From the NYTimes.
Record Stores: Out of Sight, Not Obsolete
By BEN SISARIO
Published: September 29, 2009
It was Wednesday at Downtown 161, and that meant it was Vinylmania day.
Most of the time Downtown 161, a record distributor in Lower Manhattan, is off limits to the public. But once a week it becomes an unusual kind of record store for friends of Vinylmania, a Greenwich Village shop that closed in 2007. Customers run their hands over items in fancy packaging, chat with the seller and brag about their collections — all the typical stuff that grows more endangered every time another store closes.
“In the old days, when I was really selling a lot of records, this was verboten,” said Charlie Grappone, a dance-music specialist who opened Vinylmania in 1978. “You would never let people off the street into a wholesale distributor. Because why would they buy in a store if they could come in here? But it’s changed now. There aren’t any stores left.”
He’s exaggerating, of course: there are still dozens of stores in Manhattan alone. But thousands have vanished around the country in recent years, following the rise of digital music and the cliff-dive of CD sales. In New York the losses this year have included two Virgin Megastores and Etherea in the East Village; the three-level Mondo Kim’s has moved and consolidated into one considerably less mondo floor.
Yet some former store owners have not given up so easily — or, left with thousands of unsold records, cannot — and continue to serve their customers in unconventional ways. Mr. Grappone has been hosting the Vinylmania sales almost every week since his store closed; its 100th gathering will be on Wednesday. Others, including the garage-rock haven Midnight Records and the reggae outlet Jammyland, sell by appointment at their owners’ homes.
At Downtown 161 one sunny Wednesday recently, patrons greeted one another with hugs, then a few minutes later could be spotted with armfuls of records, hovering intently over the turntables there. In one corner of the small office was a simulacrum of Mr. Grappone’s old store, complete with wall racks. The sales began as an invitation-only event for Vinylmania’s 100 or so top spenders. Word has since gotten out, and a new face appears now and then, but still, the population of 12-inch dance collectors is not large. (Mr. Grappone also sells CDs, but only a few.)
To survive in a market in which most products are just a click away, the dealers serve micro-niches, catering to ever fewer but more discriminating customers. One Vinylmania shopper, Jusoong Sun, 47, said he preferred the tactile and social aspects of nonvirtual retail: “To me the whole experience of buying is coming here and feeling the record, putting on the turntable. It’s still tangible.” There are other benefits to in-person shopping: Mr. Sun snagged an autographed test pressing of a new single by a producer, Antonio Ocasio, who stopped in.
J. D. Martignon, 57, a wry and wiry Frenchman who opened Midnight Records in Chelsea in 1984, has continued to sell in his nearby apartment since the store closed five years ago, a victim of rising rents and a lengthy legal battle with the Recording Industry Association of America over bootlegs. The apartment is laid out much like his old store, with alphabetized bins of LPs for browsing. Garage-rock fanzines are arranged by a window, and even the kitchen has some vinyl on display.
Mr. Martignon said he got a customer or so each day; sometimes they just browse, but sometimes a whale comes along. “I get these Japanese guys that spend a few thousand bucks,” he said. “All out-of-print rockabilly stuff.”
Some sellers take appointments simply to unload their old stock. In March Richard Kim, 36, closed Etherea, which carried a range of alternative and electronic music, but he still has at least 6,000 albums, he estimated, and keeps them in two plain rooms in a Brooklyn office building, occasionally letting in an old customer who tracked him down. He said he had no interest in staying in the music business and wanted to liquidate his collection: he is training to be an emergency medical technician.
Ira Heaps ran the tiny East Village reggae shop Jammyland from 1992 until last year, and now sells his leftovers in his even tinier apartment nearby. Boxes of albums and singles fill up the space beneath a loft bed, and the walls are lined with yet more boxes. Mr. Heaps said old customers sought him out after the store closed.
“It started with D.J. friends of mine,” he said. “ ‘Come on, what happened to your stuff?’ I said mainly it’s in my apartment. They said, ‘Can we come over?’ I said sure.” Mr. Heaps, 45, still sounds bitter about the demise of his store. “Jammyland ruined me,” he said. “I gave it 16 years of my life. It ruined two marriages. I have nothing to show for it.”
Actually, what he has to show for it is encyclopedic knowledge — he rhapsodized for 15 minutes about “Bam Bam,” a 1982 hit by Sister Nancy, and would not let a reporter leave without buying a dozen carefully chosen singles — and a central position in a network of collectors who, he said, found him even during a period when he had disconnected his phone.
And Mr. Heaps said he simply liked hanging out with fellow music lovers, a sentiment echoed by many former store owners. Mr. Grappone, a cheerful 58-year-old who has hundreds of thousands of records in storage, said he did most of his business through eBay and other online outlets, but liked to see his old customers. And then there’s the thrill of handling cash. “There’s nothing like it,” Mr. Grappone said, vigorously chewing his gum as he counted out the bills for a $158 sale.
Mr. Martignon was more ambivalent. He started selling records out of his apartment in 1978, and said that after the store closed, “I thought maybe the best thing is to go back to my roots.”
“But at this point it’s a little boring to be in the same place all the time, working there and sleeping there,” he continued, pointing to the two contiguous zones of his apartment.
Will he continue to do it, though?
“Yeah,” he said with a shrug. “Why not?”
A version of this article appeared in print on September 30, 2009, on page C1 of the New York edition.