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Just for the record, this is the place to be; Princeton shop is a legend among those with a passion for vinyl.

This article was published in the Star Ledger on January 6, 2003

Princeton legend puts his own spin on sales. Always a new groove on the vinyl frontier Barry Weisfeld didn't want to wear a tie, so he created a culture.

It's a place where former cops, writers and teachers with expensive college educations and marketable job skills take major pay cuts to work; where the employees rarely leave because quirks are embraced and the only hard rule is "never, ever diss somebody else's taste.”

Technically, it's a shop, the Princeton Record Exchange, where the closest thing to an amenity is the cheap industrial carpeting duct-taped over cement floors.

On a side street one block from Princeton University, the Record Exchange offers employees an alternative to the high-pressure uncertainty of the corporate workplace. At the exchange just about everything is certain. Every day, there will be new records that nobody has seen for decades.

The watch repairman from up the street will be in to browse for hidden treasures during his lunch hour.

The staff will fight over who gets to put what music on the sound system and astound customers with their esoteric knowledge of recorded music.

People will call or write from everywhere, offering to sell record albums or buy them. Collectors will walk through the door, each more compulsive than the next.

And every day, "Mad Uncle Barry" Weisfeld will preside over his large family of employees with his unique brand of nurture and noodge, marketing savvy and '60s ethics, all wrapped up in some really bad shirts, but never with a tie.

"It's not like I've ever had a huge game plan or anything," says Weisfeld. "All I knew is that I wanted to stay in the fun world, not the work world I saw when I put on a suit and went for interviews.

"There, people have to worry about quotas, politics and downsizing. Here we worry about each other and the music.”

Shops catering to obsession are not that unusual, particularly in New Jersey, the land of discretionary spending. What makes Weisfeld's store uncommon is its success during a time when independent stores everywhere are falling prey to the malling of America.

In just the last few years alone, established independent record stores with national reputations closed down in Montclair, New York, Delaware and Florida.

But after nearly 23 years in the business, Weisfeld reports selling $1 million worth of merchandise a year, with a sales staff of 22, half of whom are college graduates, half of whom have worked there at least eight years, and several of whom have been with Weisfeld since he opened.

His draw is so strong that the computer systems business next store moved to South Tulane Street solely to be next to the Princeton Record Exchange, says PC Workstation owner Chris Beyer.

"We could have moved anywhere, but we picked this site to glom off Barry's customer base. And it worked," says Beyer.

"Also, we no longer have to give people directions. We just tell them we're next to the Record Exchange, and that's enough.”

The Record Exchange is one of the largest independent, usedrecord stores in the world. The store doesn't sell by catalog or online, but its customers come from Germany, Australia, Japan and throughout the United States.

The store sells new and used CDs, but it built its reputation on LPs. At any given time, there are more than 100,000 albums and 60,000 CDs representing almost every known musical genre.

You want obscure show tunes, Weisfeld's got them. Jazz, classical and rock, of course, but also trip hop, jungle, acid jazz, industrial, gothic, Irish Celtic, Hawaiian, Cajun gospel, Bulgarian folk and Pakistani disco.

What the Princeton Record Exchange is, simply, is Shangri-La for vinyl heads, be they customers or staff.

Vinyl heads are people who insist that CDs can't capture the range and nuance of sound produced by vinyl. They are people who live for sound. And, like all true collectors, their lust knows no bounds.

"It's true, this is my addiction," admits John Warner, 49, who visits the store monthly from his home just outside Hartford, Conn., where he says he has 200,000 albums, most of them rock.

The claim seems improbable, but Warner's wife Linda is grimly nodding her head. They have a 5,000-square foot house, she says. Every inch is crammed with albums, she adds. They are running out of space.

"Sometimes I wake up mornings, thinking about what album I didn't buy at the Exchange," Warner says.

Store clerk and record appraiser Heidi Kevlar, 23, says she does the same thing.

"Most of us just sign over our paychecks to Barry," to pay for the albums the staffers pick out for themselves, she says. "Thank God there is somebody like Barry to make a place for us.”

Marvin Rosen is one of the few staffers who ever left - to take a teaching job at Westminister College in Pennsylvania - but he still visits the store about twice a week.

"Barry would pick me up at 5 in the morning to go see some huge collection for sale in upstate New York," Rosen says.

"There was the collector's thrill of touching something maybe you'd never seen before.

"It is a sickness, but it's so much fun. People do this job for the love of it.”

Weisfeld started out in the record business selling and trading albums out of his van after graduating from the University of Hartford in 1975. In 1980, he decided to settle down and picked Princeton.

Beyer credits Weisfeld's success to strong business instincts, qualities not normally associated with small specialty stores.

He offers pay slightly higher than the industry's average starting salaries of $8 to $10 an hour, and provides health plans, retirement plans and profit sharing, perks that are almost unheard of in the retail business. He chose a smaller mark-up than most record stores, counting on volume to make up the difference.

Weisfeld admits his own musical taste is limited - Petula Clark is his favorite artist - but he has picked staff with encyclopedic knowledge of recorded music.

They - like Weisfeld's customer base - are 90 percent male.

Many of the staff are the kind of people who happily sit in a dingy, drafty back room for hours on end, searching through old boxes of records. They like the smell of old albums and the feel of the jackets.

They do not necessarily have strong social skills, but reserve has been interpreted as elitism and only contributed to the store's reputation for funky cool.

One reason his staff stays is that they can't think of anywhere else to go. Bill Paquin, a former Bernards Township police officer, has been working at the store since 1984. He is one of the world's experts on Beatles albums. He met his wife at the store.

One of the reasons they don't have children, Paquin says, is they couldn't afford to raise a family on his salary, and he can't imagine giving up his job.

"There are as many albums as there are blades of grass in an acre of grass," Paquin says. "And I want to know every album.”

 

 

This Article was written by Judy Peet and Published in the Star Ledger on 01/06/03. We appreciate their attention to the local businesses of Princeton, and highly recommend New Jersey's largest newspaper to all of our customers.

 

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