The Big Dig, Part 2 – NYC

Of all cites I’ve lived in, I have the longest and strongest relationship with New York. I began taking the bus to the city during my mid-teens, making friends, going to shows, galleries, book stores, record shops, and crashing on people’s floors and in parks. It was love at first sight, and I never wanted to leave.

When I first encountered it, New York was a bubble that few wanted. Rather than the increasingly bland playground of today, it was gritty, raw, diverse, and filled with profound beauty and freedom. A shelter from America’s absurd conservative values. A place to live according to your own terms, free from persecution, judgement, or consequence. It came at cost, but it paid in spades. It’s remarkable to think how much times have changed – for some better and for others far worse. We are a more tolerant society, and less. During those years, the city was still struggling with the economic legacies of generations past. It had been left to rot. Gross social and economic inequity ravaged, but within the pain grew glimmering gold. The city took America’s unwanted into its arms, became a protectorate, and offered community. It birthed countless creative triumphs, bled outwards and made the world a more beautiful place. It was a city where anything was possible, most importantly survival. I arrived during the hazy confusion of youth, eyes met mine, and knew I was there for a reason. I didn’t belong anywhere else. New York was the first place I felt at home, and for that I will be forever grateful.

The early 90’s was a different time. That city a memory. Twenty years in the clutches of two Republican mayors, with their ruthless greed, has sculpted a new landscape. Some say it’s a good thing, but as the city’s wonderful communities shatter and scatter, I shed my silent tears – knowing that whatever is to come, will come without me.

I moved to New York in the year following 9/11. With extended residences in Chicago and Philadelphia behind me, it was a relief. I was home for what I thought would be the rest of my life. In the end I stayed for four years, left for eight, returned for two, and then left again.

The city I discovered in the early 2000’s was a withered vision its former self. Everything I loved was gasping for breath or already choked from existence. I tried to make the most of it, clung to a fading vision, lived in drafty lofts, made work, played music, met great people, dug for records, and began the first iterations of the life I now lead. I tried to fool myself, had a lot of fun, but knew I was no longer welcome. This was a new city in the making. The old order wanted it back, and people like me weren’t invited to the party. In the twenty years that New York has played a role in my life, it has gone from a city that embraced freedom and creativity, to one of conformity and economic oppression. The vise is tightening. The people who made the city a wonderful vibrant place and held it afloat for so long are unwelcome and under attack. It’s heartbreaking. Even if I had a choice, why would I stay? Without them, what is there?

I suppose that city – with all its lofty ideals, exists within all those whose lives it touched. For that I am grateful and not alone. As I drift from place to place, I take it with me, sheltering its memory as it once did me, and planting its seed as I go. There is no way to know what the future holds or what it will need.

Despite what the media might tell you, and all the growth we’ve seen, I’d say it’s a tricky time for vinyl lovers. Like  New York, I’ve watched this wonderful object transition from a capsule for creative vision, which few wanted, to a fetish of luxury. Without irony, it was in the city’s record shops that this pulled clearly into focus.

I’ve spent twenty years drifting between New York’s record stores, and like the city, they’re always changing – sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. It’s great to see a new generation with their hands in the crates, but recently I’ve started to worry about what they’re inheriting.

Despite their lingering reputation for snobbery, record shops have always been nurturing places. They are havens for the exchange of information and the discovery of diverse sounds and cultural legacies. You could make a strong argument that New York’s record shops are part of the legacy of what the city once was – places of freedom, creativity and exchange. As the culture of records shifts toward one of value and commodity – I worry that we might let these central tenants of record collecting slip from view.

Over the years, I’ve watched many of my favorite record shops in the city close – but somehow many survived. These days things are looking up. Those who weathered the storm seem to be here to stay. New shops are popping up all over which is wonderful to see. I have chosen to profile stores, both old and new, that are closest to my heart, I visit the most, and have managed to continue the rich cultural legacy of record collecting, despite high rents and the changing face of our world. These shops continue to see the importance of diverse and exciting sounds, and are passing this legacy onto a new generation. Predictably, this was a hard list to make. New York’s got a lot of record stores, and given how hard it is to keep them alive, I don’t want to slight anyone. On the other hand, some of shops in the city have gotten sketchy. Prices are jacked and buyers are lazy. I’ve seen records at the Princeton Record Exchange one day being flipped at Brooklyn shops the next for twice the price. Dollar bin records in one shop and $15 in another. Those folks made my job easier, and they know who they are. There are plenty of great spots I’ve missed. Hopefully that will make it interesting. I’ll leave it to you figure out what’s what, but here are the ones to hit first. I hope you will pay them a visit and give them the credit they are due.

 

Record Grouch

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The Record Grouch is located in Greenpoint, which currently hosts the highest concentration of record shops in the city. You can lose a day drifting between them. Of the cluster in the neighborhood, The Grouch is my favorite. It was opened in 2012 by record dealer Doug Pressman and Brian Gempp – a long standing contributor to New York’s experimental music scene. Brian founded the incredible Amish imprint in 1994, and has been doing great work since. I’ve been a fan of his efforts for as long as he’s been at it. In addition to running the shop and pushing forward with Amish, he widened his net in 2013, partnering with the artist Meredyth Sparks to found the stunning Future Audio Graphics – a label dedicated to the outer reaches of contemporary conceptual music. The shop is filled with great things across a broad spectrum of genres, both new and second hand. They’ve got a decent turnover, so it’s worth checking in regularly. Despite my tendency toward second hand records, it’s Brian’s contribution to The Grouch that makes it stand out. It has what is easily the most well curated and interesting stock of new LPs in the city.  Though far from limited to it, the shop is the only remaining in the city that sustains a focus on experimental and avant-garde music. They have great stuff that you won’t find anywhere else. Every time you wander in, you’re likely to discover something new – be that a record, a spectrum of sound, or an approach to music that you didn’t know existed. The shop reminds me of what was once great about record stores. It leads listeners toward great music, rather than being lead by trends and the market. The Grouch is always one of my first stops when I’m in city.

 

Superior Elevation

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Superior Elevation is part of a growing number of shops popping up off the beaten path in Brooklyn. It makes sense. Folks who buy records seriously will always go the distance and Superior Elevation is worth it. The shop is on a deserted industrial street off the Morgan stop in Bushwick. I discovered it after buying a record from them on eBay and the listing mentioned the location. I made the trek out and was pleasantly surprised. I’ve pulled some great stuff out of here during the time it’s been open. Superior is also part of a growing trend of shops where the physical presence is secondary to their online market. This can be a good or a bad thing. I have mixed feelings about it, but they make it work. They’re clearly old-school diggers and buy big collections, but there are conspicuously no heavy-hitting records on the walls. Most things top out around the $20 mark and the bulk of the stock is well below that. Their best records go online. You’re not going to pull out gold. It’s a savvy business. Considering how hard it is to survive selling records, I can’t fault them for trying to get the best price for what they’ve got, but I do love chance and digging. Every good shop has its thing. You just have to give yourself over to circumstance. Half the fun of digging for records is having no control over what you find. Once you give way, great things happen. Superior is incredible for two things – gap filling and picking up records that command high prices in great condition, for cheap in lesser condition. Everything in the shop is there for a reason, and that’s usually because it’s not worth the time to sell online. If the music comes first, that shouldn’t mean a damn thing. I’m pretty happy when I can get a $100 record for $20 with a bit of crackle, and this is a great spot for that. It’s also amazing for 45s.  With over 20 overflowing boxes of bargain bin Soul and Reggae 7’s, Superior is a killer spot to fill in the gaps and let yourself discover new things. It feels like the old days hiding just below street level – you can go down the rabbit hole and dig for hours. Maybe you won’t walk out feeling like you won big, but you’re sure to hit on some great tunes. I love it. The stock is heavy on Soul, Funk, Disco and Reggae, but there’s a whole lot more. Totally recommended as long as you’re not hunting for that one single thing. Otherwise keep an eye on their eBay listings, they’ve always got great records going.

 

Northern Lights

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Northern Lights is on the Bushwick / Bed-Stuy border. It’s hard to reach, but worth the trouble. Like Superior Elevation they do the bulk of their business online, and most of their stock is built out of records that wouldn’t command high prices on eBay or Discogs.  All that said, Northern Lights is fucking bad ass – so much so that I wouldn’t mention it if I was still living in the city. I’d keep it for myself. I’ve spent countless hours deep in their bins. This is the kind of place I love above all others. The folks who run it are clearly buying big collections and digging deep. They know their shit and have an incredible eye for serious music. Most of their stock is Jazz, Soul, Funk, Disco, and Reggae but they’ve got killer bins crossing most genres. To sum it up, this hands down the best spot in the city to pick up top notch records in slightly off condition. If you’re all about the music, are working on a budget, and don’t mind a bit of crackle, this is the spot. There are so many records to dig through that I wouldn’t plan doing anything else with your day. The prices are great. In addition to whatever I find for myself, I usually end up buying copies of records I love, but already own, so I can give them to friends. They’ve got a good turnover, so it’s always worth checking back in every week or so. They keep it exciting. It’s an incredible place to explore music you don’t know at reasonable prices, or to fill the gaps with copies of incredible albums until a better copy comes along. I can’t recommend this shop enough and the folks who work there couldn’t be nicer.

 

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A-1 is my favorite shop in New York and one of a thinning cluster in the East Village. If I only had an hour in town, this is where I’d go. I’ve been digging here since the late 90’s. It’s old school. Everything is second hand, piled high, and primarily geared toward beat makers and DJs. Their focus is Soul, Funk, Jazz, Disco, and Hip-Hop, but they’ve got great Rock, International, Folk, and Reggae bins. When I first wandered in my late teens, their stock wasn’t my thing. I was in a different place and frankly it was intimidating. I noticed some Punk and Experimental music in the bins and decided to have a flip. I immediately started pulling out crazy shit for next to nothing. I was onto a good thing. Their usual clientele didn’t want the records I did so they priced them to move. It was a big lesson. For years I only hit the Folk and Jazz bins, then got out as fast as I could. The folks behind the counter didn’t make me feel welcome (with the exception of one guy, who is super sweet), and despite the countless thousands I’ve spent, they still look at me like I’m a dickhead who should get the fuck out. It kind of sucks, but fuck it – tunes take trump. I love their shop just the same. A-1 is everything I could ever want from a record store – incredible music, great prices, constant turnover, and endless discovery. I’ve learned a lot by pulling records out of their bins, and I’m pretty sure I’m not alone. Though it’s filled with everything in between, A-1 really shines on the low end of the market and on the high. It’s great for picking up VG copies of amazing albums for cheap, and heavy hitting wall records for half what you’d pay online. I love this place and owe it a lot. For my money it’s the best shop in the city.

 

Good

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Good Records has been a regular on my route around the East Village since they opened in 2005. Back then, the neighborhood was brimming with book and record stores. I spent my days drifting between them. Now only a few survive. It breaks my heart to think of how many I’ve seen go, and how narrow my circle has gotten. Good is an anomaly in NY, but something you see in most other cities. It is a discerning and well curated shop that caters to the higher end of the market. They’ve always got exciting and beautiful shit, and very little filler. Good is a nice counterpoint to the shops I usually frequent. They’ve done the digging for you. It saves time and lays it all out. Obviously there’s a reflection in the price point, but if you’re sick of hunting for the gems and waiting, this is a great place to hit. Shops like Good are great for discovery. Use them. No matter how much you know, you never know enough. There’s always something to learn and these places are great teachers. You can trust their taste and take a chance. Good always has amazing things on the wall. The bins are stocked with great Soul, Funk, Jazz, Disco, Hip Hop, and everything else across the board. There’s a decent turnover, so hit the new arrivals bin first. It’s a really nice spot, and the folks that work there are super nice. Definitely one to put on your city circuit.

 

Academy

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Academy is one of the longest standing and best spots in the city. They have two locations – one on 12th Street,  and one in Greenpoint. Both shops are great, but I tend to favor the smaller, more concise East Village location. Academy is a remnant of another era of record stores. It’s wholly inclusive and has something for everyone. It’s all about the music. You’ll see $500 records on the wall, decent dollar bins, and everything in between. The stock is diverse, well considered, and split between new and second hand. The 12th street location tends to have a stronger focus on Jazz and Soul, though like anywhere, what comes through their door is down to chance. The Brooklyn shop tends to lean more towards Rock, but doesn’t lack for diversity. Both shops have great buyers. You’re bound to find something exciting every time you walk through the door and the prices are always fair.  The people that work there are really nice and approachable. You’ll get none of the old school record store snobbery.  Though I tend to hit their second hand bins first, this is always where I head for new records and reissues. They’ve got the best selection in the city and often get things no one else carries. Academy is great. A must for any visit to the city.

– Bradford Bailey

 

 

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One comment

  1. Pingback: New York Mixtape (1+2) | The Hum

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