Beyond the Hype: The Voice Goes Rogue for Record Store Day
On Saturday, April 16, record shops throughout New York wedge open their doors for Record Store Day. The nationwide annual event began in 2008, at the height of record store colony collapse disorder, to "celebrate the unique culture of [independent] record stores and the special role [they] play in their communities." Its creator is Chris Brown (no, not that one), the marketing manager at Bull Moose Records, a chain of indie shops with twelve locations throughout Maine and New Hampshire. As he said in 2014 of the ever-growing blowout, "We want to let people know that great store in your town would be there as long as you want it to be."
If the Record Store Day website is to be believed, though, the only stores worth supporting are ones whose customers would swoon at the idea of waiting hours in line to buy Xiu Xiu Plays the Music of Twin Peaks, one of this year's RSD-exclusive releases. It turns out this holiday is really a sort of Black Friday for music obsessives who keep Pitchfork tabbed continuously open on their browsers, right next to the Pirate Bay and Spotify. Record Store Day exists to remind them to support their local shops instead of just streaming or stealing — that is, as long as those shops fit within hip confines. Stores that sell to other listening demographics are left to celebrate unofficially on their own terms, if they celebrate at all.
We don't think Big Indie should have all the fun. There are dozens of shops across the boroughs just as deserving of the spirit of Record Store Day, even if the main festivities exclude them because they dare not to be trendy. So, to help you plan your holiday, the Voice sent its music contributors to check out the unsung heroes of local record store culture. While some of them are offering special sales and events, none will sell you the much-hyped official releases (when we called Human Head to ask if they would be offering RSD exclusives, "Absolutely not" came the acid-dripping reply). But they will sell you almost anything else, and your collection will be stronger for it. Happy Record Store Day, and happy digging. — Zoë Leverant
786 Prospect Avenue, Bronx
Casa Amadeo is not unlike your abuelo's living room. Owner Miguel "Mike" Angel Amadeo's record shop has been a community space for makers of Latin music to shop and schmooze for nearly half a century. "Forty-seven years have passed and I'm still here," he says with a smile.
The store is the longest chapter in Amadeo's musical career, which he began at sixteen, when he wrote his first song shortly after leaving Bayamó?n, Puerto Rico, for New York. He shared his romantic lyrics with Latin acts, penning hits like "Que Me Lo Den en Vida," which was performed by Puerto Rican superstars El Gran Combo. Amadeo also wrote all ten tracks for his Latin Grammy–nominated nephew Tito Nieves's album, aptly titled Entre Familia (Among Family). The shop opened in 1969, when he purchased the storefront from famous Puerto Rican composer Rafael Hernandez and his sister Victoria.
Amadeo has been a mentor, inspiration, and songwriter for generations of Latin musicians. Framed and signed photos by stars from Ray Barretto to Selena line the walls. He prizes an autographed copy of Celia Cruz's hit "Son con Guaguanco," a gift for contributing two songs to her album. Amadeo is also a keeper of traditions, preserving a range of classic Afro-Latino sounds — bomba, plena, son, guaracha, and the New York blend of those rhythms we call salsa — on cassette, CD, and wax. Crate-diggers at Casa Amadeo might find cuts from obscure merengueros from the 1960s, or from an upcoming local singer.
Now in his eighties, Amadeo has a full head of snow-white hair and plenty of energy to continue running his business, which was landmarked in 2001. "I'll be 82 in May, but I seem 28, right?" he jokes in Spanish. With another birthday coming up, will he close up shop soon? "No," he says. "I don't think about it." — Desiree Brown
57-03 Catalpa Avenue, Queens
Despite being a baby in record-store years — the place celebrates its first birthday later this month — Deep Cuts adds more to its neighborhood than the average shop. It's open from 1 to 8 p.m. Thursday through Sunday for relaxed mornings and after-work digging hours. In addition to being wildly well stocked, Deep Cuts abides by a buy-sell-trade ethos that puts the emphasis on the "trade" part to keep locals coming back. In the summer, it hosts a record lovers' barbecue every Saturday in the backyard.
What else would you expect from a store whose logo is a giant, stuffed, cheese-grinning, Velvet Underground–meets–Peter Tosh rasta banana? A shop that posts memes to its official Facebook page instructing fans and followers not to "judge people by skin color, religion, or sexual orientation" but instead on the content of their record collection? The folks at Deep Cuts take fun seriously, without compromising either work ethic or quality.
Its quickly growing fan base cites how super helpful the staff is — look elsewhere for the elitist iteration of "chill" that's the punchline of every joke about dudes who work in record stores. Here, you've got folks psyched about barbecue, photographs of Slayer holding rescue puppies, and tribute altars to Selena (R.I.P., baby girl). Their stock is ridiculous, too — a total lack of wallet-punishers and a healthy quantity of reasonably priced rarities and foreign pressings. If you show up wanting new-to-you wax but without a sense of what exactly you need, don't worry: Just start in the "Weird Shit" section and work your way out to heaven. — Meredith Graves
House of Oldies
35 Carmine Street, Manhattan
Fancy a piece of paper containing John Lennon's handwritten "want list" of 45s for his personal jukebox? Tough — you can't have it. It's reserved for Bob Abramson's kids and grandkids. But many other gems can be gleaned from the packed-to-the-gills Carmine Street store, run since 1969 by Abramson, still youthful at 73.
House of Oldies Rare Records offers up to 250,000 pieces of collectible vinyl — and only vinyl. As the sign in the window states: "No CDs, no tapes." Don't look for $2 bargains, though. "I used to buy record stores that went out of business, thirty, forty years ago, when the stuff was new," says Abramson. "We pride ourselves on the condition of our records." You won't find Adele or White Stripes vinyl, either: Nothing in stock has a pressing date past the late Eighties. But if you're flush, you can grab a complete set of Elvis Presley's Sun recordings, or Buddy Holly's 1957 debut album, which goes for about $800. And, if you're not feeling spendy, it's fun — and encouraged — to gawk.
Up to 60 percent of Abramson's sales are to out-of-towners, and he doesn't sell over the internet. He will answer questions about his stock via email, though, because he likes to be a fount of knowledge for any and all record lovers, which these days means a lot of teenagers. "I handle everything myself. That's my desire," he explains. "This is a labor of love, and it's a lot of fun, and I'm trying to keep it that way, so I don't have to retire." — Katherine Turman
The staff of Human Head
168 Johnson Avenue, Brooklyn
Weekend afternoons mean shoulder-to-shoulder action in the aisles at Human Head. On a recent Saturday morning, it was packed less than an hour after opening. Surveying the crowd, co-owner Travis Klein laughed with one customer about the "relaxation" possibilities provided by the rare (and massive) rolling paper that's included in an original copy of Cheech & Chong's Big Bambu.
Human Head has been fostering this active but homey vibe since 2013. With sizable sections of Latin, reggae, and jazz titles bolstering a boatload of classic rock, Klein and partner Steve Smith want to make sure every customer can find something cool. The stock is forever fluid, and the owners' hunt for interesting wax is perpetual. Klein's voice gets animated when he talks about heading to a Connecticut record fair to bring back the good stuff. "I never want people to walk away disappointed," he says, "never be like, 'Aww, man, that place really didn't have anything.' "
He has nothing to worry about: Here, rarities mix with bargains, with dollar finds ranging from $2 to $6 a pop. The place goes full tilt on Record Store Day, albeit on its own terms, since it's proudly unaffiliated with the official event. Last year it was a guy cutting digital files into records on a lathe. This time it's 20 percent off everything, 6,000 albums for 25 cents apiece, and burgers on the grill. "Selling records in NYC is great because [people from] all walks of life come in," says Klein. "I'm from Wisconsin. If I was [there] right now I'd only be selling rock, country, and polka. This is lots more fun." — Jim Macnie
King of the stacks: The Thing's Jack Duff
1001 Manhattan Avenue, Brooklyn
Before I moved to New York City, I told a friend that my life here would be complete when I had three things: an apartment of my own, a bicycle, and a typewriter. A few months later, looking for a sign that the move was a good choice, I stumbled across a red Olivetti typewriter for thirty bucks outside the most cluttered disaster of a store I'd ever seen. I'd found The Thing, Greenpoint's ongoing Hoarders-inspired performance art project and one of the city's best, and weirdest, record stores.
Yelp reviews for The Thing are both spot-on and vaguely terrifying, mentioning excessive dust ("Have some tissues and Benadryl ready"), which only worsens once you start digging ("If risking your respiratory health is something you are OK with, then The Thing is a must") and sometimes includes gifts from the locals ("I had to blow mouse droppings off any records I took from the very top of the stacks"). Bragging rights aren't just about what you unearth there, but the simple fact that you made it out alive.
So what makes it worth it? All the records are just $2, for starters, which is a great price whether you're shopping for rare gems to add to your DJ set or stuff to flip on Discogs. There's the fact that it has zero qualities of most "cool" Brooklyn record stores (meaning it's comfortable and not socially exhausting). Plus, there are the bragging rights: You've got to be a vinyl addict to make it through, willing to spend the hours required to suss out the gems you will inevitably find in the basement of this lovable shit-show. — Meredith Graves
There's always vinyl on at VP Records.
170-21 Jamaica Avenue, Queens
Entering the retail outlet for VP Records is like walking into the video for Sean Paul's "Get Busy," but with better lighting and fewer people. Nevertheless, the vibes here are on point, with owner Patricia Chin's great-nephew spinning vinyl behind the register in between ringing up customers.
When Chin and her husband, Vincent (the V and P in "VP Records"), moved to New York from Kingston, Jamaica, in the mid-1970s, they already had an ear for the best music from home and a knack for business. At the time, reggae producers and artists sold their own records directly to customers. Chin and her husband opened VP as a storefront in 1979 to help artists distribute their music more widely and efficiently. Aaron Talbert, who runs sales and marketing for the label, says they stood out because "they bought and sold to everybody."
VP Records expanded to become a label in 1993, becoming home to popular acts in the reggaesphere and putting crossover artists such as Sean Paul, Beenie Man, and Gyptian on the map — and, in the cases of Sean Paul and Gyptian, on U.S. charts. The store and label have both morphed as the tastes of their audience have evolved. Now collectors from across New York and sometimes visitors from around the world come not just for reggae but for dancehall and soca, too.
Much of what VP sells is hard to find anywhere else, and that's what makes the store both historic and still relevant. "People come here to see the original stuff, and get the feel for the actual location," Talbert says. "To get a feel for the home of music." Big ups. — Atiba Rogers
233 West 72nd Street, Manhattan
Walk into Westsider Records on 72nd Street, just off Broadway, and a bric-a-brac vibe hits you: This neighborhood fixture is a mecca of the miscellaneous. Albums, CDs, and books reach to the ceiling, with hand-lettered dividers designating micro-sections that include "POETRY" and "KEYBOARD" (Carl Sandburg in the former, Handel in the latter). With discs spread out on the floor and stacked in tipsy cairns, a sense of possibility dawns: You realize you could find all sorts of stuff here.
Westsider's sometime manager, full-time enthusiast Bruce Eder, a music and film maven who wrote pop criticism for the Voice in the 1980s, is proud of the shop's scope. He can advise customers on which Psychic TV title to choose, with the Sibelius Concerto by Heifetz playing in the background. Above the cash register is a copy of The Consummate Artistry of Ben Webster, a jazz classic. In front of it, one of the silliest records of the Eighties: Shimmy Disc's Rutles Highway Revisited.
There are two Westsider locations; this is the one with the records (80th Street is just books). Regardless of its longstanding rep as a haven for classical and jazz items, there's plenty of pop, too. Tourists turn up often, and last week a family visiting from Washington State picked up a Sinatra title they'd been hunting for (and the Shimmy Disc, too). Though the shop doesn't carry new pressings, the recent upsurge in all things vinyl has increased traffic. "Now instead of people looking for a cool cover to decorate their dorm room, they're actually buying these things to play," Eder says, grinning. "And they're discovering a lot of history along the way." — Jim Macnie
When the dance music record label and distributor Downtown 161 started up in New York in 1991, house music was hitting its stride. The imprint specialized in sometimes-hard-to-find records from across the U.S., fueling DJ sets and influencing the scene locally and nationally. While it never had a full-fledged store, it opened its Lower Manhattan stockroom once a week to fans, who could browse and buy at their leisure. In 2005, as record sellers transitioned to the internet, Downtown 161 became Downtown 304, an online shop that includes a wide variety of dance music imports from today's centers of electronic music, like Berlin and London.
The shop still has no storefront, but through its Brooklyn headquarters, buyer and warehouse manager Federico Rojas says, it develops relationships with customers, who often pick up purchases in person. "It's very one-on-one," he says. "It's just me and the owner, Joe [D'Espinosa]. So we're kickin' it. I see what [they've] bought and maybe make suggestions." This personal touch, along with Downtown 304's wide variety of new electronic releases in genres like techno and house, makes it an essential resource for the electronic music community in New York and beyond. "In our subculture, we're part of what creates the vibrancy and the diversity," Rojas says. That also means embracing competition. "There's so much variety, you can't expect to monopolize everything," he says. "It's better to be positive and encourage growth across the board. We all do well from that." — Sophie Weiner
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