Remind Me Of The Big Tunes In That Little City…-Part 1 (Video)

As Record Store Day (RSD) nears on April 16th, thousands of music fans and artists prepare to gather together to celebrate the independently-owned record store.  As they gear up for contests, promotions, parties, and special releases for the big day, I can’t help but think about the days when every day was a “Record Store Day” – because all we knew were records.  There were no 8-tracks, cassette tapes, CDs or MP3s…just records in various sizes.

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Although my own earliest memory of a record player was lifting the needle to remove and subsequently crack my mother’s Julio Iglesias Momentos record…I can’t help but wonder about the days of the Thomas Edison phonograph or gathering by the radio for stories, music, and daily news.

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While I’d spent years playing DJ in my room, placing tape across the top of one of my mother’s Juan Gabriel cassettes so that I could hack it and record over it with some my favorite songs from the radio, my first actual visit to a record store was in search of CDs whose titles I rather not disclose.

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Okay…fine – I was there to buy copies of the Waiting To Exhale and Clueless soundtracks.

Don’t judge me…I was 13.  Those were good movies – and darn good songs.

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As I got older and frequented local record stores like Alwilk Records and Vogel’s Music Center in Elizabeth, New Jersey, I realized that I was like a fish out of water when it came to shopping for music.  Everyone else seemed cooler than me…they knew the artists and song lyrics seemed engraved on their brain.  They knew what they were looking for and where to find it.

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Then I began taking the train into New York City with my friends and hanging out in places like Virgin Megastore and Tower Records.  I tried to find my way around by thumbing through CD cases and browsing the record bins – if only for the fun of checking out the neat album covers – because, at that time, records were only a “thing” for parents and old people.  But I couldn’t get the hang of the record store experience.  It just always felt off-beat to me.  I felt awkward putting on the germ-infested oversized headphones at the listening stations and I wouldn’t dare even ask a clerk for music suggestions, let alone forge a conversation with a complete stranger about my favorite artist’s best single.  Although, I do remember hanging out with my best friend and playing our new CDs over and over, dramatizing each song and coming up with homemade music videos in the stye of MTV.  Corny…yes, but all part of what was supposed to be the music sharing experience.

I wondered most about that experience talked about in All Things Must Pass, a documentary about the rise and fall of record store giant: Tower Records.  What about those unrecognized stores that came before it or the many others that followed and continue to stand strong today with their neon signs and vintage concert posters in their windows.

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What about that sense of camaraderie, of family, of feeling like you belong, like you can be understood because you’re all there for one reason – for the love of music.  You want to experience it together, share it, embody it, make a statement, revolutionize, rebel, protest, stand up, laugh, have fun, dance, and chill.  You want to live.  Where do we find that, if not at a record store?

So…in an attempt to seek out the nostalgia behind the original vinyl and record store experience that I never quite had, because perhaps I was a decade or two too late, I set off for Bordentown, New Jersey – a place at the center of a vinyl record revival?  A musical epicentre of sorts?  Well…one would hardly know it while whizzing down the major highways and avenues that traverse the small town claiming to be a “little city with a lot of charm.”

We’ve been to Bordentown, New Jersey before during our Vintage Featurette on New Jersey Antiques & Consignment, yet we would have never known that just a few blocks away from busy State Route 206, sat not only one – but two – record stores who were pushing CDs to the back shelves while dusting off and moving up the old vinyl records they had clung to over the years, despite the rise of new music mediums.  Not only that, but less than 10 minutes away, the sounds of record-pressing machines whirring back to life can be heard at Independent Record Pressing, a manufacturer who recently set up shop to meet the increasing demands for vinyl LPs.

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As I walk down the street of the historic center of town, I notice several busy – even crowded – restaurants.  A few specialty shops are filled with lingering customers browsing and chatting with the staff, but I think the rest of the town has not yet gotten the memo about the up-and-coming music scene in Bordentown.

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While the local record shops say their weekends are quite busy and live performances bring in generous audiences, on a Saturday night, I’d expect to see the streets teeming with crowds of people looking for a good meal and some great music, particularly when the opportunity lies within mere storefronts of each other.

Some may say there is a bit of competition, but as I’ve found out, each record store has it’s own vibe, the owners their own story, the patrons their own reasons for stopping in, and the inventory – as unique and specific as its collectors – simply speaks for itself.

Our first stop is at Randy Now’s Man Cave & Consignment Shop for an experience of our own:

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It was November 25, 1963, when 7 year old Randy Ellis, sat tinkering with his new RCA record player near the family television set.  His mother and father were displeased as they sat side-by-side on the couch, hands clasped, mouths agape, their eyes transfixed on the the screen watching something everyone around the world was also taking in – the televised funeral of President John F. Kennedy. After shushing him several times, young Randy was eventually asked to “stop playing those noisy records” so they could witness and listen to the event that had suddenly changed their nation.  He obediently turned off his record player on that day, but that moment inspired a lifelong passion to keep the music going.

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He recalled that when he first got his driver’s license, he couldn’t wait to drive to Now & Then Records in New Hope, Pennsylvania to buy bootleg recordings of Pink Floyd.  He was soon driving to other places like The Record Exchange in Philadelphia for punk records by The Ramones, Buzzcocks, X-Ray Spex, and the Stranglers.

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Over the years, his parents proved to be less supportive, particularly when Randy started a high school band and wanted to practice his drum skills at home. Randy relegated to practicing at the homes of other band members and when he became class president of his high school, he took the opportunity to promote and book his own band at school dances and events.  Randy says “It was just something I was good at.”Photo Apr 10, 1 42 31 AM

While he was a mail carrier by day, that thing that he “was good at” would lead him to the infamous City Gardens nightclub in Trenton, New Jersey in the late 1970s and 80s, where he assumed the stage name “Randy Now” and spent his nights as a “New Wave DJ” playing music good enough to dance to and promoting musical acts such as The Ramones, R.E.M., Nirvana, Nine Inch Nails, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Green Day.  “That first night, I went in with seven people, and the next night, there were twelve.  It started getting out that City Gardens was a place for punk rock, new wave, green hair, and things just took off from there.”

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Photo courtesy of Randy “Now” Ellis; Photo by: Ken Salerno.

Randy used his previous experience in the U.S. Postal Service to reinvent promotional material and came up with the idea of the “Punk Card” – promotional postcards for musical punk acts.  He explains that, in a time before mass e-mailing and the Internet were the norm, he’d simply research and look up any address and phone number he could find to spread the word and let people know about the acts that would be coming to town.

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Randy describes his time at City Gardens as exhausting, yet exhilarating.  “I feel like I didn’t sleep for two decades!”  He has quite a few stories to share and as such has been the subject of the book, No Slam Dancing, No Stage Diving, No Spikes: An Oral History of New Jersey’s Legendary City Gardens, written by Amy Yates Wuelfing and Steven DiLodovico, as well as the feature film documentary, Riot On The Dance Floor, directed by Steve Tozzi.

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Today, he owns Randy Now’s Man Cave & Consignment Shop, where he sells records, CDs, DVDs, VHS, books, nostalgic paraphernalia, and regales his customers with tales of his days at City Gardens.  

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His old promoter spirit hasn’t died down either as he continues to book musical acts to perform at in-store events, as well as at the Open Arts Stage theater, also in Bordentown.

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We visit his shop on a day when English Singer-Songwriter Robyn Hitchcock and Australian Singer-Songwriter Emma Swift were stopping by the store for a meet & greet and mini acoustic concert before a larger performance at the Open Arts Stage theater.

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A man stops at the counter and asks to buy tickets for tonight’s show while a steady stream of customers pop in to peruse records and muse at the bits of nostalgia displayed from floor to ceiling around the shop while waiting for Robyn and Emma to settle in.

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They begin engaging each other in conversation.  Complete strangers…introducing themselves to each other, asking each other if they’d heard such and such a record, or what type of music they enjoy most.  A common sentiment is “I’m just here for the music.” They almost sound like old friends simply catching up.  Robyn stands at the back of the room, glances around, and begins by exclaiming how exciting it was to be around so much vinyl.

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It might have been the crowd or the records and CDs stacked high against the walls and in the center of the room, but the acoustics seemed just perfect for Robyn and Emma as they sang and everyone stood around nodding their heads, tapping their feet, with their hands clasping a select few records they planned to purchase or have autographed.

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Following the mini concert even Robyn and Emma couldn’t wait to search for their vinyl treasures. Before he gets lost in the bins, I introduce myself to Robyn and engage him in brief conversation before a photo opportunity.  Not usually inclined to posing for the camera, he hesitates, reaches into a bin, grabs a random record and smiles.  “Well, a Tribute to Rancid it is…”  

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He obliges, “Anything for vinyl.”  I watch from a distance as he delves back in, pulling out one record after another, musing about album covers and asking Emma if she was familiar with a certain tune.  

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He raises an eyebrow and smiles with each exciting find until Emma interrupts reminding him they must go to the concert venue for soundcheck.  Even for a veteran musician, the thrill of the record store is apparent.

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Randy says, despite that most people download MP3s, sales are now back to 50/50 on CDs and vinyl.  He says the joy of the record store is coming back.  “People are starting to look for something new and fresh, something totally unexpected and surprising, and they’re finding it in the old stuff.”  

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He demonstrates, “It’s like this…”  He pulls out a record by British composer, record producer, and musician, Jack Lancaster.  “Look at this!  It’s Jack Lancaster.  This guy played two saxophones at the same time!  This is what I’m talking about.”  He gets goosebumps simply talking about it.  “Kids are in here now buying Johnny Cash like it’s Kurt Cobain, The Beatles, or Bob Dylan.  The old stuff is doing best.  I try to make it easy for them by labeling everything, making sure they know what it is and the condition the record is in, but mostly, I have a lot of punk rock in here.  I like rock.”

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One thing is for sure – Randy’s recollection of the musicians and bands he’s encountered is remarkable.  He rattles on name after name and while some would think he’s tooting his own horn or name-dropping, perhaps he’s just a big fan himself.  After all, when it comes to music, Randy just can’t seem to keep quiet…

And what of the old RCA record player that was forced into silence back in 1963?

It sits on a shelf in the back room of his shop, a constant reminder that, while the music business is a tough one and not everyone will agree with his choices, his passion for it has gotten him this far and will keep him rockin’ on.

That evening, I leave the store having understood a bit more about the record store community, yet feeling a bit perplexed about my own record collection.

I get home and drag out an old blue milk crate that I had long forgotten about.  I pull out each dusty record and try to recall how I had come to collect them over the years.

I’d kept most of them because of the cover art.  Others, my parents or friends had left behind, and some I’d picked up at flea markets. One thing is for sure: I’d collected them purely for nostalgic reasons…because I never even owned a record player.

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I stare at my quirky collection, to include a heavy assortment of Menudo albums which I assume my mother collected on my behalf, as I was an avid 2 year old Menudo fan – hence, the “I heart Menudo” pin I often wore – and realize that today was the beginning of my own record revival.

Not quite sure I’ve reached the pinnacle of record store nostalgia, I’m eager to see what our next stop will bring…

In the meantime, I leave you with this:

A little bit of the experience…

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DON’T MISS PART 2 OF THIS SERIES -HERE!

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