, she put them in order of the postmarks, and it spelled, ‘I love you.’”
It was just a dream, and Reiss never made those postcards and the relationship ended. Poof, the reverie gone. Then, afloat after he left a fulfilling job and without a partner, he felt lost: “I didn’t care if I didn’t live another day. That’s how I felt.”
What pulled him forward was a prompt from the dream: take photos. So he went to Palisades Park of Nature and started walking around with a camera. Images appeared in his surroundings—letters formed by tree limbs and rock cracks and fencing and flowers. He shot the whole alphabet.
“That walk in nature and photographing those letters kind of pulled me back and almost gave me a feeling of purpose, and compelled me to do something with it,” he says. “When I was driving, I saw the sign [for] Birchwood Manor. My sister used to work there, and it said a craft show [was happening]. I never stepped foot in a craft show, but I went to that craft show and, son of a bitch, I sold like a $1,000 worth of these photographs.
“And at that point, I had already depreciated my entire life savings, everything. I walked away from everything. And when I made that $1,000, I realized, ‘Hm, I could maybe do this. I could make a living doing this. I could live on $1,000 a week.’”
His photos of unique lettering—which people could spell out in their family’s name, their favorite place, words of encouragement, whatever—took off. He credits the intimate nature in which he found photography and the pure expression of that creation for his success.
“They would just be, ‘Wow, you’re amazing. You’re a photographer.’ Like, no, I’m not a photographer. And, the only way that I could describe it to people is like a book writer. Just about every book, or every movie, comes from someone that gets in touch with whatever it is, whether it’s love or whether it’s hate. Most of them are all written from the soul. And with this art, the only photographs that I could take were the ones that touched me, the ones that I could feel, and they proved to be the most successful. So as far as being creative or being an artist, it really boils down to just getting in touch with your feelings, with your soul. And it’s a love, it boils down to just it being a love. And either you can feel it or you can’t,” he says.
Soon he was ordering a couple hundred thousand dollars worth of frames for his photos from Helrick’s Framing in Dover, and the opportunity arose for Reiss to buy in. It was a natural fit, and Reiss pushed different-sized frames into the company’s repertoire to both accommodate his photos and a variety of other odd-shaped but common items that the market hadn’t created yet.
Now, even with business booming, Reiss isn’t the sort to rest on his laurels. He’s a serial entrepreneur and tinkerer—taking apart electronics, building robots, working on Volkswagens. His first brush with music coincided with his entrepreneurial streak—when his mother met a guy in a polka band, he started to do the lights for their shows. He ended up starting a lighting business through that experience.
“The singer gave me this box with three lights in it: red, blue and green,” he says. “And attached to it was this big, long wire. He gave it to me and said, ‘Just do the lights.’ And I thought that was fun, but I needed more, I needed better. So I started buying lights myself and creating a light show. And that just gave me something I loved.”
Suffice it to say, when opportunity knocks, Reiss answers. And he has the rare ability to find and create opportunity in unique ways when that itch to grow takes over.
“No matter how successful you are, you’re never successful enough,” Reiss says. “You’re never making enough, you’re never working hard enough. And I think that’s always the case.”
Being mindful also led him to records. His daughter Des had begun working with him in the framing business, and said she needed some 45s to accommodate requests. So he went out and bought a few and went through them with his daughter, who happened to love music and had furnished her room with all sorts of music memorabilia—records, posters, tickets, etc.
Her passion, and the need to find more vinyl material, inspired him to do take a plunge into records. He bought out a record collection from a record show, then drove up to New Hampshire and bought another collection with a hundred thousand pieces.
“On the way back, I called Des. I said, ‘Des, uh, what do you think about opening up a record shop?’ “
It was a bit of a surprise leap for Reiss, but he felt called to it because the feeling he got buying and being around records fulfilled something inside him.
“It wasn’t planned,” he says, “but I think the experience of touching and feeling those records put me back in touch with my childhood.”
Once Reiss gets a feeling about something, he tends to go all in—surely, that’s part of his success in a variety of businesses: “I grab a hold of something and I just gotta have it all,” he says.
He likens it to wine: “I love wine. There is an expression in the collecting world, which is ‘don’t become a victim of your own greed.’ And that’s what I’ve become… I want every record out there.”
Now, all of this would be for naught if the record store Reiss created wasn’t special; if it wasn’t worth the drive to Dover. So he and his family and team set about making it a place folks might want to congregate in—the vibe is critical for a record store, of course. Factory Records did that in a few ways, by including the aforementioned decoration of vintage memorabilia, well-managed record sections by genre, playing good music and having fun with customers who come in. Seriously, folks are having interesting conversations while they’re in there.
“Experience is almost as, or if not more, powerful than the product. So if you create this environment, this experience where people enjoy just walking into, then they’re gonna shop. That’s what I’m hoping to accomplish here, [that] this place makes you feel a certain way that you want to be here,” Reiss says. “It’s not just one of those stores where you can go and shop, because if we were that, then why even come, you can go and shop and do the same thing online.”
The joy of record shops is the opportunity for discovery—to find a unique album, or one of your favorites, or something you didn’t know existed. Often, though, and certainly online, records are just too damn pricey. In my experience, at least, Factory prices things on the lower end of record stores, so it’s got that going for them, too.
They also furnished a side room with furniture and a stage—the venue hosts music and comedy on a fairly regular basis, with sundry food and drink items for sale, plus unique giveaways (like record sets, autographs, photos, etc.) included in ticket prices.
“That’s what the lounge is all about. It’s bringing people together, allowing them to enjoy and experience something that they may not necessarily be a part of,” Reiss says. “So if you’re not a part of looking at records, at least you can be a part of the experience of having a coffee or having a tea or whatever.”
So, yes, it’s unique to launch a record store out of a picture frame warehouse. But Reiss is unique. It makes sense. And Factory Records exists because of his unique desire to keep exploring, and to keep his mind open to new opportunities.
“I’m not where I want to be yet, and I don’t even know where I want to be. I just know that I’m right here and I’m on this path, and this path is leading me somewhere,” he says. “Do I know where? No, but I’m on the journey. That’s all it is, a journey. I think it would all end if I knew where I wanted to be. And as long as I don’t know where I want to be or don’t know where I’m going, it’s fun and it’s exciting.”