Monday, November 20, 2023

In Search of New York’s Lost Record Stores

There are no second acts in New York real estate. Except when there are.

One such exception is Café Figaro on Bleecker Street. When I was a still going to college on Long Island, I thought it was the height of sophistication to go to the Café Figaro. I associated it with the Beat writers of the ’50s, as well as the Bleecker Street Cinema, which was down the block. I thought I was so cool ordering my spinach salad with chick peas. (Or was that at Bagel And, which, unbeknownst to me at the time, occupied the site of the original Stonewall Inn?)

Anyway, imagine my surprise to see that it was reopening.

Cafe Figaro: It's back!

I walked into the restaurant and told the new owner my whole history with his establishment. This was at least the second time I had done this. The previous time was when I walked into the former site of the Greene Street Café (which is now a high-end stereo store) and explained to their owners that I had once worked there as a busboy and that HBO had filmed a Young Comedians special there with people like Bill Maher. (That how long ago it was. Bill Maher was still a “young comedian”!)

Anyway, the reason for all this nostalgia was that I was trying to find a copy of the CD Fearless, by Nina Hagen, for a reading of my screenplay. It’s not available on iTunes and is out of print (although you can find it on eBay for as much as $90). I have the German version on vinyl and, in a pinch, I could just play the song on YouTube, but I thought it would be nice to have a digital copy and, anyway, I needed the English version. Fortunately, a DJ friend of mine offered to burn me a copy of her Greatest Hits, which contains the song I need (“New York New York”).

Nina Hagen's Greatest Hits: I found it!

Out of curiosity, I decided to visit a few of my old record store haunts (and a few new ones) to see if I could find it. I started at Academy Records on West 18th Street, which I’d never been to. These places are like walking into a time warp, but once upon a time, before streaming and mp3s, I used to spend a lot of time browsing record stores in search of a particular record or CD.

Needless to say, they didn’t have it, but they did have some surprising selections I didn’t expect to see (Heaven 17! Human League!) along with some that are even before my time (Jimi Hendrix?!). OK, I may have been alive in the ’60s, but I was more into the Beatles at that age. Hendrix was a little too heavy for me.

My next stop was Generation Records on Thompson Street, in the heart of the Village. Same story.

And finally, Village Music World (a.k.a. Village Revival Records) on Bleecker Street, where I was shocked to actually find a copy of Nina Hagen’s Greatest Hits on CD, which I was tempted to buy but didn’t because my friend would never let me hear the end of it. (“You spent $22 on a CD after I offered to burn it for you?!”)

Just for the hell of it, I decided to walk further west on Bleecker Street to see if one of my other hangouts, Golden Discs, was still there. It wasn’t. It had been replaced by a store that sold Lotto tickets and some other nondescript business.

Around the corner, on Jones Street, I thought I’d look for another beloved record store, Record Runner, and, much to my surprise, I found it! They didn’t have Nina Hagen, either, but I was encouraged to see two young men entering the store after I left.

Record Runner: Still there!

There used to be tons of record stores in the Village: Sounds, Free Being, Rebel Rebel, Vinylmania and, of course, Bleecker Bob’s1. Flipping through bins of vinyl (or plastic) was a sign that you were a real music fan. Entire books and movies have been written about this! (OK, one: High Fidelity.)

Nowadays, I feel like a historian, regaling unsuspecting store owners with tales of my illustrious past.

But somebody has to.