My new office is pretty much directly across the street from the Time Life Building, a storied corporate hive wherein I spent almost a decade and a half working for both LIFE Magazine (from 1991-1993) and then onto TIME Magazine (from 1993 until 2005). As such, on my current trips to and from my new job just across the avenue, I find myself in a perpetual state of deja vu. I won't be at all surprised if some morning in the next few weeks on my sleepy walk to work I find myself entering the old building out of habit. Having spent such a comparatively large swathe of my life there, it still feels like home.
But there's one major difference in that little busy cluster of blocks just west of Rockefeller Center now. Sure, all the crappy lunch places and hot dog stands are all still where I'd left them before I de-camped at the tail end of 2005 to go work for MTV News, but there's now something missing from the old `hood. On the northeast corner of 51st Street and 6th Avenue, since virtually time-immemorial, there's always been a record store. I first became aware of it in the 80's, when it was Sam Goody's. I vividly remember buying the vinyl of frowny synth-pop stalwarts Talk Talk 's debut album, The Party's Over there in 1982 (though God knows what I was doing in the neighborhood). It stayed a Sam Goody's for at least another decade before turning somewhat inexplicably into a Coconuts. Coconuts was essentially the same thing as Sam Goody's albeit with a slightly less dignified name. In relatively short order after that, it morphed from Coconuts into F.Y.E., which -- I'd always assumed -- stood for "For Your Entertainment," although I suppose it could've meant something else. That's what it was still called the last time I was in it back there in December, when I was back in the neighborhood for a job interview.
I started my new job at the tail end of March, and on my first day commuting to work, I was stopped dead in my tracks walking up 6th Avenue. That record store on the corner of 51st was suddenly gone. Now, I can hear you all already. After I've spent a ludicrous amount of bandwith on this weblog decrying the death of the furiously independent mom'n'pop record store, am I seriously about to wax rhapsodic about the demise of a shitty chain outlet like Sam Goody's/Coconuts/F.Y.E.?
Yes, I am.
Chain stores like Sam Goody's never hold the same amount of promise as the mom'n'pop shops. You're not really likely to run into another member of the "faithful" working at a Coconuts. The clerks and cashiers at these outlets never seem as invested in the music as the types you'll find working for next-to-nothing salaries at the few remaining, down n' dirty basement level disc shops still scraping by here in Manhattan. For all they care, the sales staff at your average F.Y.E. might as well be selling shoes or computer software or some other artless widget. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, if I was ever looking to buy a specific disc, I'd sooner go to a trusty, cramped, comparatively decrepit local indie shop. In those places, I might meet a kindred soul, hear a new band or glean some new enticing factoid about a favorite artist. At a chain outlet, I was usually just going to be disgusted by the overabundance of product by soulless top forty acts I didn't care about and grimace at the appallingly low standards of a general populace who dutifully wolfed down bad music like it was Soylent Green.
But in this instance, though, I retained a soft spot for that store on 51st Street. Given its proximity to my office, I'd frequently wander in there on my lunch break or prior to my two lethal overnight shifts during my tenure at TIME Magazine. In its incarnation as F.Y.E., their selection had improved rather significantly. They'd never have any of the import releases I'd be looking for, but they were still capable of surprising me, and their music DVD section was actually quite impressive. It may not have been Bleeker Bob's or Rocks In Your Head, but at least it was something in the ballpark of what I craved. If I knew I had a long, dull twelve-hour vampire shift ahead of me, I'd frequently stop in and pick some random title up just out of curiosity. I was just glad that it was an option. And I liked that it was still there after all those years since picking up that Talk Talk album.
But now it's gone. My heart doesn't bleed for it in the same way that I still mourn the loss of several independent shops, but I think it's assuredly indicative of a larger plague. If big chain stores like Sam Goody's/Coconuts/F.Y.E. can't survive in this current climate, that doesn't bode well for the little guys. Tower didn't make it. Virgin on Union Square is leaving soon. H.M.V. is gone. I fear that very soon, all the record stores in Manhattan -- big and small, corporate and independent -- will be a thing of the past. And that, my friends, is going to be a sad day.
And book stores will be the next to go.