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Record Stores and Book Stores: The End of An Era? Or Of Our Misplaced Sentimentality?

I read that Bleecker Bob’s Records in New York City’s Greenwich Village was closing its doors this month, after (I believe) four decades in business. As the publishing world continues to change, I will admit, I do look to the music business for lessons learned as book stores face a similar challenge – and perhaps fate – as record stores.

I paid a final visit to Bleecker Bob’s yesterday, and catalog it in detail via nearly 50 photos below. As I looked through the photos, I found it to be a reflection – perhaps a meditation – on my own sentimentality towards record and book stores.

Bleecker Bob’s always seemed to represent more than it really was. The last time I visited there was likely 20 years ago, and I don’t think I purchased anything then because their prices were always much higher than other record stores, with little real gold to be found. Going there was a bit of a pilgrimage, perhaps like going to CBGB’s, which I never got around to going to. You go there to play a role of who you hope to be. To be a tourist, idealizing another time and place.

At places like Bleecker Bob’s or CBGB’s or other New York City establishments, you can’t help but wonder: did Joey Ramone stand in this very spot? Does the fact that I stand here now, somehow connect me to this legend?

I am sentimental about Bleecker Bob’s closing, not really for what it is, but what it represents. For memories I have of an era – of similar record stores and a time when their existence was primary in my life. When I step into this store, part of me treats it like a museum, or more likely, of an endangered species that I am studying and capturing before it is wiped from existence.

Which reminds me of a line from a Cure song:

“Tell me who doesn’t love, what can never come back.”

Publishing is going through this as well. Books vs ebooks. Book stores vs online retailers. Publishers vs self-publishing. Many folks are sentimental amidst the changes, and I can’t blame them. Even when excited about the shift – the potential for what can be, I can’t help but notice aspects of the experience of reading and publishing that are changing.

As I walked through Bleecker Bob’s, there was a reality that I couldn’t help but notice: I had headphones on, listening to an MP3 I downloaded that morning. Yes, I own a very nice record player and fully believe that records provide a vastly better audio experience than digital music. But… that record player doesn’t get much use now that I have a toddler at home. And even when I do buy records, I don’t buy them at Bleecker Bob’s, I go to Princeton Record Exchange, or use Insound.com.

Is Bleecker Bob’s closing emblematic of the times, or merely the skyhigh New York City rent?

I can’t help but feel that even with these changes, there has never been a better time to be a musician or writer. That it is easier to create your work and find an audience now, than it ever has been in the past. That the closing of a store such as this is not symbolic of the state of creation, but the state of commerce.

Below is a photo tour of Bleecker Bob’s. As you look through the photos, do you find them quaint, emblematic of a better time, or merely a museum piece? The final photo is of the wooden floor in front of the main counter. After all these years, it is amazing to see this organic material still holding out. Still supporting customers. That amidst the changes in fashion, music, and the industry that feeds this store, it has remained worn, but unchanged.

Bleecker Bob's Records

Bleecker Bob's Records

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  • Good idea to document the ending of an icon. And to recognize that it is not the end of art.

    • Thanks! Definitely agree, about NOT the end of art. I am definitely sentimental about this kind of thing, and was surprised they didn’t mind me snapping 50+ photos as I toured the store!

  • Gael

    Dan I think it goes further. If I owned a strip mall I would be converting it to town houses.

    • You mean the death of local commerce because of Amazon?

  • jlenza

    hate to see an institution close, but these guys need to be on top of their game. It either has to be a place with great stuff, new finds every visit, or have great prices, or they have to evolve. Newbury Comics, a New England comic/record shop is a good example of this. As CDs have been phased out, they’ve focused more on clothing, novelty stuff, miscellany. All the while, increasing their offerings to include new vinyl (and buying/selling used vinyl at one particular location.)  If they’d stuck with comics and CDs, they’d have been annihilated years ago.

    • Hi James. There are record stores that do it right – Princeton Record Exchange comes to mind. TONS of new (used and new) vinyl in every week – and REALLY good prices. Literally a fraction of what you would pay at Bleecker Bob’s, and often in better condition. Yes, NYC rent is insanely high, but this store hasn’t ever felt “vibrant” to me. I’m not a fan of stores that go into “related” merchandise. Specialize and do it REALLY well.

  • Carol

    Nice metaphor of the floor — it’s the creative process that holds the whole thing up.
    Best,
    Carol

    • Thanks Carol! The floor in the back of the store was interesting as well – the worn black/white tiles that you can see in one of the photos. 

  • Hydra

    My issue with record stores and book stores and video stores closing is that I love the act of browsing. To me, that’s half the fun of buying something.  I’ve found so many books and CD’s by browsing that I never would have found otherwise. I like looking at their cases and thumbing through them and touching them and feeling them. Buying a book on Amazon doesn’t have nearly the same feel or experience. We’re losing that contemplation time for an instant gratification, cheaper, faster world, and that I do mourn.

    • There is an immediacy to browsing that is hard to replicate online, even with free overnight shipping. Thanks.

  • Amanda Klimowicz

    Took me back to basement stores on Newberry Street, rock and roll hall of fame exhibits, and floors of a Cambridge coffee shop.  Sentimental?  I’ve been accused of worse.  Thanks for the pics.

  • Medwoman

    WoW! I haven’t been there in 23 years, but to hear it’s closing is really making me feel old, and yes, nostalgic. But it’s all part of change and new values in life. I will miss browsing in stores like this and the loss of other record stores and bookstores make me feel teh same way. I love to browse and discover new things or lost sentiments. Art will never end–it will move on for the simple fact that we all crave to create somethng. A new approach is not necessarily bad. I’m sorry though that this icon from my past will no longer be there on my next trip to NYC. The memories of long afternoons spent browsing through the boxes and meeting old friends, then hitting a cafe for some of NY’s finest cuisine will keep me content though just as the last trip to the Rainbow Room did before it closed and I would never again dance to the big band era music that reminded me of my parents generation–their reunions and birthday parties. Ahhh change–we either embrace it or get lost in deriding it.

  • I’m like you Dan, in the fact i compare the music and book world often. Books are just what, 10 years further down the line?

    It’s really sad shops like this are closing, and it will happen to more and more indie book stores too. I do feel there will always be a place for the old school though, and just as vinyl are seeing some of their best sales in years, i think hardcover books will rise once again

    Digital is great, but most people reamin sentimental for something they can touch and feel, and parade around proudly for others to see.

    Matt (Turndog Millionaire)

    • Hi Matt,
      Thanks. I think it is a complicated issue, and that romanticism tends to overshadow reality in many areas. So people will talk about the personal experience of a record store, that an expert proprietor will work with you to find just the right book/record, etc. And that DOES happen. I actually want to profile a record store that does EXACTLY this. But for a store such as Bleecker Bob’s, you don’t really get that personal attention. You are ignored, or treated with quick answers that aren’t too helpful. And of course, the prices are often higher – WAY higher. I saw in another forum discussing Bob’s, they described it not as $15 for a $10 item, but charging $45 for a $4 copy of Aladdin Sane. I have seen things like this at many different record stores across the northeast. Places that are special because the service is amazing and the selection is amazing and the prices are fair. Or… places that are the opposite of all of these things. 

      Anyhow – thanks!
      -Dan

      • Well prices like that are crazy, and any business who tries to take advantage like that will eventually come undone.
        For me Vinyls are a collectors thing, something to treasure and keep and show off. You expect to pay a little more for this, but you should never be ripped off. I like to pay a fair price for whatever i get.

        I feel hardcover books will be liket his too, and hopefully the stors that offer great service at a decent price wil survive. If we’re lucky the ones who try to rip you off will be the ones who go out of business.

        Historically having some ‘cool’ people come to your store doesn’t at as a business model. Hire than average price? Sure, why not. Crazy price that is verging illegal? Hell to the no!

        Matt (Turndog Millionaire)

        • For me, vinyl is all about sound quality. I spent a long time piecing together a pretty incredible system, with a turntable. Setup properly, vinyl blows away digital, in my opinion. Amazing how that is – analog trumps digital in this context!
          -Dan

  • Dan,
    I’d had similar thoughts when I first heard that Bleecker Bob’s was closing. In fact, I posted them on a guitar forum that I frequent: http://gretschpages.com/forum/rumbles/nooooo-bleecker-bobs-to-become-a-starbucks/48002/page1/

    My misspent youth was spent at Bleecker Bob’s and Second Hand Rose, which had great prices on used albums. Bleecker Bob’s had a selection of music that no other record shop had – and the stuff that most of the kids in my high school had little interest in. Bands like the Dictators, Wayne/Jayne County, Johnny thunders, Television, the Dead Boys and more. 

    And although I have my memories, it’s been decades since I’d been in the store, so can’t be surprised that it’s hard to stay in business. There are too many other options for music discovery today – everything from Pandora to ShareMyPlaylist to Hype Machine and more.

    I’m not sure I agree with your thoughts about it being the best time for musicians. Yes, there is the possibility to attract an audience on your own – and performers like the Arctic Monkeys, Lily Allen, Kate Nash and others have proven that. So, the disintermediation of the record industry is not a bad thing. But, at the same time, the venues for performance have largely gone away. Saturday nights of my junior & senior years of high school were spent at Max’s Kansas City and CBGB (my parents thought I was at the midnight showing of Rocky Horror at the 8th St Playhouse). I saw tons of bands there  – some good, many mediocre (anyone else remember a Texas punk band named Legionnaire’s Disease?) – and that was where my musical tastes were formed. Lots of those bands gained a huge local following, even if few others have heard of them (The Dictators being a great example).

    Today, there are few venues for live music and many of those that are still around don’t even pay the bands – you play for free with a share of the gate. So, in some ways, it’s become harder than ever for musicians to earn a living or gain a following.

    But, we all have to evolve and adapt. As John Cage once said “I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas; I’m frightened of the old ones” .

    • Thanks for the thoughts and the link!!! I definitely went to Bob’s in the years after it was the centerpiece for cool music. Lots of other shops in the city that were great too, some of which are still around, and still vibrant. Lots of lessons about how to serve a community – I may do a post on that soon. 

      Your point about the changing landscape for live shows is a good one, but that is really another story entirely. I think bands have more avenues to attract an audience, and avenues that don’t require you to quit your day job to get in a horrible van, playing for 5 people at dingy bars. Yes, it is romantic in hindsight, but its a harsh reality for many bands, and really only applicable to the small subset of 19 years olds who have no other responsibilities. I like considering how a 35, 45, or 55 year old musician can reach new audiences via the web, and still have a job and live up to family obligations.

      HUGE topic obviously. 

      Love the John Cage quote!
      Thanks.
      -Dan

      • The live show issue is a real one, though, and applies to many beyond the 19-year-olds.
        I know a lot of performing musicians who make at least part of their income from music – and many of them are in their 40s and 50s. They’re the ones who tell me how bad things have gotten. 
        Ultimately, of course, it’s the consumer who drives things. If the consumer doesn’t care whether the band is of high quality, then club and restaurant owners will hire based on simple economics.

        And I guess I do romanticize the gigging band life – I’ve never had the skills to gig, but my first experience in Max’s Kansas City was going as a “roadie” for a band when i was around 15. Six or seven of us squeezed into a grungy dressing room backstage that was hardly bigger than a phone booth, but it was the most exciting night of my life (up until then).

        • Everytime I walk past the deli that now occupies Max’s Kansas City, I consider what is now gone.

  • GK Stritch

    Record stores, bookstores, delis, and Lutece. NYC now feels like the Twilight Zone.

    GK Stritch
    Author/CBGB Was My High School

    • Indeed. I’m checking out your book – thanks for the comment!
      -Dan

  • Thanks for the pix….I have fond memories of Bob, Jason and Peter Jordan….Bob used to advertise on my radio show Punk-A-Rama and sold me all the records at cost…also sold my magazine- All The Young Dudes / Lower Third Enterprise…I was a regular from 1975-78, then I moved to Florida.

    • very cool Nicky! I think the store is still open…
      -Dan