Record Hunt in the Village, 1985.
I remember the sheer excitement getting off the subway at Astor Place and walking towards Washington Square Park for the first time. As soon as we got to Broadway I saw the big yellow sign for Tower Records and I practically broke into a sprint for the revolving doors. Tower was a giant record store chain. The three-level location on East 4th Street and Broadway was the biggest record store in the New York area at that time. I couldn’t believe anywhere so wonderful could exist. Everywhere you looked there were records! They had every style of music I had ever heard of. I couldn’t afford to buy much at Tower, but I would have been happy just to hold those shiny records and stare at them all weekend while people came and went and music played all around me. Just to see the cashiers and door people, gainfully employed with pink and green hair was liberating and fascinating enough to my young suburban sensibilities.
Soon I discovered that there were 10 or 20 other record stores right around the corner that sold records I actually could afford. These places even had out of print records by rare, old forgotten artists. Every weekend in the Village, Josh & I would make the rounds of those used record stores. It was a kind of treasure hunt. We would search out every weird record that we had read about in a book or on the back of another album. It was on the record hunt that I really I got to know the neighborhood.
I’ve still got a map in my head of the village and its record stores from 1985. We spent a lot of time at Second Coming Records, on Sullivan Street and West 3rd, just a block South of Washington Square. They had two stores on one block. One store was rock & pop. The other store had jazz, folk, classical, etc… The counter clerk at the rock shop was Ewa, a woman with super straight, light brown hair with bangs. She seemed grown up, cool and mysterious to me. She never smiled. Maybe Josh got her to smile eventually, but only for a second and not a full smile. We also bought a lot of records at Venus Records. It was on 8th Street & 6th Avenue on the second floor. The guys who ran the joint were kind of cranky punk rock guys who had no great love for kids but they cracked each other up. They tolerated us because we bought stuff. There was another place on 8th street called “It’s Only Rock & Roll”. They stayed opened way into the night. They had a bouncer at the door who wore a leather vest and told war stories about old rock concerts he had worked at. They had big wooden shelf full of rock & roll books. I remember that they had an old, extremely rare book of photos taken in Hamburg, Germany in the early 60’s. The book included many totally obscure behind the scenes photos of the pre-fame Beatles, hanging out in clubs. I never could afford the book, but I used to look through it all the time. On Bleecker and Thompson there was a store with a sign that just said “Records”. They had some cool, old dusty stuff. The proprietor seemed to be in a perpetual hang over from a party he’d gone to in 1969. “Records on Bleecker”, as we called it, also had a broken pinball machine and they sold little pot pipes and paraphernalia, arranged haphazardly in a glass display case by the cash register. “Records” eventually lost its lease and had to move to Greenwich Avenue. We started calling it “Records on Bleecker that’s not on Bleecker”. Bleecker Bob’s was also in business back then and open super late. It wasn’t on Bleecker either and everything was marked up except for the stacks of 50 cent 45’s.
Eventually, we started branching out from the main haunts. To the west was Golden Disc on Bleecker across 6th Avenue, with two floors of used records. Slightly out of our range to the East was “Sounds” on St. Mark’s Place. Sounds seemed even more punk and tough then our old hippie record stores and it took us a while to fully explore the East Village. Right next door to Slava’s building was a place called Record Factory, that had a rather extensive selection of new records for cheap. I bought some very obscure cassettes there from weird knock-off labels. Far afield was a place up on 12th or 13th Street called “Footlight Records” that sold a lot of jazz and show tunes kind of stuff. They hated our scruffy kind over there but they seemed mildly amused when we bought old jazz records. We also flipped through the jazz records at a shop called “Nostalgia” on Thompson Street, that mainly sold framed black and white portraits of old movie stars. Their records were priced high, but they were cool to look at and the guy who ran the place was quiet and polite.
Josh and I had a general plan of action each time we’d stay at his aunt’s place. We’d wander around the village all day, from one record shop to the next. At night we’d let ourselves in to the apartment after Slava had gone to bed. We’d play our precious new acquisitions on her old turntable, while she slept just a few feet away. Playing records late at night wasn’t something I could get away with at home. Luckily for us, Slava was too deaf to get woken up by the music. I remember listening to Jimmy Cliff singing “Time Will Tell” and staring at the multi-colored album cover while Slava snored.
Some weekends we didn’t even have enough money to buy 2 dollar records at the used shops. But the Village itself was enough of an adventure for us. We weren’t old enough to go to bars, but we started sneaking in where we could. There were movie theaters, coffee shops, bookstores and diners where we’d spend a lot of time too. Mostly, we just hung out in Washington Square Park with the street musicians, stand up comedians, and other assorted performers and weirdos.
…More about them next time…