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D E C E M B E R 1 9 9 7
by Jonathan Scull
I SUFFER from periodic and irrepressible urges for vinyl. I'm referring to long-playing records, of course. Many knowledgeable audiophiles choose LPs when music hangs in the balance. In fact, there's an entire audiophile cult built around the belief that vinyl is superior to the CD. Many people like me bow deeply before its inherent beauty, naturalness, and musicality. If vinyl's charms elude you, consider the vast number of recordings as yet unreleased on CD.
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In a surprising twist, nearly fifteen years after the introduction of the CD
there are more, and better, high-end turntables to choose from than ever
before, including exotic and super-expensive European models and affordable
entry-level tables from companies as close to home as VPI, in New Jersey -- not
to mention the dreaded but ubiquitous Technics 1200 Mk.II, may it rest in
Records are, of course, de rigueur with the trance, rave, ambient, hip-hop, trip-hop generation. Perhaps its members are attracted by vinyl's enjoyably tactile elements, such as the liner notes. With most CDs you need an electron microscope to read the fine print.
With vinyl in mind, then, let me invite you to join my wife, Kathleen, and me on a record-hunting tour through Greenwich Village. Here's the plan: Persuade your loved ones to join you. Entice them with Filene's, Old Navy, and the huge, block-long Bed Bath & Beyond, all in the West Village. Then deftly switch over with tales of quirky little shops in the heart of the East Village, near Tompkins Square Park.
WE begin our record crawl well off the beaten path, at A Classical Record, 547 West Twenty-seventh Street, Suite 680, between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues. This cavernous place, stuffed with LPs beyond number, is an essential resource for well-heeled classical-music collectors. Albert ten Brink, the owner, has developed a devoted following from around the world which pays astronomical prices for collectible LPs. Prices start at about $15 and run to hundreds and even thousands of dollars. As you might imagine, Ten Brink spends much time doing business on the phone (and by E-mail; his address is firstname.lastname@example.org). He is fluent in all aspects of classical repertoire, and becomes especially lyrical when discussing flamenco.
Rather surprisingly, there is a modest outpost of culture nearby: the Dia Center for the Arts, at 548 West Twenty-second Street, at the West Side Highway. Call (212-989-5912) before visiting for information on current exhibitions. Regular gallery-goers will be aware that West Twenty-second and Twenty-third Streets are also thick with contemporary-art galleries.
Moving south and east, we arrive at another important resource for the serious vinyl seeker: the Jazz Record Center, at 236 West Twenty-sixth Street, Room 804, between Seventh and Eighth Avenues. You might say that the Jazz Record Center is heritage preserved. Fred Cohen, the owner, tends his vinyl with care, dedication, and deep personal knowledge. All the LPs are poly-bagged, graded, and arranged by artist and label. A selection of books and printed materials accompanies the vast expanse of LPs. Average prices for vinyl hover around $10 to $15. CDs are available, but they are kept in black boxes in the middle room (very apropos, I think).
During a brief conversation not long ago Cohen confirmed my impression that LPs are no longer disappearing at the alarming rate that applied only a few years ago. America (that's New York, right?) seems finally to have discovered its vinyl self. The Japanese are major buyers, as they have been for some time, Cohen says, but his customers include a growing number of Europeans, particularly German and French. "The largest retailers have been forced to acknowledge that they can't get rid of vinyl like they wanted to," he told me.
Culturally there's not much happening around the Jazz Record Center, but a brisk walk down Sixth Avenue in the mid-Twenties will bring you to what remains of the Flower District. Continuing south and a bit east, we come upon Academy Records & CDs, at 12 West Eighteenth Street, between Fifth and Sixth. The shop specializes in classical music, in all forms; it does sell CDs, but LPs are the big draw. Many records are poly-bagged, all are marked with the price, and they're generally in excellent condition. You can spot the true vinyl-committed at Academy by the fixed look in their eyes.
The store has a comprehensive jazz section, where I always enjoy grazing. Last time I visited, I snagged a copy of Francis A. & Edward K.on Warner/Reprise: The Chairman and The Duke, recorded in Hollywood on Sinatra's birthday in 1967. I'm no special admirer of Hoboken's first son, but this charming, upbeat album, featuring Sinatra and Ellington, is a winner.
While you're being generous to yourself at Academy, your companions might visit any number of happening places nearby, including Academy's own book department, just next door. A few blocks away they can dip into discounted glitz at Loehmann's, now firmly ensconced in the old Barney's Seventh Avenue frontage (Oh, how the mighty ... ). Or they can try the bustling Housing Works Thrift Shop, just across the street at 143 West Seventeenth, with its imaginative window displays; there's even a lowly shelf of LPs in the back -- lots of Barry Manilow and Bette Midler, for those with a taste for such things.
Chelsea (or the Photo District, as it is also known), especially Sixth Avenue between Seventeenth and Twentieth, has become convulsed with frenetic shoppers. The weekends have been wild since Old Navy and Bed Bath & (way) Beyond opened. The BB&B building also houses Filene's Basement and T.J. Maxx, with Today's Man directly across the street. Feeling literary? Try Barnes & Noble, just a few blocks up Sixth, which also sells CDs at what look to be list prices. Crossing over to Fifth Avenue, in the Flatiron District, your companions can spend some time at Matsuda, Emporio Armani, Paul Smith, Banana Republic, the Gap, and Daffy's Discount Clothing.
If your stomach begins to growl, I've got just the place: the Petite Abeille Belgian Café, at 107 West Eighteenth, on the corner of Sixth Avenue. Three Belgian brothers have set up a little corner of the old country right in the middle of commercial-beyond-belief Sixth. A statue of Hergé's beloved cartoon character Tintin guards the door, though there's no sign of Snowy or Professor Calculus. The waffles are flown in directly from home, along with a selection of very fine dark chocolates. It's small, and it has been discovered.
THE West Village vinyl scene seems never to change. The record shops just keep chugging along, year after year. Bleecker Bob's Golden Oldies, for instance, at 118 West Third Street, specializes in rare rock, jazz, funk, and exotica. Then there's Rebel Rebel, at 319 Bleecker, half a block from Christopher Street, which offers a roughly 50:50 ratio of LPs to CDs, including lots of imports, twelve-inch dance singles, and "house" music (techno-dance) from Europe and the United States. Record Runner, at 5 Jones Street, between Bleecker and West Fourth, specializes in contemporary pop; CDs are taking over, but there is still vinyl to be had. Just up the street, at 22 Jones, is Strider Records, which caters to the classic-rock crowd and also sells R&B, soul, country-western, and pop soundtracks for good measure.
Nearby Carmine Street is a hotbed of vinyl, beginning with the House of Oldies, at No. 35, where the 1950s through the 1980s reign supreme. "Everything but classical and opera," Bob Abramson, chief oldie, says. "No CDs, no tapes, just records!" Sonic Groove is at No. 41 (the Web address is www.sonicgroove.com) and sells, its business card says, "futuristic electronic, techno, underground dance, club, house, classic house [!], trip-hop, and breakbeat." The DJ, making me dizzy as he bobbed to the beat behind the counter, told me that vinyl outsells CDs about forty to one there. Vinylmania, at 60 Carmine, has dance, trip-hop, acid jazz, and R&B on the menu of mayhem. Not far away, at 5 Cornelia Street, Michael Carlucci vends both LPs and CDs at Subterranean Records; he admits that he's partial to vinyl. The wide range of music to choose from includes jazz, R&B, and classic and alternative rock. The always bustling junction of Carmine, Bleecker, and West Fourth Streets at Sixth Avenue is tightly packed with shops, restaurants, and coffee shops. Step lively and keep your hand on your wallet.
As you move into the East Village, it's difficult to avoid Tower Records, at Broadway and East Fourth Street. Go if you must, but I prefer the Tower Clearance Outlet, at East Fourth and Lafayette. There are copious amounts of "cut-out" classical vinyl, ranging in price from $1.99 to $5.99.
Just across from the outlet you will find Other Music, at 15 East Fourth Street. I knew it had possibilities when we walked in and heard Kraftwerk, the seventies German avant-garde techno band, playing. Saturday Night Live's Dieter might have been an acolyte: Now is the time on Sprockets when we dance ... This relatively large store seems to be a distillation of the East Village new-music scene, tarted up, sanitized, and marketed to the New York University-Canal Jeans crowd. Attempting to engage one of the counterpersons in conversation elicited only a bad case of attitude.
Farther over in the East Village they'll talk your ear off, even if you are middle-aged, pudgy, and not particularly pierced. And if your companions include anyone who ispierced, head to Eightball Records, at 105 East Ninth Street, between Third and Fourth Avenues. Dance and house predominate. Eightball draws both DJs and their ambient dance victims. This is an altogether slick operation, with an attractive art-directed catalogue offering music, outerwear, and accessories. (It's on the Web at www. eightball.com.)
Finyl Vinyl, another perennial LP wateringhole, has moved nearby, to 204 East Sixth Street, just east of Cooper Square and NYU. The racks are filled with jazz, blues, seventies funk, rock, roots of rock, rock-a-billy, country, R&B, gospel, British Invasion, and more. (Is there more?) Prices range from $4.99 to $20 or more for domestic records and European imports. Collectibles and Japanese vinyl run $20 and up -- not the cheapest place around, but worth a visit.
Also nearby is Downtown Music Gallery, at 211 East Fifth Street, just east of Third Avenue. It offers a large collection of rock and world music, with small electronic and classical sections at the rear. The jazz reissue bins are well stocked and reasonably priced; original releases can be a bit more expensive. Call Bruce Lee Gallanter (212-473-0043), the owner, for a copy of his electronic newsletter, and check for dates and times of live-music events planned for in-store performance.
IN the mood for a brisk walk? I thought so. Let's begin our far-east meandering at Adult Crash, located in the perceptual heart of the East Village, at 66 Avenue A, between Fourth and Fifth Streets. The storefront is a bit obscure, but seek it out: I consider this one of the most sophisticated places in town. The owners, Tim Jackson and Carolyn Schmitt, say that they're more mission-driven than other dealers. My first, quick visual sweep of the place took in album covers from Pierre Henry and John Cage, Terry Riley, Patti Smith, and Stereolab. The selection of music, in both LP and CD, is assembled with impeccable taste and style in bins labeled strange, trip-hop, Satie & Cage, techno, ambient, pre-punk, no-wave, Throbbing Gristle, and exotica.
Your next stop might be around the corner, at the A-1 Record Shop, 439 East Sixth Street, between First Avenue and Avenue A, where "all sales are vinyl." There's lots of club, dance, soul, and world music, but it's the unique and well-stocked jazz section that empties my wallet. "I've never heard of half these Hank Crawford titles," Dan Billet, a jazz aficionado of our long acquaintance, who was along for the browsing, said enthusiastically. "All the classic, early recordings ... " His voice trailed off as he bent over another bin. A couple of turntables up front keep both shoppers and staff hopping: management will be only too happy to audition a cut or two from that vinyl clutched tightly to your chest. You can let go now.
I checked the prices in the pre-1965 jazz section. Original Verves, Riversides, Prestiges, and Blue Notes in generally good condition were marked at $20 and up. I set aside an OJC (Original Jazz Classic) re-release of Milt Jackson 'Live' at the Village Gateon Riverside for $8. Let me suggest keeping an eye out for the entire OJC catalogue, whose titles are relatively inexpensive -- $6 to $10 or so on LP, and a bit more for CD. These are, for the most part, creditable remasterings of the highly prized originals.
I also found an early original Riverside with Cannonball Adderley and Milt Jackson, called Things Are Getting Better,reasonably priced at $20. Steve, the tall expat Brit behind the counter, is generally disinclined to bargain, but at most stores a small discount can be had. And don't be tripped up by what I might call "label mystique." At $3 to $12 for most used records -- as little as fifty cents at thrift shops and flea markets -- it's painless to experiment.
That said, understand that to get the best out of vinyl you must clean it thoroughly. You'll be amazed at how quiet the surface of a sad, dusty old LP can be after a proper scrubbing. The Disc Doctor Miracle Record Cleaner and brushes ($45) and the Orbitrac 2 ($35) are available from Music Direct, at 800-449-8333. Or you can spend $100 to almost $1,000 for professional cleaning machines from such audiophile companies as Nitty Gritty and VPI, which will apply a special cleaning fluid, scrub it down into the groove, and then vacuum up the resultant goop. It's au revoirto snap, crackle, and pop. Then, too, some of today's stylus designs (the "needle," for you analogue neophytes) are so incredibly narrow that they track below many surface scratches. Over time you'll learn what records that can successfully be rejuvenated look like.
I predict that you'll spend some time at A-1, so a diversion will be necessary for fidgety companions. Send them to Little Rickie's, at 49 1/2 First Avenue, at the corner of Third Street, a glittering treasure chest of a novelty shop for kids of all ages. The shelves are stuffed with Pez dispensers, hysterical greeting cards, Elvis paraphernalia, mutant fridge magnets, outrageous rings, cuff links, hats, and funny T-shirts. Alphabets is another humorous-goods emporium, at 115 Avenue A, between Seventh and Eighth Streets, just around the corner from A-1. It's really two stores: T-shirts, rubber thingies, wind-up toys, and other amusing novelty items on the right side, and watches, books, notebooks, and high-tech personal objects on the left. From time to time Kathleen buys fragrant and sensuous incense from Japan or France here. I bought a rubber stamp with the legend "Art is anything you can get away with."
If novelties aren't the ticket, fashion victims will enjoy Tokyo 7, at 64 East Seventh Street, between First and Second. Kathleen's attention was caught outside this small consignment shop by a sign offering Yamamoto, Gaultier, and Moschino at $99 to $150. Or try Tokyo Joe's, a consignment store a few blocks up, at 334 East Eleventh Street, between First and Second.
Another favorite place of ours is Tompkins Square Books & Records, at 111 East Seventh Street, between First and A. It's a prototypical East Village shop, stacked with books beyond number to the left and thousands of records on the right. I usually cruise the art books and hunt for vinyl while Kathleen heads for the foreign-language texts. The LP pickings are hit-and-miss here, but there are plenty of bargains to be had. The shop doesn't specialize, as most do these days, so you'll find a mixture of jazz, vocals, show, rock, spoken word, classical, opera, world, and country music. It's best to avoid attracting attention when record hunting, so that no one will notice as you hyperventilate upon finding a cache of desirable RCA Living Stereo "Shaded Dogs" for a buck a pop. Gani Remorca, the soft-spoken proprietor at Tompkins Square, keeps an ancient stereo on hand to allow customers to listen before buying. The quarter taped to the headshell -- a trick to keep the stylus of a cheap cartridge in the groove -- makes me hesitate to go beyond a quick test, though.
Diagonally across the street, at 122 East Seventh, you'll find Stooz Records, which specializes in rock, soul, funk, and jazz and offers a fine selection of used vinyl and contemporary CDs at decent prices. When I'm looking for the latest release by Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson, or Smashing Pumpkins at a less-than-major-outlet price, I cruise to Stooz.
If your stomach demands attention, hop over to Pommes Frites, at 123 Second Avenue, near Seventh Street, for "authentic Belgian fries cooked twice to crisp golden perfection." Smother them with exotic toppings, or try the house fritesauce from the Netherlands. Perfection in a fry -- it's to die.
NINTH Street between Second and First Avenues is a microcosm of the entire East Village. Breakbeat Science, at 335 East Ninth, is America's first drum 'n' bass store. It advertises jungle, breakbeat, and trip-hop. "Jungle" turns out to be dance music played exclusively on drum and bass. The youth lounging behind the counter explained to us, "The music comes direct from London. It's a new form of dance where you move to the rhythm rather than the drumbeat. Of course, it's a fairly subtle thing." Of course.
For a dose of daring and style in women's clothing, try Horn, at 328 East Ninth. As you step in, you'll notice that the floor is covered with medium-sized smooth white stones. "It slows people down," the chic one behind the counter said. The elegance is palpable. At 335 East Ninth is a shop called simply H, for Craig Higgins, the owner, who travels widely and returns bearing an eclectic assortment of unexpected objects. Kathleen was tempted by a suite of mirrors taken from a Chinese cruise ship of the mid-1930s, for $158 each; I was somewhat less tempted by a basket full of huge black spiders encased in amber. We walked out with an 1890 Edison Repro Bulb for around $20, which now softly illuminates the entrance to our loft.
Two record shops on the next block, between First and A, are worth visiting. Rich Kim, the owner of Etherea, at 441 East Ninth, describes the ratio of CDs to LPs sold as about 50:50; he prefers the warmer sound of vinyl. Although Kim specializes in new music, his store also keeps a well-stocked classic-jazz section. That evening he had just put out a sizable number of OJCs: bug-eyed with anticipation, I riffled through the bins, and was relieved to see most of them tagged at $8.98, a fair price. I went crazy. I grabbed Monk with Coltrane; Kenny Burrell and Coltrane; Red Garland with the Trane and Don Byrd; Art Farmer's Farmer's Market;Gene Ammons with Don Byrd, Jackie McLean, and Mal Waldron; Clark Terry with Monk; and Dexter Gordon's Tower of Power! The prize find was "The Timekeepers": Count Basie Meets Oscar Peterson,on Pablo. Look for Pablos, which deliver more quality for the analogue buck than practically any other jazz label.
A little farther down the block, at 445 East Ninth, lurks a record store called Strange?, where you'll find more new music on both CD and LP. Here it has a UK twist. A block to the south Accidental CD, Records and Tapes spills out onto the sidewalk at 131 Avenue A, between Eighth and Ninth Streets. The vinyl's inside, it's mostly rock, and the place is open twenty-four hours a day. (Believe me, that's the principal draw.) Speaking of rock, let's consider Dance Tracks, at 91 East Third Street, between First and Second. Tracks is entirely DJ-oriented. In fact, there's always a DJ on duty, keeping the vinyl -- and the customers -- thumpin' and jumpin'. Kids will love it. The huge, overwhelming bass will vibrate your liver. However, there are a couple of very comfortable leather couches on which to sit and rest middle-aged feet. Did I mention wearing comfortable shoes?
NOW for St. Marks Place -- Eighth Street east of Third Avenue. Kathleen and I enjoy cruising its streets at night; the vibe is soporific. If we're heading into the Village late in the day, we might rendezvous at St. Marks Books, at 31 Third Avenue at Ninth Street, a fine place to pass a few bookish hours. The clerks coyly leave freakish and wildly visual large-format volumes out to catch the eye of browsing customers.
Kim's Video & Music, at 6 St. Marks Place, between Third and Second Avenues, stocks a lot of bleeding-edge new-music offerings from bands well known and not. Some of the cover art is positively scary. There are quite a few import LPs on the shelves, but most releases are on CD. You might pop into Venus Records, at 13 St. Marks, whose basement is filled with vinyl, or Smash Compact Disc, at 33 St. Marks, for alternative and mainstream rock, most of it on CD. Continuing down Eighth Street, turn right on Second Avenue and head for Sixth Street and you'll suddenly find yourself in Little India. There are scads of ethnic restaurants to choose from, their waiters stationed outside urging in the passersby.
The last two stores are outside the heart of the East Village. The doyen of Village LP venues is Footlight Records, at 113 East Twelfth Street, between Fourth and Third Avenues. (Find it at www.footlight.com, or send E-mail to Footlight1@aol.com.) Show music is the name of the game here: the store offers a finely graded selection of the genre in its many forms. The catalogue lists English, French, Italian, and Japanese cast albums, among others, and also male and female vocals, composer and theme collections, and television. How about a CD of the "Original Takarazuka cast recording" of West Side Story,a Japanese import at $35.95, with an all-female ensemble? There's also an excellent but small selection of international and folk music, and, happily, more jazz to choose from than ever. The LPs are poly-bagged and generally in perfect condition; prices range from moderate to high, but are mostly within reason.
The other shop that deserves mention is Throb, at 211 East Fourteenth Street, between Second and Third Avenues, mostly because the owner, Aldo Hernández, told me he's single and looking for a date. No, really. He was the funniest and most charming of all the vinyl people we met, and believe me, some of them can be pretty strange. He specializes in that jungle stuff again, but also features trip-hop, rave, ambient, techno, and lounge-core sixties music.
So there you have it. Bring a leather or canvas bag to contain all the vinyl goodies. A few packets of those pre-moistened towelettes might prove handy for a quick freshening up after rooting around in the bins for a while. I've taken to stashing them about my person in the event I happen on an unexpected cache of LPs. Isn't unexpected discovery half the fun?
Jonathan Scull is a senior contributing editor of Stereophile magazine.
Illustration by Jane Sanders
Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; December 1997; All Sales are Vinyl; Volume 280, No. 6; pages 106 - 112.