Remind Me Of The Big Tunes In That Little City…-Part 2 (Video)
Today is a big day. I’m not leaving the record store until I find it. And, by it, I don’t mean a record or a CD – although that would be nice. This past week, in Part 1 of this series, we visited Randy Now’s Man Cave & Consignment Shop in Bordentown, NJ, in an attempt to seek out the nostalgia behind the original vinyl and record store experience. What we found was a sense of community; a one-ness that exists among those that wander and tinker about the record bins seeking for that little bit of nostalgia and comfort that can only come in the form of vinyl.
I understood then what was missing from my own early experiences in the record store – I had gone about collecting all wrong. Yes, it’s okay to take on another’s collection or accept a record as a gift, or even pick one up because the cover looks flashy. But I think there is another type of collector, one who stands before the bins and says: Bring it on!
In order to best comprehend the nostalgia of the record store experience, one must first understand the record collector. Who is this maverick…this keeper of the vinyl?
Our next stop in this journey, lies just a few storefronts away from the last, in Bordentown, New Jersey. Today, we visit with The Record Collector…
The art-deco storefront with its geometric-laden facade looks as if it belongs on Miami Beach somewhere. Vivid and high contrasting pinks and greens serve as the back drop for the circles, squares, and lines that have been so carefully laid out amongst the neon lights and glass block windows. While it appears that the facade has hung on tight since the 1930s when the place was a vibrant and hopping bowling alley, it is only a recreation of the original as reimagined by owners John and Sue Chrambanis.
When we enter the shop, we are greeted by Sue who is orchestrating a major change in the back room. “Make sure you move it to the left so guests can see the stage!” We catch her eye and she eagerly ushers us toward the back. “Look! Take a look at this space now because it won’t look like this in a few minutes.” We’re curious as we look around the room; a split level of sorts with a ramp running up the right side of the shop. A large wooden and metal banister twisted into shape by a local craftsman flanks the side of the ramp and looks like something you’d see on ship.
A small stage sits at the rear of the upper level surrounded by records and racks of CDs. The CD racks are on casters. Sue points out, “We put them on casters so we could easily slide them out for our concerts.” I watch as their assistants push the carts out of sight into another back room.
Suddenly the only things remaining were the stage and records that sit on shelves lining the walls. Fresh rows of cushioned chairs and several tables decorated with lit candles are then set up.
The room is intimate yet spacious. Each seat carefully numbered to match the guests’ tickets. The popcorn machine begins to run and the coffee brews. The air filled with a mixed scent of sweet and salty. The lights dim in preparation for the big night.
Sue laughs as we watch in amazement as the space transforms before us. A magic trick of sorts. “This is how we transform the record shop into a music venue. But that’s not the only transformation that has taken place here.” She explains how the space was once a bowling alley in the 1930s, a shirt factory, an antique store, a pizzeria, and a garage. An assistant shouts from across the room, “And a deli! I remember when it was a deli.” Sue says they first settled on the lot in 2006 when it was an old garage. Their budget was limited so they wanted a fixer-upper they could work on in their own time. “This place just began to morph…it was so sad that, over time, it just lost its identity but, the funny thing was, nobody forgot what it used to look like. People would come in and talk about the old bowling alley. That’s when we knew we had to bring it back – but in a different way.”
Sue explained that many of the townspeople would stop by and comment on the appearance of the original facade. She took notes and hired a contractor to recreate its appearance. When deciding what color to paint it, they chipped away at the stucco until the original colors started to peek through.
They carried the same art-deco style into the interior design as well, with a sleek, shiny, streamlined banister and oversized metal fans that resemble airplane propellers.
Within a year of moving in, The Record Collector once again “morphed” – this time into a live-music venue. Sue says “This place just keeps evolving! We started out just wanting to offer kids an opportunity to listen to live music. Now we have room for up to 150 guests. We have a stage, lights, piano, sound system, and we host all kinds of acts from jazz, to rock, to soul, to blues…there’s a real up and coming music scene here in Bordentown. A lot of the locals are taking to it now but we still get plenty of out-of-towners from all over Europe and even Japan. The acts that come in here have incredible backgrounds and they’ve played at some amazing venues but they love coming here because it’s a real listening room. It’s not a bar. People really sit, listen, and interact.”
Buzzing about the store, answering the phone, chatting with customers, and sorting through crates hidden underneath the record bins, was her husband, John – The Record Collector.
John happened upon a collection of records many years ago, when the owner of a record store he’d frequent, passed away. The man’s son was unable to inherit the business and so he offered to sell the collection to John, who gladly accepted.
When John first started the business, CDs were popular, but he never got rid of his record collection. An act which Sue claims saved their shop. “He loved his records and he refused to get rid of them even though people said they were a dying trend. His stubbornness is what kept us going. Other record stores sold their collections but he held on to his vinyl, especially since not all LPs were transferred to CDs. When there came a time that people realized they couldn’t find the CD versions of their favorite records, they’d come to us, from all over the world, for the vinyl.”
Now for every 200 records they sell, they only sell one CD. A sure indicator that the record store is not “going under.” And what of all those stores that sold their records when the big bad CD took over? They’re out of business.
An enthusiastic assistant approaches and offers to give us a tour of the back room. We eye her quizzically and wonder if we’ve missed anything. She waves us toward what appears to be, at first glance, a small storage space behind the stage. As we walk over the threshold and through the doorway, the expanse widens and what appears before us is breathtaking.
The ceiling suddenly heightens and arches into a triangle, with rafters overhead. Built-in shelves from floor to ceiling give the room and archival feel. It looks like a massive library – for records. Each section labeled. Each box or crate tagged. Each record numbered.
It was unlike anything we have ever seen before. We travel deeper into the room and find secret compartments of rare and hard-to-find records and even a cozy office space that reminded me a bit of a laboratory of sorts with John and Sue as the mad scientists of vinyl.
As we navigate through and around the many rows and aisles that seemed never-ending like a labyrinth, the assistant explains, “You can’t tell now but this is where the bowling lanes were. Everything you see here is catalogued and numbered so it’s easy to find when an order is placed. We have 45s, LPs, CDs, and cassettes. We have a ‘picker’ – Someone who picks records all day so that we can ship them out internationally, all over the world. And this isn’t even all of it. John and Sue have so many more records at home, their roof might someday collapse!”
When asked if the task of keeping it all organized seemed daunting, the assistant laughed and said “Not at all. It doesn’t even feel like I’m coming to work every day. This is fun.”
The artists seem as at ease as the audience. With no alcoholic beverages on-site and no noisy distractions with the exception of a few cameras and cellphones snapping away or recording, this audience, similar to the one I witnessed at Randy Now’s Man Cave & Consignment Shop, once again proves that they truly are here “just for the music.”
I sat at a back table and listened to Iain and Andy as they shared with the crowd about the life and music of Richard Fariña – novelist, poet, folk singer, and a creative like me. Born in Brooklyn, a Cuban & Irish American, and a friend to Bob Dylan, two days after the release of his novel, Been Down So Long it Looks Like Up To Me, Fariña dies in a motorcycle accident in one of those last-minute decision / twist-of-fate moments. Where else but a record store can we learn about our mortality yet feel invincible at the same time?
I look around at the crowd, all of them listening as intently as I was. I’ve never heard Fariña’s story or how his promising life was cut short. If it weren’t for these two musicians who’ve decided to reinvent his songs in a tribute they’ve championed for over 40 years…if it weren’t for this shared experience in this record store today…I probably would have never known.
During their break, we take a moment to chat with Iain and Andy about the record revival taking place and their response says a lot about the time we’re living in – one in which Records, CDs, and MP3s coexist in a silent battle for survival. Iain shares that, while he’s made it through all the music mediums, he actually prefers CDs. “I like the cleaner sound. I’m not nostalgic about vinyl although, it did take a lot more effort to make the older records. I can live without the cracks, having to replace the needle, and all the gunk in the grooves. I also have two iPods and they’re full and I travel with them all the time. You can’t travel light with records.” Andy, who appeared preoccupied with tuning his Mandolin, raised his head, laughed, and concurred. “I listened to what he said and I agree with all of it! Especially about CDs. I can’t be dealing and fussing with records. While I can appreciate the sound of a record on good equipment, you can get away with even better sound for less, with a CD. Younger people are the ones buying vinyl now. Not people in their 50s and 60s.”
When asked what they thought about performing in a record store, Iain pointed out, “It’s not about the size of the venue. We’re playing all kinds of venues on this tour but we like playing at places like this because of the people you deal with…it’s about the audience. I live in Holland and close to my home there is a big record store with lots of vinyl and CDs even though record stores everywhere seem to be disappearing. They also have a live-music venue. I don’t know…there’s just something about playing in a record store. It’s like the movie, Night At The Museum…but instead of artifacts and relics, you’re surrounded by all these CDs and records.” I thanked them for their candidness and left them to begin their next set, although, I could hear them from a distance musing about the first time they came across the “strange looking” digital turntable.
We manage to catch John in a quiet moment of reflection as he reads the back cover of a record that has just arrived in the mail. We tell him we want to talk about the record store experience and his eyes light up in the same way that Randy Now got the goosebumps when we asked him to talk about his days at the record store. This, my dear friends, says it all. The nostalgic record store experience we wanted to discover…here is what we came for:
“It’s starting to feel like the old days again. Now, I’m buying records and I’m starting to get that feeling again. People really want to dig in to record bins…I see it. I’m having to arrange the records up front so they can go through them like we used to. With CDs people don’t do that. They just pick out what they want and that’s it. But with records it’s different. A person comes in and thumbs through the record albums. Some from front to back others back to front…whichever way they prefer. You see that and you go – Wow…this is really starting to pick up again. There is just something about digging down and finding something interesting; something you wouldn’t normally buy. You know, a record is something that is meant to be played over and over again. There is a shared experience when you listen to a record. I had a kid walk in one day and buy a bunch of records and he told me that he had every single one of them on his iPod, but he said that he and his buddies like to get together on the weekend and sit down to listen to one side, then get up, talk about it, and flip to the other side. Or else they buy 45s and just dance. With CDs you don’t get the same experience. A song or two goes by and you may not even notice or pay attention and with iPods it’s all just a very private experience. Kids are being introduced to the record now and it’s really neat. To prove to you that it’s about the experience and not the sound…some of those same kids are playing records on some real crappy record players and they don’t even care. Vinyl is coming back! There is a record plant in town that can’t even keep up with the demand for vinyl. The young entrepreneurs are stepping up to do the work and it’s like a puzzle trying to put the pieces of the old pressing machines back together. They’ve even had to call the old guys out of retirement to teach them how to run the machines. It’s all very fascinating…like a movie.”
When asked if there was any record in his collection that he wouldn’t sell, he said “Unless it was a record that was given to me as a gift, everything else can go. I might hold on to a valuable one for a period of time just for the pride in ownership, but then I pass it on. They’re all part of my collection anyway…and I just want to share them.”
He goes on to tell us stories about about his most infamous albums:
…Those 500 unassuming records he bought and initially priced at $1.99 only to discover that they were the last remaining batch of The Last Poets – a group of East Harlem poets and musicians who banded together, in 1970, to release a spoken word album about African-American civil rights and the burgeoning black nationalist movement.
…That case of miscellaneous records that turned out to be the underground “sermon” recordings of Daniel Berrigan who, along with his brother Phillip, amassed a slew of other protests and civil disobedience charges, and was a member of the Catonsville Nine – the nine Catholic activists who broke into the Catonsville, Maryland draft board in 1968 and burned drafts cards in protest of the Vietnam War.
…Or that one record that chronicled interviews and songs of the civil rights effort by three young men working on the Freedom Summer campaign, who were abducted and murdered in Mississippi by members of the Klu Klux Klan in an effort to stop African Americans from gaining the right to vote.
He had this to say about those special albums…“Records teach you about history. That’s what I’m interested in. In the 1950s when I was growing up, most people got their news from the radio or the television, which was catching on quick, but some would go to record stores for the news. There were special sections for self-help information and current events. Back then, the record store was important. It was a central place where people would come together.”
This is what we came for. A little lesson; a little schooling in the record store experience. In this very moment, I learned that it’s about more than just the music. It’s about more than the records or the collector. It’s about the value of a shared human experience.
Two very distinct record stores..within feet of each other in a town teeming with the sounds of a vinyl revival and it is this that I’ve learned after having spent time at both:
You have to love music. You have to have an appreciation for vinyl records – if anything for the hard work it takes to produce and maintain them. You have to respect musicians like Robyn Hitchcock, Iain Matthews, and Andy Roberts, who continue to make music through the decades, despite the the many changes in music mediums. But most of all, if you want the record store experience, you have to be open-minded about what you’ll find there because sometimes you’ll encounter more than just music. You have to be free to learn. You have to be enthusiastic about the people you’ll meet. You have to be curious about the music tastes of others and their opinions. You have to go in expecting to find something new that will surprise you. You have to be willing to spend some time in there…simply taking in all the sights and sounds. Give it time, and soon, out of the corner of your eye, you’ll find it – that one record you weren’t looking for, but one you’ll take home and play over and over again until you find a new favorite – or until the clicks, pops, and skips tell you it’s time to retire it.
Feeling more nostalgic than I’ve ever been for something I never quite had, I seek to continue this experience…but first thing’s first – I’m buying a record player!
Until the next time we run into each other while thumbing, in different directions, through a record bin – I leave you with this:
A little bit of the experience…