I was involved in a typically heated debate recently with an equally pedantic friend about the proper pronunciation of the title of the second and final studio album by Joy Division, Closer. My friend argued that the title was intended to be read as an adjective, i.e. nearer in proximity ala "let me get closer to you, baby" etc. I wearily and frownily countered -- and I still believe I'm absolutely correct, of course -- that the proper reading of the title of the album is that of a noun, as in that which closes, like a door or the cover of a book. Or, in keeping with the circumstances of Joy Division's frontman Ian Curtis (who took his own life shortly before the release of the album), the lid of a coffin. Of course, we could both be right, and it's simply a dual-pronged play on words. But I still think I'm right. That Closer came prior to the compilation dubbed Still only further validates my argument.
In this the deadest of seasons, I seem to be surrounded by that which closes. Every time I walk around the block during my lunch break at work, another hapless Broadway show has shuttered its doors and closed. When I walk through my own neighborhood, it seems another shop, bar or restaurant has failed to meet the demands of this economy and closed its doors for good. For some reason, I always find the closing of a restaurant to be particularly heartbreaking (more so than, say, the closing of a shoe store or cell phone emporium). Restaurants require -- to misappropriate a line from Winston Churchill -- blood, sweat and tears. They demand someone with heart, vision and a desire to not only meet a need but excel beyond that need (nobody strives to open a merely adequate restaurant). And there's something about the offering of food that makes it extra personal. Someone carefully planned the menu and imagined the fare and took pains to present it in a palatable way. When those endeavors collapse, I just find it kinda tragic. There's a restaurant down West 10th street, for example, that just closed. I walked by it earlier this week with my wife. Only a couple of short months ago, we'd dined there with friends, celebrating the christening of my son. The food wasn't exceptionally bad, but it wasn't much to sing about either. Still, we ate and laughed and had many drinks and had a splendid time within its walls. It's now just an empty room that someone's dream once briefly occupied.
So, in keeping with this somewhat melancholy theme of closings, I've composed a rundown of long-lost record stores (one of the exceptionally few subjects I can bluster about with any semblance of authority) which have sadly closed for good. There were hundreds to choose from, of course. When I first started getting into music when I was still in grade school (shopping for Kiss albums or the Pink Floyd and Queen records my sister hadn't already brought into the house), I used to go to Disc-O-Mat on 59th and Lexington or Record Explosion on 36th and Fifth Avenue. Later on, when I started getting into Punk Rock, I'd hit Crazy Eddie's -- there was one on 57th between 3rd and 2nd and another one near me (originally on 83rd and Third before moving uptown a few blocks to 86th). These places were fine and close to home and all, but I don't think I really discovered the singular joys New York City could offer a budding music fan until I started venturing further downtown. Between West 8th Street, Bleeker Street, St.Mark's Place and a hundred points in-between, there were several great, independent Mom'n'Pop record shops -- staffed by endearingly surly Punk Rockers or aging hipsters in ill-fitting leather vests and Roger McGuin glasses. Places like Midnight Records on 23rd street (gone), Free Being on St.Mark's (later to briefly de-camp to Carmine Street -- now gone), Lunch For Your Ears in Soho (gone)... these places stocked the hard-to-find, less widely distributed stuff. Their regular clientele weren't about to come in asking for Journey or Whitney Houston albums. These dusty, cramped little shops were enclaves of bold, underground music. And for a kid just starting to discover a whole world of exciting new sounds and sensibilities, these places were like churches. Herewith a handful of my very favorites.
Second Coming Records -235 Sullivan Street
I still remember walking into Second Coming for the first time. The walls and ceiling were covered with giant-sized posters of bands whose albums you couldn't even begin to find at any place uptown. The record bins were full of amazing import 12" singles and albums. There was an enviable selection of singles and 45's behind the counter -- staffed, for a while, by a surprisingly friendly British gent with a big fuck-off mohawk and arms covered in Stranglers tattoos. The big draw for the place, after a while, became their staggering collection of "live cassettes" (i.e. bootleg recordings) from a wide selection of bands. I swiftly became a regular customer - decorating the walls of my freshman year dormitory room with their posters and filling my record collection with their prized imports. Second Coming expanded after a few years, taking over the shop next door to house their selection of compact discs. The operation's undoing, however, ended up being their enviable bootlegs. In a big crackdown in the mid-90's, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) stepped up its efforts to stymie copyright infringement, seizing the shop's biggest attraction and crippling the establishment in the process. Read a more authoritative account right here. They soldiered on for a while, but never truly recovered from the bust, eventually closing up shop for good. The spaces that Second Coming formerly occupied are now a take-out Mexican joint and a tattoo parlor (yeah -- `cos we really needed more of those). I think it's since been removed, but for a great many years after its closing, Second Coming's broken neon sign was still visible. No more, though.
Venus Records -West 8th Street and then later 13 St. Mark's Place
I can't remember when my friend Rob B. and I first discovered Venus Records. Originally located towards the 6th Avenue end of West 8th Street, Venus was found through a non-descript door (you'd have to be buzzed in, if I remember correctly) and up a flight of stairs. Once inside, you were met with an efficiently-layed out series of aisles, featuring packed record bins economically arranged to fully maximize the shop's somewhat cramped space. Presentation was fairly key at Venus, and the shop -- like many other of my faves -- specialized in imports (I remember prizing the 12" of Killing Joke "Adorations" there, and then sitting on the shop's steps, stupefied by the single's hair-gel-frenzied sleeve -- what had happened to my band??). After a couple of years, Venus moved East to a prime spot on St. Mark's Place (the spot featured in the photo at the top of this post -- adjacent to 13 St.Mark's Place, briefly home to Brit comedian, Peter Cook and Richard Butler of the Psychedelic Furs). Speaking of the Psychedelic Furs, Venus Records (the W.8th Street location) is fleetingly seen in all its glory in the `Furs' video for "Run and Run" (crammed with big-haired refugees from a John Hughes film). In any case, Venus lasted on St. Mark's for quite a while, before downgrading to a bargain-bin disc shop and eventually closing its doors for good. I'm not sure what became of the original location, but I want to say it became a sort've leather emporium of some dubious kind. Typical.
Rocks In Your Head - 157 Prince Street
I've already spoken about Rocks in Your Head here before, but suffice it to say, its recent departure from Manhattan is sorely unfortunate (and, as far as I'm concerned, moving to Brooklyn is pretty much equivalent to closing for good -- or at least until I move to Brooklyn myself.) In any case, Rocks was a cool little basement storefront tucked on Prince Street between Thompson and West Broadway that was one of the longest running shops of its kind downtown (along with remarkably-still-there Bleeker Bob's). Run by a gent named Ira, Rocks boasted an enviable selection of vinyl LPs, discs, cassettes, posters, music-related books and t-shirts (I bought my first ever Killing Joke t-shirt there, actually -- the cover of the Almost Red single). If I remember correctly, they even had a little ice cream stand in the back of the place for a while in the mid-80's. As time went on (and rents spiraled ever upwards), Rocks in Your Head started renting DVDs (sadly taking up space that would've otherwise hosted the less populist material). Eventually Ira succumbed and closed up shop, decamping to Brooklyn (again, effectively ceasing to exist in my book). The space Rocks occupied for so many years now plays host to a vile real estate office. Click here to check out Gothamist's take on it -- and the cheeky bastards ripped off my picture!
Route 66 - 258 Bleeker Street, and then later 99 MacDougal Street
Route 66 Records started off as a nice, spacious and bright compact disc shop on Bleeker Street (right around where Cornelia Street meets it). The guitar player from Interpol, Daniel Kessler worked there for a while, but the main dude behind the counter was an obsessively knowledgable and easily excitable gent named Andy (pictured at left, circa April, 1998). Andy and I became fast friends, and I stopped in regularly to check out what was new (Andy also had a knack for getting things early, and knew what stuff I'd be looking for -- making it a point to put that stuff aside for me, which was jolly nice of him). Andy also turned me onto a slew of then-new bands, from Queens of the Stone Age (Andy was one of their earliest champions) through err......Kula Shaker. I'm not quite sure why, but the operation was forced to move to MacDougal Street after a year or so, to a much smaller space. The shop lasted there for another year or so until it eventually shut its doors. Andy was miserable with the place by this point anyway, and was probably relieved that it was over with. I've only run into him once since the end of Route 66, but I wish him well wherever he is. Since that incarnation of the shop closed, it's changed hands a number of times, and is now a cheap sushi joint, I believe (while the Route 66's original roost on Bleeker is now home to the expanded Murray's Cheese Shop). Somewhat ironically, Route 66's MacDougal Street location was located directly above the former spot of....
99 Record - 99 MacDougal Street
99 Records was in the basement level of the afore-mentioned space that housed Route 66 a good decade or so later. The story of 99 Records (pronounced "Nine Nine") is a long and distinguished one, and I'll let this article fill you in on its august legacy but speaking from personal experience, 99 had the most enviable collection of indescribably hard to find 7" singles from obscure Punk, Hardcore and No Wave bands than you could ever want. A somewhat cramped, dank, tiny space, going into 99 really felt like you were entering the underground both literally and figuratively. I remember buying a couple of choice Misfits 7"s there (notably "Halloween") as well as The White E.P. by San Francisco's arguably lamentable Pop-O-Pies (they rule, you don't). The guys at 99 were nice enough to give me a lovely promo poster for The Meatmen's We're the Meatmen And You Suck.. but absolutely wouldn't budge when I tried to buy a vintage poster of --- WAIT FOR IT -- Killing Joke from them (which, I'm very sad to say, might have caused me to stop shopping there for a while in protest -- I'm petty like that). In any case, 99 Records shut it's door sometime at the dawn of the 90's. The space was occupied for a while by an Indian restaurant (whose tag-line -- I absolutely shit you not -- was "for When You Feel Like a Little Indian"), and was later taken over by some shitty after-hours bar. I've no idea what it is today, as I walk down that strip of MacDougal as infrequently as possible. You should also check out this tribute page to 99 Records on MySpace.
It's Only Rock'n'Roll -West 8th Street
Technically more of a curio emporium than a workaday record store, It's Only Rock and Roll was a self-styled "rock and roll museum" with a pronounced leaning towards classic rock and heavy metal. As such, you weren't likely to find anything especially hip, undiscovered or underground therein, but their supply of rock memorabilia was dizzying. Every square inch of the place was crammed with stuff -- and moving about in the store was often a chore. I dimly remember that they had the Kiss pinball machine in the back which I coveted. I'm not exactly sure why, but they shut their doors at some point in the very early 90's, but they continue to work the rock memorabilia/record festival circuit. Check out their website here.
Wowsville - 2nd Avenue between 7th Street & St. Mark's Place
A relatively recent departure, Wowsville was a comparatively short-lived little shop on 2nd Avenue just south of St. Mark's Place that was a NYC Punk Rock fan's paradise. Owned and operated by a somewhat geekily bespectacled Spanish dude whose name escapes me, Wowsville specialized in all-things-Ramone (the shop acted as a veritable shrine for the fallen brudders once they started to gradually expire). It was also a haven for hardcore, glam-rock, garage rock, proto-Punk and increasingly-hard-to-find vintage vinyl. Slathered within its hot pink exterior, the walls of Wowsville were covered with arcane rock posters, hot rod art, original paintings by Dee Dee Ramone, and era-specific photography from luminary punk photogs like Godlis, Roberta Bayley, Bob Gruen, etc. My biggest memory of Wowsville, in fact, involves a massive Roberta Bayley print. The bespectacled Spaniard had evidently acquired the large-sized print of Bayley's cover shot from the first Ramones album which had hung for years on the wall of the Lakeside Lounge in the East Village (it used to hang above the jukebox, across from the photo booth). I'm not sure how he prized it from the Lakeside, but he displayed it (replete with someone's gum stuck to the frame) like the "Mona Lisa" on the main wall of Wowsville. My friend Rob D. -- a former Lakeside regular, erstwhile East Villager and seismic Ramones-head -- came into Wowsville with me one day, saw the print and flipped out. The negotiations began at once. "Name your price," said Rob. "Eet's nowt for sayle," said Senor Wowsville. "C'mon, seriously," countered Rob, "I'll give you a couple of thousand for it" (I'm not sure how Rob was actually planning to pay for this, but he was completely sincere).
The back'n'forthing continued. My wife, Peggy, was with us as well, sipping a cup of coffee while the haggling gradually got hotter. I chimed in to the debate, offering to spot Rob if the price escalated too high (it wasn't really a risk, as El Wow was simply not budging). Meanwhile, a guy wanders into the shop with a loaf of French bread and turns to my wife. "I've got the bread, you've got the coffee," he says, "let's go make a morning of it." Peggy starts laughing, and I get distracted. The Punk Rock matador had heard enough. "Aye am not selling theees picture!" he asserts. With that, he turns up the in-house stereo, drowning out Rob's further entreaties with Wayne County & the Electric Chairs. Having seen my wife hit upon and my friend denied, I decide that it's high time to decamp from Wowsville. We left, and I don't think I ever went back. I think it closed about six months later. Maybe if he'd sold us that photograph, he'd have been able to keep that lease. Oh well. It's a very un-Punk cell phone outlet today. Visit Wowsville's inactive website here.
I could keep going -- there are scores of record and disc shops that have vanished in the last several years, either due to escalating rents or indirectly because of the sprawling convenience of the internet (who needs to go combing through dusty record store bins for some elusive CD single when you can just as simply click a few keys on your computer and get it from eBay without even having to put your pants on). Moreover, in this era of digital downloading, the marketplace -- let alone cultural landscape -- has changed dramatically. Today's young music fans hear, learn about and consume music in an entirely different manner than we did when I was in my teens. There are still holdouts, though. Age-old spots like the afore-mentioned Bleeker Bob's on West 3rd Street, Rebel Rebel on Bleeker Street and the Downtown Music Gallery (now on the Bowery) are still going open and operating, despite an invariable drop in foot-traffic. But their numbers are dwindling. Seek them out and support them while you can.