Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The End of an Era, or Something

Another Collector Weighs In on the Closing of Bleecker Bob's

Anyone who reads music blogs has probably seen
this image a lot lately
If you told me ten years ago that the near-legendary New York record store, Bleecker Bob’s, was closing, I would probably be less upset than I am now. Back then, I used to wander around the Village every week on my day off and hit the circuit of record stores in the area around West 4th Street and 6th Avenue, usually dropping about a hundred dollars on old records and bootleg CDs. Bob’s was just another stop on the tour, and I generally bought fewer records there as they were noticeably higher priced than the other places. Still, I’ve found some great things there, and even though in recent years my record collecting has slowed down considerably, I still pop in now and again. (I believe my last purchase was a copy of Something Else by the Kinks. The fifty dollar sticker gave me pause, but it was in such immaculate condition that I couldn’t not buy it.)

Looking back, in spite of its notoriously cantankerous staff and its high prices, I do have some affection for the place and for what it represents. After all, the first LP I ever bought in New York was there. I was working in a considerably less hip chain music store in Boston when I took a trip to New York to see The Who perform Quadrophenia at Madison Square Garden. One of my managers at the store told me that I could get some great bootleg vinyl at a place called Bleecker Bob’s. I will never forget the day after the concert when my friend and I wandered around the Village in the rain trying to find the place. I guess, we were kind of thrown off by the fact that Bleecker Bobs was, by this time, not actually on Bleecker Street. (The record I bought that day was an LP bootleg of The Who at Swansea in ‘76.)

Patti Smith at Subterranian
In the past decade, I have seen so many of my favorite haunts close down, places that I used to spend much more time hanging out in than Bob’s. I used to spend hours hanging out at Subterranean Records on Cornelia Street in spite of the fact that the place was approximately the size of a walk in closet. The owner, Michael, was a decent guy, but it was usually Kenny behind the counter when I showed up. Kenny was one of those rare animals: The quiet, unpretentious music fan who seems to know everything but would never make anyone feel bad for knowing less. Always happy to turn people on to new things, his tastes were so broad that he would play everything in the store from the most obscure garage rock to late seventies Alice Cooper songs when the Coop apparently began to fancy himself a balladeer (he particularly liked the song “I Never cry). The steps that led down from the street were so treacherous and with such low head clearance that anyone over the height of five feet would have to contort one’s body just get in. Every time I was to enter or exit, the thought went through my head: “How do I do this without hurting myself?”  Once in, I would usually stay for at least an hour to postpone the perilous journey up those three steps.

When I first moved to New York, though, I spent most of my time at Second Coming Records. Not nearly the mainstay that Bleecker Bob’s and Subterranean were, I found myself there because, in addition to their vinyl, their CD shop (the vinyl and CD stores were separate, but next door to one another) had an extensive selection of bootlegs. When I was unemployed during the summer of 2001, I spent most of my time there. Usually Adam was behind the counter, a spectacled, diminutive, skinny-jeaned hipster, but in fact was quite good company. We would hang out and argue about music (Adam was of the school that believed that the Who never made anything worthwhile after 1966 and I also don’t think he ever approved of my predilection for prog rock). We would often be joined by any number of other denizens, such as Javier, who was a hardcore and metal freak who looked like the offspring of character actor (and former Sonic youth drummer) Richard Edson and Harvey Keitel’s character in Taxi Driver, and would often come in with hardcore tapes with hand drawn covers (which were pretty damn good, actually).

One day that fall, after a fruitless day of handing out resumes, I stopped by the shop and saw Adam and a few of his friends sitting on the street outside of the store, still locked. The owner had not shown up to open the store, and was unreachable by phone. So we just sat on the street, and began on another one of the epic music conversations/arguments that we typically had inside. As the sun went down, I proposed we continue the conversation in a bar somewhere. I think we ended up at a place on 8th Avenue.

I didn’t see those guys for a while after that. A couple of years later, I wandered into Bleecker Bob’s and saw Javier behind the counter, and he told me that Adam was working there too. After that, I would saunter in from time to time and occasionally get into a somewhat watered down version of the music debates that we used to have. Sometimes I would just buy something and leave. Javier is still there. From what I understand, Adam moved to Texas a while ago, Austin, I think.

Though a lot of them are gone, a few of the other places that I used to hit up years ago are still there and some foolhardy record geeks are even opening new shops in the outer boroughs. Bleecker Bob’s is not the last place to get records, but for some reason, I kind of thought it always would be. It was an institution, the biggest of the independents. There has been enough talk about changing music consumption habits and digital downloads wreaking havoc on brick and mortar stores (places to buy actual albums, even CDs,  are becoming so rare that I even find myself looking back wistfully on the days of the Virgin Megastore), and enough of it has come from me. Still, on one hand, we are losing places to obtain tangible artifacts, but more importantly we are losing the places where people with a somewhat more intense affinity for music could come together. These are places where habits of obsessive compulsive consumption, which might be considered a pathology in normal circles, are met with admiration and respect, and ultimately to admission to that exclusive club of insider/outsiders.

To be sure, those people still exist. They can be found every day in the few remaining record shops, but I also have to assume that these stores also survived over the years due also to the patronage of more casual fans, and they don’t seem to come around as much anymore. New York real estate is too expensive for any business to rely solely on a small group of outsiders. And who knows?  People blame the internet for the loss of patronage of the casual fan, but perhaps it also has, to a lesser extent, effected the patronage of the hard core fans who now have a different place to bitch about music.

So anyway, Bob’s is closing, and I guess it’s sad. There is talk that they may retain a kiosk in the chain frozen yogurt shop, but I can’t imagine it being a great hangout for hipster malcontents.

Anyway, in conclusion, here is a great little joke you can tell a record collector if you really want to really piss him or her off: “What is the difference between a record collector and a comic collector? Record collectors think they’re cool.”

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