Astoria Finds New Faith in Vinyl with HiFi Records

Patrons comb through the crates at HiFi Records on opening day.
Patrons comb through the crates at HiFi Records on opening day.
Robert Menzer for the Village Voice

Stepping into a freshly minted record store offers a subtle jubilation, especially if most of your music is intangible and residing in your Spotify account. The Sharpie ink used to mark the artists' names in the bins has only recently dried, the various wall posters are crisp, without a single tear (though the one for the Smiths hanging by the door will soon, no doubt, earn its battle scars), and then there’s the mass of unopened vinyl. The freshness encourages a deep, tranquil inhale. Is this a shop or a Zen garden? Who says they can’t be one and the same, for an audiophile?

The name of this record refuge is HiFi Records & Café in Astoria, and its doors swung open for business on July 11 with a bustling grand opening. It’s located in an area of the neighborhood that might attract a modest number of window shoppers, but for HiFi owner Javi Velazquez, the location was a deliberate choice, not a compromise.

“I actually fell in love with this section of Astoria because it’s kind of off the beaten path," he says. "It’s not like 30th [Avenue] or Broadway, which is beautiful and great, but I guess you’re going to attract a lot [of] 'Oh, they still make these?' or 'How much for a Beatles album?' Here, people seek you out — I’m one of them! Everywhere I’ve traveled, the first thing I did was pop out the Vinyl District app to find the nearest store.”

Velazquez is a Puerto Rican native and worked at record shops in San Juan throughout his adolescence, citing previous employers Casa de los Tapes and Precision Audio. He’s a project manager for a construction company — wood paneling from an old construction demolition was recycled to help build the HiFi bins — and he’s currently spending his two-week vacation launching the store. Velazquez said the idea for HiFi Records had lingered for a while, but after becoming a father, he decided it was time to fully pursue the venture.

“I’ve always had it in the back of my mind, but I thought when I retire I’d do it. Everybody thinks about starting a little business when they retire and start selling seashells on the beach,” he says. “I already started my own little website and I was trading and selling. I said, ‘This is a perfect time: I can start a business close to home, be near my baby, and when she gets out of school she can stop by the record store. So I said, 'Why not now?' ”

HiFi's owner, Javi Velazquez, at the store's grand opening, 7/11/15
HiFi's owner, Javi Velazquez, at the store's grand opening, 7/11/15
Robert Menzer for the Village Voice

About 5,000 albums are available in the store — which is only about 500 square feet, or the size of a slightly wider subway car — but located in the basement are thousands more, which Velazquez plans to integrate and cycle daily. Currently stocked are various music genres that range from bluegrass invigorators the Punch Brothers to Eighties pop titans Tears for Fears.

They’re mostly new, still in the plastic, with a fluctuating used section and a shallow division dedicated to CDs. On top of the record selection, Velazquez is a proud distributor of the Boston-based turntable company U-Turn Audio and is happily available to assist any prospective record player enthusiasts. In the back of the shop is a small café where patrons can grab some caffeine from Brooklyn’s Nicoletti Coffee — though don’t expect a decaf option. (Velazquez likes his coffee strong.)

Just down the street from HiFi Records is the Astoria Soundworks music studio, and Velazquez often sees musicians, their guitars in tow, passing by. “The whole purpose is to give a venue for local musicians and local artists that want to go ahead and get their music out there,” he says. “They contact me and we set up a time.”

Two weeks prior to the opening of HiFi Records, Apple debuted its streaming service, another development that encourages listeners to keep their music libraries online and out of their physical grip. But this doesn’t faze Velazquez. As long as people are discovering new and meaningful music, he doesn’t care how it’s obtained. He’s confident in a market comprising plenty of people just like himself: the active seekers and supporters who prefer a musical totem in a digital age that often opts for the conducive over the cumbersome.

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“It connects people with the true intention of the artist. You get the whole artwork in the size it was [intended] to be seen,” he says of vinyl. “It’s not as convenient, but it was never meant to be convenient. It was meant to hear the original, true intention of the artist. You get the original sine wave, which is analog — how we hear. A record is almost like a photographic image of the true original sound.”

HiFi Records & Café is open Tuesday and Wednesday from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Thursday to Saturday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. The store is located at 23-19 Steinway Street in Astoria. For more information, click here


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