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NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—For Andrew Spina, his small business is just a continuation of a hobby that started when he was a kid.
“I started collecting records pretty young, probably around twelve or thirteen, just saving up money, buying a record here and there off the boardwalk,” says Spina, inside his record store on Easton Avenue.
“Then I got a little older,” Spina says, “And I found my parents’ old thing of records. And there wasn’t much in there; there was like a Beatles’ ‘Help’ and some John Denver records.”
A customer places a record on the counter: “I’ll add this to the bunch.”
“Yeah, take your time. And uh, you know, it went from there.”
He’s answering New Brunswick Today’s questions against the heat of an early afternoon rush, having just opened his doors a few minutes ago, at 12pm sharp on this October Saturday.
“Vinyl Record Shop” is hand-painted in black and gold lettering on the window front.
Old 45’s are strung like Christmas ornaments behind the glass, dangling atop a few records and vintage items for sale.
It’s the only record store currently in the Hub City, a place known for its local music scene.
New Brunswick was home to several record stores during the 1980’s and 1990’s, including Cheap Thrills, Music From a Different Kitchen, and Planet X, but the last record store closed down around 1998, Spina reckons.
“When I was in school here and going to all the shows, every single weekend the topic of conversation would inevitably be, why isn’t there a record store, and why isn’t there a music venue in a college town?”
Spina did his part when he opened Spina Records in 2014, in a basement shop at 25 Easton Avenue.
In 2017, he moved above ground to 118 Easton Avenue, doubling the store’s size. Here he is locked into the Rutgers undergrad scene, sharing a block with Olde Queens Tavern and Hansel n’ Griddle.
A bi-fold billboard on the sidewalk marks the store, and a fold-up card table with five crates of $1 records sits in front of the window. Inside, there’s always music playing.
Spina displays the sleeve of whichever record is currently on the turntable, propping it up in a business card holder in the shop’s open window to the first room. The Talking Heads’ “Remain in Light” gets the opening bill today.
There are crates and crates of records in the front, dozens more displayed on the walls, and more record crates in the back amidst a cache of vintage items and antiques: pennants, lanterns, mugs, ashtrays, locks and keys, an electric guitar, a rack of clothes.
There’s Spina Records tote bags, mini-record drink coasters, books, picture frames and posters, cassette tapes and CD’s back here, too.
It’s among the antiques that the regulars know where to find him.
“Long time no see! What’s up brother? How you been?” asks a friend from down the block.
He’s looking like young Philip Seymour Hoffman, with toned sideburns and thick eyebrows beneath a trucker hat. His surgical mask augments a slow, swaggering drawl.
“I’m good,” Spina says, “How you doing?”
“I came by to say hello. It’s been a busy day, huh?”
“Day just started.”
They catch up on life and the COVID-19 pandemic. The customer rattles off some exhausting complications of having co-workers call out at his job up in New York, and how the virus is wreaking havoc on the bus schedule.
In addition to the strange times we’re living in, they also talk 1980’s album artwork, considering Supertramp’s “Breakfast in America” against an Iron Maiden cover, and ruminate on the nomenclature in the original Star Wars movie titles, inspired by a “Revenge of the Jedi” poster hanging on the wall.
A second record goes on the turntable, the Rolling Stones’ live album “Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!”
When his neighborhood friend checks out with a handful of records, Spina is quick to return to the work, which he emphasizes is “non-glamorous.”
Listening to records “is a part of it.” But there’s also cleaning the store and the records themselves, not to mention organizing them and learning enough to help a customer find what they want.
“These are the tasks you’ll be doing,” he tells prospective hires. “It’s being very attentive to the inventory, going through things very much individually.”
It’s the little details that matter the most to record collectors, or to any collector, be it comic book, baseball card or coin.
“Very small indicators can really change the prices on stuff,” Spina says. “You could have a record that’s $100 or $500 or $10, and the only way you’ll know is if you really make sure you know exactly what you’re looking at.”
He has a shade-less lamp on his desk, with an exposed light bulb, that he’ll bring a record under for an inspection of its “dead wax.”
That’s the area between the grooves and the label, where nondescript combinations of letters and numbers reveal a record’s potential value, specifically what “pressing” it is. The earlier, the better, just like how a first edition “Moby Dick” is worth more than a tenth edition.
He’ll then crosscheck these findings online to complete the appraisal using Discogs, an online marketplace for vinyl records and more.
“I live on Discogs all freakin’ day,” Spina says.
Working here is “much more comparable to working at a library, which I did when I was a kid,” he says.
Alphabetizing, putting stuff away, cleaning the stacks, straightening things out, helping customers with recommendations.
He plays whatever he’s feeling, or something unknown from a new collection. Especially if he doesn’t know what something sounds like, to know where to place it in the shop.
In a college town, a lot of his customers are first timers just starting out, not knowing what they like. It helps to have a broad palette “to be able to recommend stuff.”
A customer who asked Spina about an Alannis Morrissette album earlier is an intrepid one. “Where’s your hip hop, and where’s your jazz?” he asks.
Spina gets up and shows him where.
“Is this where you’d find Bootsy Collins?”
“Yeah and I can dig one out,” Spina says. “If you want to listen, there’s a listening station here.”
He points to the turntable set up for customers, with earmuff headphones jacked in, beside a green leather chair.
At checkout, this customer has bought two records, and Spina slips a business card into his brown merch bag stamped with a Spina Records logo on its front.
“Give me a call if you’re ever looking for more.”
Another customer, Jaclyn, is a Rutgers student living at home this semester. She was drawn in by the Daily Targum’s September article on the impact Rutgers’ remote-learning semesters are having on New Brunswick businesses.
She has a record player at home and walks out with the Rolling Stones’ “Greatest Hits Vol. 1” and Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Gratitude.”
Her friend, who doesn’t have a record player, nevertheless bought a record to hang on his wall, an album with “STUFF” written in big pop-art letters atop a colorful backdrop.
The day’s third record is the Scorpions’ “Blackout.”
Students make up a big portion of his customer base, and things are different this fall.
It’s essentially been a seven-month summer since Rutgers closed down most of its dorms and moved classes online.
“You rely on that spring bump to get you through the summer ’til the fall when the Rutgers kids come back.”
This summer was like tumbleweeds, he said. Like being down the Shore in winter.
“I worked here all summer. I’d just go outside, and all day wouldn’t see anyone walking around. That gets really discouraging.”
He estimates that six or seven thousand students have moved off-campus for the fall semester, even with classes being taught remotely.
Some are throwing a football in the alley next to the shop as we talk.
“We saw that translate a little bit. But compared to last fall or falls in the previous years, it’s way down.”
Though the store has no affiliation with the university, Spina spoke at a 2017 panel on the history and state of the New Brunswick scene. He was a part of that scene in his undergrad days, playing in a punk rock band, and touring the country as a roadie for another.
“Went to school here, and then went to shows, and helped put on shows. All my buddies that I lived with, they were very musically inclined, had bands, did recordings.”
His own band self-released a demo and frequently played in New York, North Jersey, and, of course, New Brunswick.
“We were friends with a lot of bands in that scene. Just really steeped in it. That was fun. But you know like anything, I got busier with my career, and you fall out of that. It’s also for younger people.”
He’s seen a lot of good changes in New Brunswick over the last 15 years. Owning a brick-and-mortar business has spurred close relationships with other independent business owners in town.
He makes a point to patronize Fritz’s, the café across the street from his store, and NJ Skateshop, one block up Easton. Some of his vintage items are consigned by New Brunswick-based By The By Vintage.
His deepest business relationship is with Hidden Grounds Coffee. He’s sold records at their location near the train station for over three years.
“That’s mutually beneficial because we have the same clientele, the same customer base, and I know the owners really well,” Spina told New Brunswick Today.
“I can sell records and give my business exposure, and their customers that come in for a cup of coffee can engage with the vinyl and give their experience a little bit of a unique thing.”
“It’s important to support local independent businesses that try and do something different, that offer something that’s unique to the community,” he says.
For instance, the visual artwork for Spina Records, including the hand-painted storefront signage, window displays and signature logos, as well as the specially made wooden record crates, and work desks and tables, are all designed and crafted by New Brunswick’s The Point To Point workshop.
What Spina is achieving and hoping to see more of in New Brunswick is substantive cultural engagement.
“Just walk down George Street on a Saturday night. People want to come in with their significant others or their friends or their loved ones and they maybe want to go out to dinner, maybe go to a show at the State if that ever opens up, and they want to walk around, and when they walk around they just see Verizon, Sprint, Chase Bank, Wells Fargo Bank, Starbucks, Chipotle.
“It’s everything you could get at a food court or a mall. It frustrates me when I see these low-caliber businesses establish themselves when there’s so much potential.”
A South Jersey native, Spina’s lived in New Brunswick since 2005.
After graduating Rutgers in 2008, he apprenticed under fellow Rutgers graduate Rob Marchisotto at Amber Lion Antiques store on George Street.
“That formed not only my road to owning a record store, but really defined my passion for vintage finds and antiques, dealing with chiselers, tough sellers.”
Spina saw opportunity in its small table of vinyl records, a top-selling product at the 3,500 square foot store that closed in 2013.
“It wasn’t until I worked there that I realized I think I want to try opening a store and go into business for myself. [The owner] showed me a lot about business and how to manage and run a store. He treated me as an apprentice, as family.”
Spina says the best part of running his own business is listening to whatever music he wants all day.
He’s long since cannibalized his own personal collection, when he began operating back in 2014.
“For every record that we sell, we gotta replenish it. So buying is just as important as selling.”
A fourth record goes on the turntable: a David Bowie hits compilation.
“It’s not all rocking out. It’s really networking, talking to customers, doing the books. You gotta track how much you’re taking in… You gotta balance all that stuff because it’s just you.”
He doesn’t do much advertising. Having the brick and mortar store is an advertisement in itself.
People know to bring collections to the store for appraisal, and hopefully for a sale.
But Spina has a discerning eye. “I am very, very picky. For every ten collections I see, I maybe buy one out of ten. Because a lot of them are just junk. They’re not sellable, or they’re too scratched up, or there’s no market.”
Kids aren’t looking for a near-mint Barbara Streisand record, he says. They want “Abbey Road.” They want “The Wall.” It’s a misconception that all records are popular again, because in the marketplace, only some records are popular again.
As he mentions “The Wall,” another customer, who says he first encountered Spina Records at a Christmas flea market a few years ago, walks up to the register.
He turned 18 in July, and he’s since discovered Pink Floyd.
“I have a few questions,” says Ben from Hillsborough. “Do you have a Pink Floyd section?”
“No, but I can pull the Pink Floyd records that I have.”
Ben holds up one that he found, “The Final Cut,” and he says he also saw “The Wall.”
“Is ‘The Final Cut’ better than ‘The Wall?’”
“Well, think about it this way,” Spina says. “’The Wall’ you can get anywhere. ‘Final Cut’ is harder to come by.”
After more browsing, Ben walks out with “The Final Cut,” an orchestral Beatles record, a 60’s, pre-disco Bee Gees record, some Monkees 45’s and a few other jukebox singles, to make it an even $42, all he brought with him.
On Spina’s turntable, David Bowie is swapped out for reggae, an album called “Farover” by Burning Spear.
It comes from one of three new collections Spina bought that week, importing between six and seven hundred new records to the store.
The biggest of the three collections came through a consignment connection he’s worked with for the past three years.
There’s always a garage sale, an estate sale, something going on, and Spina can’t be everywhere. So it works out.
“He called me and we made an appointment and he dropped it off, and I’ve just spent the week going through it, getting it out.”
They’ll each get a cut when the records sell.
The two smaller collections he bought from people who walked in.
“I went through the crates that the walk-in person brought in, kind of evaluated what he had, made an offer, counter-offer, came to a price, and then once that’s done, just buy ‘em. And then I spend the rest of the time going through them, pulling the best stuff out first, pricing it, cleaning it and then putting it out on the shelves.”
Later in this day, a teenager who reached out on Instagram brings in about 10 records for sale.
“Hi, I’ve got the records,” he says.
Spina asks for a few minutes to appraise them, inspecting their playing conditions and comparing prices on Discogs.
After eight minutes, Spina brings the customer back over and shares the diagnosis.
“This pile, they’re very common and they’re not that desirable. This one unfortunately is a little too scratched up, this Miles [Davis] one. This pile I am interested in, I could do $25 for this.”
The customer thinks it over, and he pulls back one record, another Miles Davis. He asks for a new price. At $20, they’ve got a deal.
Spina’s take is four jazz fusion records from Chick Corea, and one record by Japanese artist Yellow Music Orchestra. They go in the to-do pile on the small two-seater couch behind us.
“Thanks for bringing ‘em in, I appreciate it,” he tells the seller.
The “New Arrivals” bins are what keeps the regulars coming back. Nothing stays in them longer than two weeks, as they either get sold or moved into its artist or genre section.
“Some records get sat on for years, and others get sold right away,” says Spina.
The challenge is to keep the displays interesting, and fortunately the records have been coming through.
He received two more emails that morning of possible collection sales, and he’s already spent nearly every minute of the workday today appraising records on his lap, or with a record underneath the light bulb, inspecting the dead wax for trade secrets, or dipping a record into his “Spin-Clean,” a 2×12” skinny bucket containing a cleaning solution.
“We have some weeks where nothing comes in, and we can catch up on back stuff, and then other times we’re slammed. And this is one of those weeks where we’re really kinda slammed.”
He jokes that sometimes it feels like 50% of the job is standing in front of the Spin-Clean, dipping and drying records.
The hardest bit is pricing.
Six years in, pricing can be automatic to him, but he still needs to take his time on making sure.
“A lot of things I can look at and be like, $10, $10, $10, $8. But it just takes experience, exposure and time. It’s not something you can teach when it comes to grading and pricing records, you just have to lay hands on them and be exposed to it every day.”
The industry uses the Goldmine Grading Scale to classify records, and every seller must learn it like the back of their hand: Poor, Fair, Good, Good+, Very Good, Very Good+, Near Mint, Mint-minus and Mint.
At any record store, you’ll see these markings on the little price sticker on a record, like “VG+ $5.99.”
Though widely used, it’s still a subjective rating system, open to interpretation, where one’s idea of VG could be another’s G+. But the more exposure you have to records, the better you become as a grader.
Spina’s been training a new employee the past couple weeks, a Rutgers sophomore, who seems like a good kid, he says, and it’s gonna work out well.
He’s had supplemental help in the past, some part-time workers, but it’s mostly been a one-man band at Spina Records, in line with the Do-It-Yourself (DIY) ethos of the New Brunswick music scene.
Spina has encouraged bands or promoters like New Brunswick’s Embrace DIY Productions to leave flyers in the store, or to drop band demos, like he has for a band called Trickery, whose CD artwork was done by The Point To Point’s Aaron Leszczynski.
Spina characterizes his relationships within the DIY scene as “still thriving.”
The store hosted a show a few summers ago that featured bands Radiator Hospital and Swanning, and he has a close relationship with record label State Champion Records.
“We carry their releases, and their owners are awesome people making DIY things happen in New Jersey.” The label is co-owned by a member of the Screaming Females, a product of the New Brunswick scene.
Though COVID-19 may be leading the scene into another fallow period, that’s typical in this town. “It always goes like the stock market,” he says.
“You’ll have periods where there’s a ton of productivity and bands and artists coming out, and then you’ll have like 18 months where you don’t hear anything, and it comes up again.”
It’s not a scene that willingly gets put to bed. Not back in the 90’s and 2000’s when things went underground, and not now either.
“New Brunswick’s always known as the breeding ground of a lot of good bands and artists that cut their teeth here, that start out here, and move on to bigger and better things.”