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New York Times: In Princeton, an Offline Haven for Music Shoppers Thrives

This article was published in the New York Times on April 10, 2008

In Princeton, an Offline Haven for Music Shoppers Thrives

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 long term 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.”


This Article was written by Peter Applebome and Published in the New York Times on 04/10/08. We appreciate their attention to the local businesses of Princeton, and highly recommend the New York Times to all of our customers.


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