The Trip: New York’s Best Record Stores
Mark Elliott goes record shopping in New York and heads over the bridge to the streets of Brooklyn to find a happy hunting ground with mountains of stock
Across many years of travel to New York, I feel the crate digging has become ever-more disappointing. As in London’s Soho, the gentrification of Manhattan has forced out most of the interesting independents, and while there is certainly more tapas and frosé for sale than you can shake a stick at, the chances of finding a Turtles 45 have slimmed significantly. While a handful of stores still hang on in Greenwich Village (including the fabulous Record Runner at 5 Jones Street, which carries a fantastic range of synth-pop and dance, and the nearby and ever-reliable House Of Oldies at 35 Carmine Street), many of my old favourites have gone online, shut up completely or, in a couple of cases, crossed the East River to Brooklyn.
While just a couple of miles from the island of Manhattan, in record-shopping terms Brooklyn could be a continent away, with more than 20 shops worth visiting in the wider borough. If you were to secede Brooklyn from the rest of New York, it would be the country’s fourth-largest city, which gives you some idea of the neighbourhood’s scale.
Across the Williamsburg Bridge and just a couple of extra stops along from Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Greenpoint and Williamsburg house almost a dozen fantastic shops that you can easily get to from Midtown and the tourist centres.
I’m seemingly a bit braver than most visitors in the Big Apple… I drove around Brooklyn and found parking a dream – a mix of meters that took a credit card, or free spaces with a limited time. Record prices were generally mixed, but Brooklyn isn’t your typical NYC tourist haunt (a fact that’s harming some of the businesses I spoke to), so it’s a competitive scene, with each trader doing his best to keep the locals coming back.
There’s also a mountain of stock, so this is definitely worth a day-trip out. I don’t know if it was just the novelty of a new location, but I thought this actually made a better crate-digging destination than the glory days of Greenwich Village. Certainly, my first stop was something of a jaw-dropping experience I sense will be hard to ever surpass. On this trip, I was eager to pick up some US 45s – some of the 1980s picture sleeves are very different to the European issues – and no territory does a soundtrack better than the States. But, as ever, the joy of a day like this is the lure of the unexpected…
1. THE THING
1001 Manhattan Avenue,
9.30am to 7.30pm
Monday to Sunday
Famously billed as the place where New York’s records go to die, The Thing is actually a bad place to start your circuit, as there’s genuinely a week to be spent here if you have the stamina. The second-hand store is packed with interesting stuff – vintage copies of Rolling Stone, Charlie’s Angels toys and mountains of tatty furniture and old VHS cassettes. Get past all of that and the back and basement are where the fun really starts. The back room was packed – floor-to-ceiling racks of mixed-condition discs in no particular order, but it’s the basement that’s truly not for the faint-hearted. This is as close to vinyl archaeology as I’ve ever experienced. Long aisles of shelves groaning with records packed so tightly, it’s hard to even extract one. The lighting’s dim, the air is musty (a couple of guys doing a forensic search of one aisle were wearing facemasks) and the space is really cramped.
Many of the records were in poor shape, but just as many seemed fine. Each disc here will set you back just $2, so it’s no wonder crate diggers have been known to spend days here searching. I sense the super-rarities will long have been unearthed, but there’s plenty else to find. One shelf yielded a mint copy of Pet Shop Boys’ Heart 12″ from the UK, the Pens, Guns And Riffs 1984 compilation from the Compact Organization (how did that end up here?), Shalamar’s second album, Disco Gardens, and more predictable fare such as Melissa Manchester and The Partridge Family. At a couple of bucks apiece, no one can say this is expensive, but the cost to your physical wellbeing down there might be another matter. The Thing certainly comes with a health warning, but it’s genuinely one of the most staggering vinyl vaults I’ve ever come across.
I reluctantly left after an hour, pleased with my modest pickings (including that Shalamar album). At the airport, on my way home, customs yet again went through my flight case, crammed as usual with the records I couldn’t chance with my check-in baggage weight allowance. “Is that The Jackson 5?” muttered the surly guard. I think my weary explanation that there are clearly three of them in Shalamar and one’s the very female Jody Watley probably didn’t speed my progress, but it had been a long day…
2. RECORD GROUCH
986 Manhattan Avenue,
Noon to 8pm Monday to Sunday
Just over the street from The Thing, Record Grouch couldn’t be more different. Brian Gempp keeps a nicely curated store with tidy racks, clean discs and simple labeling. The stock’s eclectic, but he admits there’s a bias towards the left-of-centre, with electronic, psych and prog providing the core of the collection. The best buy I had here was a fully autographed copy of Welcome To The Pleasuredome by Frankie Goes To Hollywood. I’m a big 80s collector, so for $50 this iconic album (in nice condition, too) was a prize find. Someone clearly had a soft spot for former Undertones front-man Feargal Sharkey, too – there was an almost complete run of his UK-issued solo material also up for grabs. I have much of it, but was pleased to plug a few gaps, including the 7″ picture disc of Listen To Your Father, a No. 23 hit in 1984, one year before the release of his better-known A Good Heart.
There’s also the novelty 12″ picture disc Mr. T’s Commandments – basically the sound advice of don’t talk to strangers if you’re under 16 – well meant, but the less said about the track’s musical merits, the better! Brian says that 70% of his business is second-hand vinyl, but he carries a tight range of new releases to soak up limited demand. “We can’t afford to carry all of it,” he tells me. “So we remain focused and narrow and have built some good customer loyalty that way.” Working closely with the Saint Vitus bar further along Manhattan Avenue, with its strong relationship with metal bands, means releases by those sorts of acts tend to predominate.
3. CAPTURED TRACKS
195 Calyer Street, NY 11222
Noon to 8pm Monday,
10am to 8pm Tuesday to Thursday, 10am to 10pm Friday and Saturday, 11am to 7pm Sunday
Now, if Hollywood were to design an archetypal Brooklyn record store, I think this would be the template. Situated in the basement of one of those evocative brownstone buildings (seemingly shipped in from Central Casting), it’s not connected to the local label but is a real blast of Big Apple atmosphere. Booming Aretha greets our arrival (later replaced by Carole King’s Tapestry) and the racks of stock are packed with decent bargains. I found my best haul of 7″ picture sleeves here, including the everywhere-but-Europe ABBA 7″ When All Is Said And Done, and most for generally $3 apiece. Near-mint copies of 70s rock albums were less than $10 (Jeff Beck’s 1985 LP Flash for just $3 didn’t escape my attention, either) and decent prices could be found for all manner of jazz, soul and funk, with a surprising number of international editions. Records were graded fairly and generally in excellent quality – a mint copy of Madonna’s debut was just $5, which struck me as ridiculously good value, despite her relatively diminished collectability these days. Bright, light comfortable stores such as this with decent stock that’s easy to get at make record shopping a dream.
Each disc at The Thing will set you back just $2, so it’s no wonder crate diggers have been known to spend days here searching. It’s genuinely one of the most staggering vinyl vaults I’ve ever come across
4. CO-OP 87 RECORDS & TAPES
87 Guernsey Street,
11am to 9pm Monday to Sunday
Starting life as more of a boutique outfit under the Mexican Summer label, this store has a strong base in the dance market, but in truth, there’s a little bit of everything here now (although few tapes, despite the billing). I found a neat box of Italo disco with some releases I hadn’t come across that were worth a few dollars to take a risk on.
New York has always been a major melting pot of musical influences, and it’s true that you can find just about anything in this city if you’re prepared to work hard enough at it (yes, even obscure Italians who managed one single release in 1986). Classic rock is big business here, too, but the 45s are very broad, with some choice soul and Motown that would cost far more back in the UK than the $1 being charged here. Reggae and dancehall’s also something you won’t find widely across the USA, so this rates as one of the better destinations for it I’ve come across this side of the Atlantic. My Italo-disco came wrapped in a neat paper bag, which was a nice touch and made me feel rather hipper than the ‘Maxi Single’ of Tom Hooker’s Looking For Love would suggest I should.
5. ROUGH TRADE NYC
64 North 9th Street,
11am to 11pm Monday to Saturday, 11am to 9pm Sunday
Operating in Williamsburg since 2013, Rough Trade is famous as much for its live schedule as its ability to shift Haim albums. Liam Gallagher had not long since played at the iconic venue and, if you know the store in London’s Brick Lane, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what to expect here. Losing just the white brickwork, this American outpost is drenched in lacquered wood and atmospheric lighting, and is another neat retail experience where you’ll find yourself picking up magazines and T-shirts as likely as you will new vinyl. There’s a modest used section, but in truth, there are better stores for that sort of thing.
Halcyon described itself on relocation as “vaguely styled after a Stasi-era Eastern European diner car”. It has some comfy seats, a set of decent decks and enough serious-looking chaps with beards to populate an edition of Vice
74 Wythe Avenue, NY 11249
2pm to 8pm Monday to Friday, noon to 8pm Saturday and Sunday
New York can be an intimidating place. Not in the threatening way it was when I first started visiting in the early 1990s, where walking down certain streets chilled the blood (successive mayors have done a decent job of clearing all of that up). Instead, it’s in that achingly trendy, ‘you’re-really-not-worthy enough’ vibe that some residents seem to radiate towards you. Halcyon The Shop is a dance legend in the city, has moved around a bit and, in its current home, described itself on relocation as “vaguely styled after a Stasi-era Eastern European diner car”. That might be pushing it, but it has some comfy seats, a set of decent decks and enough serious-looking chaps with beards to populate an edition of Vice.
The store has been running since 1999, so it’s secured a loyal following and friends I spoke to who have a tendency towards its sort of thing swear that it’s the only place they shop. I didn’t buy anything, but the seats were nice and, in the gloom, I could just about pass as someone who belonged…
123 Wythe Avenue,
Noon to 9pm Monday to Sunday
This quirky curiosity didn’t first register in my planning research, but it caught my eye and the vinyl was surprisingly plentiful – albeit peppered randomly across the single-storey shop, where you’ll find yourself moving aside vintage Barbies and Marvel character figures to get a closer look at some Emerson, Lake & Palmer. The records were in varying conditions and a couple were in the wrong sleeves.
That said, the price I paid for a breakdance-inducing compilation was very fair and I was pleased to find it. A stack of Huey Lewis 45s also needed securing – testament to the fact that, as my wants list for every UK chart hit from the 1980s is drying up, there’s always the lure of a complementary Billboard habit to consider.
167 North 9th Street,
11.30am to 8.30pm
Monday to Sunday
Earwax started life in Williamsburg in 1991, when the neighbourhood was mostly working class and populated by Polish people. In the years since, the gentrification has yielded mixed fortunes, with the store moving a couple of times since as the rents soared and the trendy coffee shops moved in. Earwax’s current home suffers from being off one of the busier streets, but the venue was packed, and you can see why the store has survived so much change.
There’s a decent range of new vinyl – I finally picked up a reissue copy of Depeche Mode’s Speak & Spell here for the best price I found it on this trip – and the used racks were interesting (I found the 12″ of Springsteen’s Born In The USA without its I’m On Fire pairing for US release).
I was fascinated by a decent stock of eight-track cartridges, including Blondie’s Parallel Lines, which I assumed was released long after the genre’s heyday. Not in the USA, though, apparently… I’m told by owner Fabio Roberti that you could still buy some releases on eight-track until the middle of the following decade by mail order. He says its popularity with long-distance truckers kept it buoyant, and he still has collectors contact him for fresh stock today. That’s a format too far for me (I’m still puzzled by the increasing popularity of cassette, even though I bought OMD’s latest on it, too – alongside my deluxe vinyl – purely for the nostalgic value).
9. NORMAN’S SOUND & VISION
555 Metropolitan Avenue, NY 11211
9am to 8pm Monday and Tuesday, 9am to 9pm Wednesday to Saturday, noon to 5pm Sunday
East Village refugee Norman Isaacs came out to Williamsburg six years ago and says the move has brought mixed blessings, with the more affordable rent being offset by a reduced haul of tourist dollars, which kept his previous location solvent. I did my bit, with a really good haul of soundtrack sets, including a nice copy of The Unbearable Lightness Of Being score, a fabulous set of performances from The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in a two-LP set and the original Broadway run of Grease (almost unrecognisable from the Travolta/Newton-John behemoth of 1978).
Like all the Brooklyn stores, CDs represent a small percentage of the sales volume although, even six years ago, the digital format still represented a much larger proportion of the stock. Today, the vinyl is balanced between used (and there’s a lot of it) and new (with a very good haul of Record Store Day releases still on sale). It’s here I sourced my find of the day – a Zang Tuum Tumb boxset – 10 7″ singles packaged together for Record Store Day three years ago. At 1,000 editions worldwide, it was a US-issued item from 2014 that was hard to find without going online and settling for a used copy. This set’s mint and the price is excellent.
Norman’s is the sort of store you could spend a day in, but I’m mindful of the challenges of baggage allowance (and, in truth, the still-depressed value of sterling against the US dollar). Norman’s is my last stop of the day and, although there are a few more stores in Brooklyn I could have hit with more time, this has proved an entirely satisfying visit that won’t be my last. I’ll always have a soft spot for Greenwich Village, but Brooklyn is the one to beat.
1 STAY WITH ME
Brooklyn’s increasingly becoming a hip place to stay when in New York City, with lots of cool new hotels springing up. You’ll find prices more reasonable than in Manhattan, too.
2 CREDIT CARD BABY
Every store I visited accepted credit cards. As ever, the currency charges can sting and I didn’t spot many banks with ATMs in Brooklyn, for some reason – so bring plenty of cash, if that’s your preference.
3 FLEA BARGAINING
Brooklyn’s fabulous (and famous) flea market isn’t actually held in the borough. You’ll find it each Saturday and Sunday at 100 Avenue Of The Americas in Manhattan. There is another one each Sunday under Manhattan Bridge, though, if you’re in Brooklyn.
4 FAIRGROUND ATTRACTION
New York hosts a lot of record fairs. Nyrecordfairs.com is a great resource to make sure you time your visit to catch one. The WFMU fair returns to the Brooklyn Expo Centre from 27 to 29 April 2018.
5 NOBLE SURFER
Brooklyn’s great for general shopping. There are a couple of decent malls and two branches of Barnes & Noble in the borough that are pretty good (although the brand’s flagship store in Union Square, Manhattan, is hard to beat).
Flights to New York are plentiful and relatively cheap. Williamsburg is about eight miles from Central Park if you take FDR Drive, which runs along the eastern edge of Manhattan. Taxis can take around an hour and cost about $30. The East River Ferry takes 15 minutes, with two an hour at peak times from East 34th Street. The subway is quick and the L line is easily picked up when you get down to Chelsea and the East Village.