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In Princeton, an Offline Haven for Music Shoppers Thrives

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April 10, 2008

Our Towns

In Princeton, an Offline Haven for Music Shoppers Thrives

By PETER APPLEBOME, NYT

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Regulars from near and far can browse the 150,000 or so titles at Princeton Record Exchange, open since 1980.

PRINCETON, N.J.

For better or worse, it’s all here.

The used CD of Bruce Springsteen’s “The Rising” already marked down to $1.99 and the five-LP set of Wagner’s “Lohengrin” for $5. That beloved dub (a more heavily produced version of reggae, if that helps) CD by Sly and Robbie and the ancient Big Mama Thornton album with the quietly eloquent title, “Jail.”

There’s plenty of contemporary rap, metal, Goth and hip-hop; DVDs, laser discs, computer games and Blu-rays. But the main appeal of the Princeton Record Exchange is vinyl for all conceivable tastes and then some. The original 3-D album cover of the Stones’ “Their Satanic Majesties Request.” “Cha Cha with Tito Puente at Grossinger’s.” “Brigitte Bardot Sings.” “Hi-Fi Zither.” “The Supremes Sing Rodgers and Hart.”

You can find the Crests, the Clovers, the Aquatones and all the rest somewhere in the 150,000 or so titles scattered around the atmospheric time capsule that Barry Weisfeld started in 1980.

Which makes one wonder, given the supposed broadband pace of change and cultural extinction, what to make of the grungy bustle of Mr. Weisfeld’s place. Of course, we’re more likely to honor things when they’re long past their prime — witness Bob Dylan’s honorary Pulitzer Prize this week, and Martin Scorsese’s homage to the Stones, “Shine a Light.” Still, the lesson of Mr. Weisfeld’s store seems to be that if you’re going to be a dinosaur, be a serious dinosaur.

“A lot of people who come here are obsessed,” said Mr. Weisfeld, a resolutely low-tech guy wearing an incongruous orange Yahoo! cap. “I’ll give you an example. One year, we got a very bizarre collection, world music, international music, whatever you call it, very unusual stuff. We let our customers know, and we sold 500 of the 1,000 in three days. They’re not people looking for Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ or something by Billy Joel.”

The Princeton Record Exchange isn’t the last of the hard-core independents, but it’s definitely part of a dwindling breed. Mr. Weisfeld, 54, got his start, after graduating from the University of Hartford in 1975, on the road, selling LPs at 27 campuses, from Dartmouth College in New Hampshire south to American University in Washington. He slept in his Chevy van and showered at the school gyms before they had morphed into high-security, high-end health emporiums.

He knew he could do that for only so long. He almost opened a shop in Hicksville, on Long Island, then picked Princeton, figuring it was halfway between New York and Philadelphia, had a downtown that people walked around and plenty of students, his prime clientele. Princeton students today are more likely to download music than riffle through stacks of it at a store, and the main drag of Nassau Street these days is filled mostly with pricey boutiques and cafes and upscale chains like Panera Bread and Ralph Lauren, not funky alternative music or bookstores.

But over the years, the Princeton Record Exchange gained a following of local customers and obsessives from near and far — Gene, who plays for a symphony orchestra in Ohio and drives over every few months; Ralph, who owns about 20,000 classical vocal records and takes the train from New Haven once a month. The customers the other night were a varied lot: Chris Roff, a very serious 12-year-old who likes everything but country; Molly Levine and Jessica Hundley, 20-somethings who were friends from high school and looking for modern rock; Chris Gibson, a 43-year-old pharmaceutical salesman from Pittsburgh whose shopping cart was populated by Bill Evans, Warren Zevon and Steely Dan.

Amazingly, the current, appealingly ratty, location, situated just off Nassau on South Tulane Street and decorated in early-dorm room with dorky posters, wood-plank ceiling, gray linoleum and an emaciated gray carpet, is considered a huge improvement from earlier days. That’s also said to be true for the behavior of Mr. Weisfeld’s 20 employees, who pride themselves, like the characters in Nick Hornby’s novel “High Fidelity,” on having way too much knowledge of useless musical trivia. “They don’t roll their eyes anymore,” said Matthew Hersh, 31, a Princeton native and longtime shopper. “They used to be holier than thou. They might still be, but they don’t show it as much.”

In fact, “High Fidelity,” which was made into a movie starring John Cusack, is sort of PREX’s evil twin and bête noire, the obvious reference point for a place full of obscure music, peopled by a virtually all-male staff of music wonks who can debate the fine points of the Lehigh Valley punk scene. But Jon Lambert, the general manager, says the comparison goes only so far. “That store was always empty,” he noted. “How did it stay in business? You can’t really keep a place like this going if people spend all their time sitting around making lists of their 10 favorite ’60s records about doughnuts and dogs.”

Mr. Lambert said he wondered for years when the bottom would fall out and the store would finally be washed away by the wonders of the digital age. But last year, Mr. Weisfeld signed a new 10-year lease. Mr. Lambert figures that in the end, people may like downloads, but they also like to browse, appreciate something tangible, like the weird cult-like atmospherics of a store full of like-minded obsessives. Lots of things change, but not everything does.

“It’s a cold, sterile world on the Internet, and people get an experience here you can’t get online,” he said. “If there are five stores left standing, I think we can be one of them.”

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They don't want to pay much when they buy stuff from you - at least that was my experience 7 -8 years ago.

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There really is something to be said for the social atmosphere of a good record store. I drop by my friend Jason's store here in Bloomington (Landlocked Music, check 'em out if you ever come through town, esp. if you're a vinyl fiend) several times a week, just to browse, shoot the breeze about matters musical and otherwise...and inevitably I come across interesting, off-the-beaten path records. Plus he has coffee, good magazines like Wax Poetics, and lots of cool, dry Hoosier cheer. The jazz section is still a bit small, but everything in it is good (just bought the new Bill Dixon/Exploding Star there the other day).

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About 8-9 years ago, I was dragged along by the boss for meetings with people at Berlitz and somewhere else in Princeton (this would have been shortly after the time that JetBlue opened for business, I remember thinking how nice it was to fly with them). Having seen their ads in DB, I knew I wanted to visit and I ended up with an armful of jazz which I carefully packed in my suitcase. Definitely did not get a "High Fidelity" vibe from the staff but maybe that was a function of what section I was browsing through, I don't know. Prices were OK, nothing that I was interested in was ridiculously expensive or surprisingly cheap.

Its impressive that they remain so successful, ironically they'd probably be more successful if they made the effort to put their stock online, a la The Bastards. It probably also doesn't hurt that they aren't actually on the main strip, iirc, and therefore have cheaper rent than the upscale boutiques and chain outlets.

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That's a great store, but you really have to go just about every day to score the big finds. They have a knowledgable and ravenous customer base. I spent a substantial fraction of a national science foundation grant at that store.

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I used to go there at least once, if not more, a week. Now I'm lucky if I get there once or twice a year.

They used to have a nice selection of late 20th century & contemporary modern classical, but it's really dwindled with the decline in CD sales. I picked up a lot of vinyl there when it was cheap...

.

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10towns-600.jpg

They put up these shelves a few years ago. The light reflects off the cases and make it impossible to read the titles. :ph34r:

.

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I remember filling in the gaps in my late Coltrane vinyl collection in '89 or '90. Someone died and they bought this massive collection of free jazz.

.

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I driver over to Princeton to visit a friend every 6 or 8 weeks and always drop by the PREX. I'm amazed at how quickly their jazz stock turns over. I've learned that if you think you might want something buy it now because chances are it won't be there next visit.

I've walked out with stacks of vinyl, or with only one or two cds or lps, but never empty handed. I remember one afternoon walking out with over 20 Ellington lps, mostly oddball labels, for $2-$4 apiece.

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10towns-600.jpg

They put up these shelves a few years ago. The light reflects off the cases and make it impossible to read the titles. :ph34r:

.

and then it reflects off yer head and the whole joint becomes a lazerium.

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The glory days for that store was late 80s/early 90s. It's nowhere near as great as it used to be, but that's just the way things are now with vinyl.

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I'm heading there tomorrow/Thursday with fellow board member "jmjk". I hope to make a few purchases. It will be my first visit.

Edited by Tom 1960

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I was there in June and came away with too many CDs.

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I was there in June and came away with too many CDs.

That usually ends up happening to me whenever I go to places like this.

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I might even swing by there this weekend.

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I still drop in every couple of months. I drive in with one octogenarian jazz friend to visit another octogenarian jazz friend who lives nearby and can no longer drive. We always allow an hour before we go to see him. I've had a lot of good luck there over the past few years, and even if I don't buy anything I always have a good time listening to my two old guys swap jazz stories :)

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I came back with a decent amount of stash without breaking the bank. Picked up couple Mosaic Selects, Bob Brookmeyer and Johnny Richard. A Bethlehem issue Art Blakey Big Band disc, Gerry Mulligan "California Concerts" Volume 1 and 2, Zoot Sims" Hawthorne Nights", Shelly Manne's "Perk Up", Stan Kenton "Las Vegas Tropicana", Charlie Rouse/Paul Quinichette "The Chase Is On" and Miles Davis "Jazz At The Plaza". I think I did pretty good! Can't wait to make a return visit.

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I came back with a decent amount of stash without breaking the bank. Picked up couple Mosaic Selects, Bob Brookmeyer and Johnny Richard. A Bethlehem issue Art Blakey Big Band disc, Gerry Mulligan "California Concerts" Volume 1 and 2, Zoot Sims" Hawthorne Nights", Shelly Manne's "Perk Up", Stan Kenton "Las Vegas Tropicana", Charlie Rouse/Paul Quinichette "The Chase Is On" and Miles Davis "Jazz At The Plaza". I think I did pretty good! Can't wait to make a return visit.

Very nice stash, Tom! Those 2 Selects are nice finds. :tup

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Anyone been there lately?  I heard from a friend who visited a few weeks ago that their stock was way down.  Wondering if it's worth a trip.

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I haven’t been there in several years although it’s only 45 minutes away from me. Might be worth a trip to check it out. 

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21 minutes ago, Brad said:

I haven’t been there in several years although it’s only 45 minutes away from me. Might be worth a trip to check it out. 

Brad - If you make it to the store, let us know what you find.

I've been to the PREX one time, 20-some-odd years ago, and I came away with a big haul of LPs -- both jazz and classical.

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Stock is way down at all of the stores I go to these days. Too many buyers. Not enough sellers.

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38 minutes ago, Kevin Bresnahan said:

Stock is way down at all of the stores I go to these days. Too many buyers. Not enough sellers.

Really!?! I offered them good stuff (years ago), & they offered me "bupkis".

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4 hours ago, Kevin Bresnahan said:

Stock is way down at all of the stores I go to these days. Too many buyers. Not enough sellers.

I found the opposite the last couple of times I was at Amoeba in LA.   

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