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Columns > Mike Gruenberg - In My Life

Published: 2010/04/30
by Mike Gruenberg

Confessions of a Record Store Junkie

In My Life

Ah, yes I remember it well. That’s when it all began. For my 12th birthday, my parents gave me a record player. The brand was Webcor. That brand probably no longer exists. Today, you can buy a Webcor record player on eBay for a starting bid at about $5 bucks. However, when I got that clunky green box that contained a turntable that played records at 33 1/3-45-78 rpm’s, my life appreciably changed. Apparently, my parents told some of their friends of their intent to give me the record player. Because once I got the Webcor, the next gifts to open were records from my friends, family and neighbors.

I remember that Mrs. Anderson, a neighbor who lived in the next building, gave me some Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis 78 rpm records. Someone else gave me an Elvis Presley album, but my most cherished gift was a collection of the Top 10 hits of the day on ten 45’s. They were the first 45’s I ever owned. I played every record and after everyone went home I continued to play them and then I read every word on each record and to this day understand why that on that fateful day, I started on the road to becoming a record store junkie.

America in the late 50’s and early 60’s was transforming itself from a small town mentality into regional megalopolis centers. I grew up in Kew Gardens, Queens which was part of New York City. Our little town could be aptly described as a cozy small town and it seemed as though everyone knew each other. It was a pleasant environment, with a great pizza place, butcher shops, candy stores, barber shop, a few delicatessens, Movie Theater and bakery but no record store. I had to travel a mile away into Forest Hills when I first walked into a record store. It was located on Continental Avenue. In the stores’ window were pictures and records of the latest hits by the musical artists of the day. You could listen to any record in the store on turntables and headphones before you bought a record. I remember that the person behind the counter was very knowledgeable and would engage you in conversation about the newest records that had just arrived or you could speak to another customer about the latest and greatest.

Conveniently enough, I was starting Junior High School in Forest Hills at that time, so I felt obliged to visit the record store whenever I had the funds or just the inclination to engage in spirited music conversation. Being a somewhat adventurous teenager at the age of thirteen, I decided that there must be some more exploring I needed to do in New York City so as to broaden my cultural horizons and find more record stores in that great borough called Manhattan.

On some week-ends, I would leave Kew Gardens, enter the subway at the Union Turnpike station and take the E or the F train to the city. I had heard that there were better record stores in the city than the one I knew in Forest Hills. I had to find out if this was true. One day while walking through Greenwich Village I noticed that there were even more record stores than I had imagined. Names like Village Oldies and Bleecker Bob’s caught my eye. They were not as neatly maintained as the store in Queens, nor were their prices as reasonable as I had hoped, but boy did they have incredible selections of vinyl. Too often in those years, after a day of searching I would come home empty handed not due to lack of desire, but due to lack of suitable funds to purchase.

As I got older and my income improved, my record collection grew in size and the frequency of my trips to the city increased. My walking geography was expanded to include the East Village. In that part of the city, it seemed that there were even more record stores per block than in any other part of the city. On days when my high school officially or non-officially had no classes, I would find the time to travel to Manhattan and rummage through these unique stores. I eventually ventured uptown to Colony Records which was located on the same block as the Brill Building. Colony was considered the best store for the latest sheet music and records at that time. New York City became for me, a veritable candy store for records!

In college, I got a job in a record store in Brooklyn which significantly increased the size of my record collection since most of my wages went into buying records at a discount from the store owner. At this time many of the large department stores began to sell records which significantly hurt the small local record stores. Alexander’s, EJ Korvettes and Mays were some of the names of New York department stores that sold records at a discount making it all but impossible for the locally owned record stores to compete and stay in business. You were not permitted to play the records before you bought them in the big stores, but the prices and selections were very good and they had a liberal return policy. Sadly, the independent stores could not compete and many ceased to exist because of the big stores now selling records.

I liked buying my music at EJ Korvettes in Douglaston, NY since I could drive there and it was easy to get to on the Long Island Expressway. On those trips, I preferred to leave the L.I.E. in Bayside before the Korvette’s exit and stop into Larry’s Music store. I could speak with Larry, who told me about the newest bands from NY, LA and England. He’d play for me the latest 45’s that had just arrived and he became a trusted music friend. Not sure how he was able to stay in business as long as he did, but I was grateful for the records and knowledge I gained from Larry. It was Larry who told me about and sold me the first U.S. album releases of the Who and Pink Floyd in mono. Larry predicted that both groups would be big not only in the U.S., but throughout the world.

For the past 40+ years, I have visited record stores all over the U.S. and other countries. There were some great stores and some not so great stores where I have had the pleasure to rummage through the 45’s and LP’s. Don’t know if all of these stores still exist, although some listed here have been recently visited. Here are some recollections:

· My business travels used to take me to Columbus, Ohio every year. There, across the street from the gates of Ohio State University was a store called “Mole’s Record Exchange” run by a tall guy whose nickname was The Mole. He had an incredible selection of promotional vinyl LP’s and would greet me as “that guy from NY is back again.”

· While vacationing in Orlando, Florida one year, I chanced to find a store called Rock’n’Roll Heaven. It’s located in a small suburban strip mall. I remember that they had their 45’s very neatly arranged. Although one of the times I visited the store, the person there aggressively tried to sell me the “Four Season vs. The Beatles” album on Vee-Jay. It was a mono copy in a stereo sleeve which is why the price being asked was not realistic and I had to pass on purchasing it. In spite of this, I have returned to the store many times since then over the ensuing years.

· Going back to my East Village record store roots, I was at first turned off by the size of Rainbow Music on 1st Avenue in NYC when I was there last year. I have been in closets that were longer and wider than this store. To make it worse, there was no real discernable system on how the CD’s were arranged. However, once I got over the initial shock of size and categorization of the stock in this place, it was a gold mine of product. Moreover, the guy behind the counter was very helpful and knowledgeable as he spoke to me in his eastern European accent. The place is a gem. Hope it’s still there because I plan to go back soon.

· When I lived on Long Island, there were a number of excellent record stores with extensive CD and Vinyl collections for sale. Infinity Records in Massapequa Park and Mr. Cheapo’s with two stores in Commack and Mineola were the ones I happily frequented. I miss Mr. Cheapo. He was a nice guy.

· Now I’m living in the Washington, DC area, and happy to say that Joe’s Record Paradise is my vinyl store of choice. Joe recently moved his store to a location in Silver Spring that gives him more space to display the CD’s and Records. At the grand opening a few weeks ago, a live band performed and Joe served snacks to his customers and well wishers.

· Last month, I was in Portland, Oregon and through a Google search by my colleague found a store called 2nd Avenue Records. There in downtown Portland, we found a record store that is a treasure trove of vinyl. Had a most pleasant afternoon there, searching through the LP’s and 45’s and listening to the latest Jimi Hendrix album playing through the stores’ speaker system.

· My first visit to Colony Records in New York was sort of a pilgrimage since I had heard and read so much about that legendary store. Similarly, on a trip to L.A., I made the trek to Rockaway Records. Since becoming an avid record collector, Rockaway always stood out as a store with great selections. I was not disappointed.

· Perhaps the most impressive record store I have seen in many years was the one my fellow record store maven friend and I found was in Boise, Idaho called the Record Exchange. If there is a “Gold Standard” in record stores, then this place qualifies as such. Aside from the incredible selection, the merchandise is clearly marked and the store is sizable enough for many people to comfortably look for their favorite sounds without bumping into each other. They even have live concerts at the store.

With the resurgence of vinyl, many record stores seem to be thriving which means that new ones will open and the current ones will hopefully prosper. Goldmine magazine, widely read by music collectors now runs a feature in every issue profiling an independent record store. The beauty of these stores is that they can be anywhere. They can conduct business in large cities like Chicago where for example, you can find the best jazz record store on earth at the Jazz Record Mart located in the middle of the city. Or you can go to a college town like Ann Arbor that supports a half dozen vinyl/cd stores devoted to all types of music including PJ’s Record store which I have had the pleasure to visit.

In addition to the U.S., I have been to record stores in England, France, Italy, Asia and Canada. All of these stores in all of these places have one thing in common. Each one represents a place that is comfortable for me to go and lose myself for a few hours while I try to create the perfect collection of music for my enjoyment. I don’t necessarily buy something at all of these places. I just like to go and spend the time and try to unearth some rarities.

The quest to find the perfect record store is a journey filled with fun, as well. Many years ago, I went to a store in Westport, Connecticut that was a combination record store, antique clothing and ice cream parlor all in one. Imagine finding a rare LP there and rewarding yourself with an ice cream soda and going home with a cool record and some stylish clothing. I don’t think that store exists today, but I love the concept.

My record store obsession has literally taken me all over the world. I found the Beatles White album on white vinyl at a record store in Nashville. In Paris, I purchased a 45 by the Doors with the full 7:00 minute version of Light My Fire and in London I found a gold record of “Hey Jude” mixed amongst the vinyl 45’s. For a record store junkie like me, these “finds” are the very reason I continue to search through the dust to find the diamonds.

On April 17th, all of the above mentioned stores celebrated “Record Store Day.” 2010 marked the third year this day has been in existence. The event has grown to include the 700+ U.S. independent stores as well as ones throughout the world to commemorate and celebrate the unique service that independent record stores provide. Record companies and distributors contribute and create special vinyl offerings for these stores in celebration of this day.

Go to your local independent record store and have a great time. You may find that elusive album that will complement your collection. And next year on the third Saturday in April, I may be the guy rummaging through a bin of LP’s in your local store standing next to you on Record Store Day.

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