Every nook and cranny of this tiny storefront's space is full of an extensive and eclectic collection of musical instruments from around the world. Instruments hang from the ceiling just as haphazardly as they are stacked on top of one another from the floor. Located at this same address for over fifty years, Music Inn has an impressive sitar selection from the 1960's, a rare 100 year old sarinda from Afghanistan, as well as adorable little child guitars and mini pianos. I had a quick throwback moment when I spied an autoharp. Do you remember music class in elementary school back in the 60's?
The only genre of music missing in Academy Records is classical.... but not to worry, that is completely covered in their shop on 18th. Otherwise, this shop, here on 12th Street, has an impressive selection of rock, jazz, soul, funk, country, and folk. In chatting with one of the owners, he told us that they are always actively looking for "new" records and are constantly receiving inventory. In addition, they host DJ events.
Sharon’s family was not exactly in the business of music; they were in the business of giving people what they wanted. They emigrated from Israel in the early 1970s with nothing to their names and the hope of making a living and a better life. As electronics were the rage at the time, they opened a consumer electronics shop in 1975. But, as Sharon said, “they were smart about it. ” As the years went on, the demand for music and records began to rise, and, accordingly, Sharon’s family began selling records and record players in their shop. Rock and Soul became one of the first record and DJ stores. Through the golden age of the record, business boomed, and Rock and Soul reached many loyal customers. In the late 1980s, however, the record industry hit an all-too-well-known speed bump: the CD. As consumers of records began to fall from the grid, record stores followed suit. In an almost twenty-year dry spell, Rock and Soul was one of the only stores that continued to sell records. “We didn’t have the heart to let go, ” Sharon, now the store manager, explained. But it was the DJ equipment the store sold that kept it afloat. Rock and Soul is covered wall-to-wall in music equipment, from microphones to amplifiers to records and cover art. Boxes of records are crammed into the back, with listening stations in the corner. The day I was there, electronic music was blasting from a loft above. I had walked in on one of the store’s frequent “Scratch Pad Popup” events, during which DJs come in to play records on the store’s equipment and network with each other. “We care about sound, ” said Sharon. “Anything related to sound. ”In an age where any and all music is but a click away, Sharon acknowledged that people who buy records often do so for the aesthetic value. “It’s a different kind of person buying records, ” she said. “It’s someone looking for cool cover art, maybe something to hang up in their room. ” Colored records, in fact, are generally intended for display - it is frowned upon to play (and potentially scratch) them. But Sharon also emphasized the unique auditory value of record music. “Listen to a record and you’ll hear the whole picture, ” she said. “The keyboard, the saxophone: it’s all richer. You’re hearing it the way it’s meant to be heard. ” She noted that modern records are thicker than they have been in years past, delivering an even higher quality of sound. Such value translates to DJ work as well, according to Shawn McAdams, a frequent customer of Rock and Soul. Shawn has been a DJ since 1993, and is known in the DJ world as “Right On Shawn. ” More importantly, he is a DJ who uses records. “With DJs, ” he said, “people like to see the artwork. It’s so boring to see a guy just sitting on his laptop. ” But he admits that his methods are sometimes a surprise. “People often ask me, ‘Do they still make records? ’” he laughed. “That’s my favorite. ”The listening stations at Rock and Soul, it seems, are a DJ’s best friend. “I just play different things, ” said Shawn of his music choice, as he hefted a large stack of records onto the counter. “You listen until you find stuff that sounds good. ”Keith Dumpson is a record salesman at Rock and Soul, and has been for over forty years. Before that, he was working at a record store on 117th street, where he met people in the industry and learned how to produce music. His days were busy: “I would get up at five, work hard all day, and then work hard in the studio after. ” The opportunity to work at Rock and Soul, he said, changed his life. “They tested me out alphabetizing records, ” he recalled of the interview. “And I knew how to do that. I knew all the songs. ”Keith had a lot to say about the state of the music industry. “The technology today, it makes you lazy, ” he said. “Now you push a button, something comes out, and everyone’s cheering. ” He believes this has decreased the quality of music throughout his lifetime. “The new music ain’t happening. Years ago, music was a lot better. It was all records back then, and vinyl was cheaper. Hip hop was cleaner and made more sense. There’s no more real musicians like there used to be back in the day. Now the songs make no sense. A cat swallowing a razor blade is a hit. People today have no spirit of song. ”“Except for Beyonce, ” he quickly clarified. The sound afforded by the record, Keith believes, is necessary for good music. “It’s not just pushing buttons on there, ” he said. “It’s playing instruments. Music. ” Even with records making a comeback, the ease of downloading still makes it difficult for stores like Rock and Soul to keep their doors open. Though they have DJ equipment sales to carry it along, other stores are not so lucky. “You’ve got to shop in the store, ” said Sharon. “You can’t purchase online. " For shops like these, it is the in-person, non-digital customers who keep them in business.
Nestled up on the eighth floor and without any sign to indicate its existence to passersby on the street, the Jazz Record Shop is certainly not easy to find. But Fred Cohen’s collection of music and memorabilia has a cult of clientele who come from around the world to see it with their own eyes. During my visit, Fred’s wife, Bobbie, helped customers navigate the CDs, DVDs, posters, books, and records while he led me to a quiet corner for our “heart to heart. ”While growing up in Boston (Dorchester, West Roxbury, then Jamaica Plain), music was a peripheral part of Fred’s life. “My mother had a lovely voice, she sang in a chorus in Pittsburgh and there were records of show-tunes around the house, ” he reminisced. “We did have a piano but my sister was always the pianist. It wasn’t until my aunt took me to the Boston Jazz Festival that I was exposed to music that really blew me away. ”Still, Fred never expected that jazz would become his life’s passion. After college, he took a job with Odyssey House in New York as a drug rehabilitation counselor. “This was 1969 through 1982, and after eleven years I was burned out. I didn’t know what to do. I figured I could live for a year off of my savings, and it helped that Bobbie was making good money as a textile designer at the time. That’s when I got the call from Jolly Roger. ”Jolly Roger was a jazz record store on Columbus Avenue that Fred often frequented. The owner was looking for a new person to take over the business and offered the opportunity to Fred. “I really didn’t think it was a good idea, ” he recalled. “In my previous job, I was traveling to conferences and centers across the United States. The idea of sitting at a desk waiting on people - that did not sound like me. But Bobbie said we should at least take a look. The shop was incredibly narrow, like a railroad flat, and you could barely turn around with all the record racks in there. ” Fred paused a moment and shook his head before picking up the story once more. “But at the back there was this window and you could see this tree. And on this tree were two crooning morning doves. Bobbie took it as a sign. We opened on April 1st 1983, moved to the West 26th location in 1992, and, well, we are still here today. ” As the years went by, Fred broadened his musical interests, schmoozed with fellow collectors, and listened carefully to his customers. Today, Fred is the one who does most of the teaching, and by all accounts he is an expert in identifying and appraising jazz memorabilia. He literally wrote the book on collecting Blue Note records to help fellow enthusiasts identify original pressings. And it turns out, according to Fred, that sitting behind a desk is not so bad. “Selling CDs is a boring experience but LPs are a different story. Each one has such a vast technical, social, musical, and cultural history that I could spend a day talking about each aspect. ” Fred led me over to a closet called the “vault” to show me some of his personal items that are not for sale. Perhaps the most impressive was a Charlie Parker LP “Bird Blows the Blues” that Dial records offered exclusively via a mail-in order coupon in the June 3, 1949 issue of Downbeat Magazine. Fred has not only the record (of which only about fifty were sold), but the magazine issue and the coupon, too. When I inquired about the value of the Charlie Parker material, he told me they are worth five to ten thousand dollars, but he doesn’t plan to part with them any time soon, if ever. To Fred they are priceless. Eventually, Fred and Bobbie plan to step away from their business. What that will mean for The Jazz Record Center, they are not sure. “To be honest, it’s a little scary to think about, ” Fred said. “I do want it to live on. In one form or another, I’d love for it to survive. ”
Though the main location for Westsider Books, which opened in the 1980s, is on Broadway, the Westsider "record store" on 72nd Street did not come about until 2007. Every corner of the store is packed to the rafters with interesting finds in different genres of music and literature. In a world that is quickly becoming digital, Westsider prides itself on selling records, VHS tapes, CDs, DVDs, sheet music, postcards, and countless paperbacks. Westsider's adherence to older practices also means that customers can make trades and sell used books (though mainly at the Broadway location). Having lived on this street for a number of years now, and having owned my own bookstore, I continuously lose myself in the shelves full of rare, fascinating items, and can easily spend hours in the eclectic shop. Dorian Thornley and Bryan Gonzalez, the owners, believe that they may sadly be the last used bookstore on the Upper West Side, a neighborhood that was full of used-book stores at one time. For now, there appears to be enough bibliophiles in the area to keep the quirky shop in business. I am certainly someone who appreciates their commitment and wishes them well for many more years to come.
Bright colors abound inside the semi-covered market on West 116th Street - and it has been this way since 1994 when vendors gathered under one roof to sell their African wares. From traditional fabrics, and handmade clothing, to jewelry, accessories, and wood carvings, to native instruments, the collection at Malcolm Shabazz represents numerous countries including Nigeria, Senegal, Gambia, Ghana, Mali and Kenya. I found the experience to be exhilarating as I strolled through the stalls carrying on conversations with the vendors. There is a true camaraderie amongst them that is palpable.
As a kid, Matt loved to tear guitars apart and rebuild them. He is one of the lucky few that never had to grow up; now he does so professionally, at his own shop, and calls it "repair. " 30th Street Guitars sells used and vintage guitars, from beginner level to upper-echelon. Most are electric, but a few are acoustic, and there are a few basses hoping to find new owners, as well. Matt's expertise means that he repairs and "does a lot of fretwork" with guitars, banjos, and basses. But recently it also led him to design his own line of guitars. "Basically, " he told us, "I took everything I know about old guitars - playability, what goes into them - and put that into a guitar. The result is guitars that look old, and sound old, but play like new. " The customers meandering through the store seemed to agree. Asked what he likes most about his job, Matt responded that his store is "like a bar without the alcohol. People come in, talk, commiserate. "In November of 2015, 30th Street Guitars moved from West 30th to its current location. With his loyal clientele and recognizable branding, Matt decided not to change the name of his shop, though he realizes it can be confusing. He loves his friendly new neighborhood. “It is the safest street in Manhattan, ” he explained, mainly due to the high security provided by FIT.
Lovely classical music plays in the background of The Juilliard Store, home to official apparel, recordings, and books on all things drama, dance, and music. A children’s section is dedicated to recognizing the potential of young artists with baby bibs reading “little soprano” or “little tenor. ” The fun and whimsy continues with bags of music note-shaped pasta surrounded by an array of notebooks and coffee mugs. However, the gift shop is most recognized as being one of largest brick and mortar sheet music stores in the world. It is frequented by tourists, music-appreciators, and, of course, students of the Juilliard School.
Nina was a happy girl when we entered A-1: "I take my music seriously, " she told me. So it wasn't much of a surprise that we ended up spending some quality time in this store. The extensive record collection here is mainly comprised of soul, funk, and hip-hop. Vinyl collectors will have a field day here, getting lost in the stacks of records. The staff is obviously very knowledgeable and Nina ended up with a stack of record recommendations to pore over at the listening station. There is also a constant stream of music playing in the store that might direct you to something you have not heard before. The vinyl store experience is something that you will not get on your computer at home. So, even if you do not collect vinyls, the way that Nina, age 24, does, come by here and discover something new.
Similar to bookstores and libraries, independent record stores tend to have a certain aura: dynamic background music, a slight mustiness, the low hum of small talk, and passionate staff with unparalleled musical knowledge. There is something endlessly appealing about this atmosphere, and Academy Records is no exception. Amid the ever-growing whirlwind of high tech and virtual realities, Academy’s owner, Joseph GaNun, has been working tirelessly to preserve a once-ubiquitous medium: the record. Back in the 1970s, Academy was primarily a book store. In the 1990s, they switched it up a bit by moving two doors down, and today it is widely acclaimed as a destination music shop. They are a haven for devotees of all styles of music, with an emphasis placed on classical and jazz. A matter of fact, Academy is considered one of the best places to come for classical music in the country, if not the world. Any lover of vinyl or compact discs will find a home here, as we observed one Friday afternoon while we watched a dozen or so men and women (of all ages) fervently flipping through records, CDs, and DVDs. Quite a refreshing change of pace in the age of iTunes and online shopping and certainly nothing like we have witnessed in any other record shop, thus far.
Known as “The Best Little Guitar Store in New York City, ” Rivington has a gallery that is filled with rows and rows of vintage and new guitars. There are over one hundred in stock at all times – Fender, Gibson, Gretsch, Martin, Rickenbacker, Silvertone, Harmony and more. Rivington also buys, sells, trades and repairs vintage guitars, keyboards and other instruments. Customers range from hobbyists to celebrities (including Paul Simon, Elvis Costello, and Mumford & Sons). The store first opened in 1998 on Rivington Street, hence the name. During one visit, I spoke to the owner, Howie Statland, who has lived in the neighborhood since 1992. He is a true East Villager: “I don’t really go above 14th Street, ” he told me, grinning. Howie is one of the founding members of Thin Lizard Dawn, a rock band that was signed to RCA records from 1995-2000. During that time, he bought and sold guitars while playing in the band. Music is in his blood: his mom was a concert pianist and he grew up playing the cello and piano before quickly turning to rock music. Around the time when Thin Lizard Dawn was starting to break up, Howie found out that his friend, Tom Nastasi, was planning on closing his guitar shop, Rivington Guitars. Howie swept in and took over, eventually moving the store to 4th Street (though he admitted he still misses Rivington Street). Though Howie offers a lot of services at Rivington Guitars, vintage guitar sales are his specialty. He is one of only twenty-five guitar dealers in the United States who determine the values in the Vintage Guitar Price Guide. He travels all over the country to find the guitars and knows people in the guitar world on both coasts and everywhere in between. He often gets to visit the houses of the owners who wish to sell their cherished instruments. While visiting the store, I witnessed him handle a guitar from a customer hoping to sell. Though Howie ended up turning the man away, the extreme care and skill with which he examined the instrument was evident. I asked Howie what guitar he plays. He answered that though he started on a Les Paul, he now swears by the 62 Jazzmaster. He still plays at different venues like Joe’s Pub and the Bowery Ballroom, but confessed, “I’m not performing as much as I’d like to be. ”Howie had a lot of good things to say about his staff. He praised Neal Winkowski, a very experienced guitar repairman. “He does repairs only a luthier could do. ” He also complimented the guys from New York University (NYU) who teach guitar classes in the store. Despite wishing for more time as a performer, it is clear Howie loves his job. “I like the positivity of this business, ” he said and went on to elaborate on the joy of selling the perfect guitar to someone. “I love providing a service to people who genuinely love music. ”