NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—Maybe you heard the groovy news: last year, vinyl records outsold the ancient “compact disc,” by the score of 41 million units sold to 33 million.
It’s the first time vinyl sales have topped CD’s in the United States since 1987.
That’s right, CD’s, you just got Rickrolled!
And nowhere has the global phenomenon of buying vinyl records been felt greater than in the Hub City, aka Brunfuss, aka the New New Athens, aka good old New Brunswick, New Jersey.
Hyperbole aside, the city’s streets did in fact burst with tribute to vinyl records in 2022, including with the addition of two new vinyl murals to its growing color palette, and at the city’s lone record store, Spina Records, whose owner said that last year was its best yet.
And with this Saturday being Record Store Day, the global celebration of independent record stores, the time is right for a waltz through the city’s vinyl past and present.
First, the murals. Over at the State Theatre, the Middlesex County Cultural and Arts Trust commissioned “The First 11.” Painted by Somerville artist Les Floyd and team, it features a suave stack of vinyl records leaning against the brick wall of the theater’s green room, down the alley left of the main entrance.
Painted to their serial-numbered spines are records from prodigal sons The Smithereens, who spent their formative years rocking at the city’s Court Tavern and have always returned, and from promising neophyte Bruce Springsteen, who has played a few shows at State Theatre but also at bygone workingman’s locales like Patrix and The Ledge.
The eleven records were chosen by theater patrons from a list of past performers at the 102-year-old State Theatre.
The nine other records are from: 1980’s north star Pat Benatar, who played there again just last week; “Class Clown” comedian George Carlin; crooner Tony Bennett (no relation); Crosby, Stills & Nash (RIP Crosby); falsetto-king Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons; East L.A. wolfmen Los Lobos; quadruple-crown (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar & Tony) winner Liza Minelli; and the smooth Queens of Jazz and Soul, respectively, Ella Fitzgerald and Aretha Franklin.
Les Floyd described one quirk of painting the records, at the mural’s unveiling in December: “You can’t see it from here, but those bricks are not smooth. They are jagged and with some of them, you go to put the brush to the brick, and it just goes into a little hole.”
Over on Easton Avenue, the second of the city’s new vinyl record murals is located outside Spina Records, New Brunswick’s lone record shop.
The mural adorns a wooden fence and was created by New Brunswick-based signpainter Aaron Leszczynski.
A union carpenter, Leszczynski repurposed the wood from high-voltage wire spools that he culled from a job in the great industrial north – inside the ceilings of Newark Airport Terminal A.
That was a massive job, Leszczynski said, with workers crawling all over each other to get it done. By the end there were about thirty of the used wire spools laying about, to be recycled or thrown away.
Leszczynski was granted as many as he could take home. When he took one apart, he thought the rims resembled vinyl records with a label in the center. He shared his idea with his friend Andrew Spina, then painted and completed his fence installation last July.
The records turned out pretty good, he thinks. It’s a prime tribute to the record shop next door, and to the D-I-Y scene that inhabits the Easton Avenue neighborhood.
“And it sturdied up the fence, too,” said the union carpenter. “That fence has always been real wonky, and it made it so it’s not gonna fall on its face. So it worked two-fold.”
Inside, owner Andrew Spina had heard the recent news of vinyl sales overtaking CD’s in 2022.
While he couldn’t say what share of the 41 million he sold himself, he noted that last year was definitively their best since opening in 2014.
“Every indicator is showing that vinyl is still a strong market,” he told New Brunswick Today in March.
Best sellers at Spina remain the classic rock albums of the 60’s and 70’s, in addition to an array of new wave, punk, blues, jazz, funk and more.
“We have carried a wide variety of genres,” Spina said. “I kind of went out of my way not to have a niche.” The store is recommended to both the lifelong collector, and to the entry-level college student that just picked up a turntable over summer break.
In addition to records, there’s a cache of new record players available in the store, as well as CD’s, cassette tapes, stickers, posters, plus some items made by Leszczynski: custom-made wooden record crates, tote bags, record coasters and vinyl-covered notebooks.
Spina is commemorating Record Store Day this Saturday, April 22, with store-wide sales and an after-hours performance inside, as well as some giveaways, free food, and other surprises.
Spina graduated from Rutgers in the 2000’s at a time when both the local music scene and the physical record industry were in fallow periods. Shows were largely shunned underground, and MP3’s had driven off the communal record stores.
But when vinyl was still king in the 1980’s, music fans could wander into half a dozen New Brunswick record stores in a single afternoon.
Spina pays homage to two of those shops behind his cash register. He has a shopping bag from Cheap Thrills Records, which helmed a corner of George and Church Streets from about 1974 to 2000, and he has a painting of the quirky All Ears Records, a store inside the vintage Mack Diner that lived on French Street until about 2008.
To learn more about what happened to the record scene in town, New Brunswick Today spoke with Frank Bridges, professor in the Rutgers School of Communication and Information, and an archivist at the New Brunswick Music Scene Archive.
We reckoned he might know a few things – his PhD dissertation was an “analysis of a local music scene’s [New Brunswick’s] record labels as a network of resistance to the demise of the vinyl record.”
Among the notable stores in town then were Music in a Different Kitchen, a tiny shop that moved around New Brunswick several times, including on Elm Row and Easton Avenue.
Opened in 1983, it had a “reputation for getting hot independent artists like Hüsker Dü on the racks before area competitors,” according to a Home News Tribune write-up from 1985.
“She dealt with imports,” Bridges said of owner Judy Mallen. “You could usually go get [United Kingdom] kind of stuff, singles, EP’s, stuff that was harder to get in the United States.”
All Ears Records, in the French Street diner car, was run by a “peculiar, curmudgeonly” owner, he said. It reportedly had several big fish tanks inside.
Bridges only went a couple times, describing it as like “going into a pawn shop or a weird consignment thrift store kind of place.” The owner sometimes “wouldn’t want to sell this stuff in his store. He was just a full-on character.”
All Ears Records bit the dust when its owner was busted for heroin possession in 2005. The diner car was apparently discharged to a dump in Pennsylvania in 2008.
For a time there was a dedicated reggae record store called Auntie I’s, run by the late Bobby Albert inside the Court Tavern in the front room at the left.
“Straight up all reggae,” Bridges said. “There used to be some dudes playing dominoes inside. The guy that did the show on WRSU was kind of all tied to it.”
Albert occasionally guest DJ’d the reggae show; a ninety-minute set was shared online last year.
That store especially demonstrates the capacity of the former music scene. “There was a reggae newspaper magazine called Dub Catcher or something, and that was happening at the same time too,” Bridges said.
“It’s just crazy. I mean, clearly there’s so much going on online now but, physically, things you could touch and go to, there was just so much more going on,” he said.
Flamin’ Groovies was another, at 29 Easton Avenue, which was recently a hole in the ground until filled in with gravel last month. A 1983 write-up described the store as a “cramped little dungeon,” “crammed with treasures.”
“The true vinyl highlight of this store is their vast collection of domestic 45’s, past and present,” the article said. “The place to find those obscure B-sides of your faves who sadly don’t crack the American charts.”
From 1981 until 1988, the store was owned by future NJ Hall of Fame inductee Jim Babjak, the guitarist for The Smithereens.
In between tour dates this month, Babjak reminisced on his years there via email:
Typically I would open at 10:00am, put on a pot of coffee, and start the day off by playing a record.
People would start to wander in and the conversations about anything and everything would flow. It wasn’t my intention for it to be a hangout, but that’s the direction it went naturally. And it was a great vibe. On occasion, the regulars would bring in 6-packs of beer, order Pizza and smoke cigarettes. Yes, we smoked cigarettes inside!
I can’t imagine it now, but that’s the way it was. I was my own boss and this store didn’t feel like a job. Most of my customers were like friends. I still keep in touch with some of them through social media.
In 1984, I changed the name to Captain Video. I still carried vinyl, but renting tapes was the hottest thing and I would be the first video store to open in New Brunswick. Around that time, there was another record shop downtown called Music in a Different Kitchen owned by Judy Mallen. I heard that she was robbed at gunpoint, so I offered her room in my store and we split the rent. She dealt mainly with new import CDs and vinyl. I focused on used vinyl records and VHS tapes.
By 1988, I was touring non-stop with the band and was about to have my first child. It was a tough decision, but I had to sell my half of the store because I had zero time to devote to it.
I still have very fond memories from those days.Jim Babjak
Flash forward a couple years, Babjak said he keeps two turntables in his home and listens to vinyl “just about every day.”
There were several record stores competing for attention in the subsequent years too.
Hot Tracks and Quantum X were on Albany Street, and Planet X Music and Tunes, possibly a branch of the Hoboken mainstay Tunes (the clerk who answered the phone couldn’t confirm), both took up spots on George Street.
A little further back, Vogel’s was “the popular record store on George Street” in the 1960’s, stocking Lenny Kaye’s debut “Crazy Like a Fox.” Rivoli Music Shop, and then Rivoli Records, lasted from the 1940’s through to 1984 at two locations on George Street. Recently, Chamber 43 had a starburst in 2021, also on George Street, but lasted only a year.
Through it all, the award for New Brunswick’s biggest and baddest store, during the music scene’s halcyon days, goes to Cheap Thrills.
Cheap Thrills said so itself, in a slogan derived from The Clash: “The only record store that matters.” They also placed ads on MTV.
At 382 George Street and the corner of Church Street, up the block from the Court Tavern, Cheap Thrills was like “a little scene within itself,” according to Bridges.
He worked there for about a year, circa 1992-93. He got involved with it in the natural way: hanging around long enough to resemble an employee, and lending a hand where he could.
Bridges was running a local label at the time called Well Primed Records, and would sell its records there on consignment. He was led to the Cheap Thrills bulletin board often, posting show flyers for the handful of New Brunswick bands he played in. “You always wanted your flyer at Cheap Thrills,” he said.
A few musician friends worked there at the time, including Jen Rector, now the lead singer of Highland Park band Hair Magic, and Sandor Kekesi, who played in a group called Bubblegum Thunder that recorded with Nirvana producer Steve Albini.
“Finally, [owner Ed Zinis] was like, you’re here all the time, why don’t I pay you?”
Among several initiatives, Cheap Thrills was just a really good record store, Bridges said.
“They just had really good taste,” Bridges said. “They would bring in imports, they would bring in the local stuff, they were active in getting their music. That was important.”
Cheap Thrills also sold concert tickets out of its side door on Church Street, “Another reason you would go,” Bridges said. “If it was like a big concert, tickets would go on sale at 8 a.m. on Saturday.”
A couple of those sales made the newspaper; Cheap Thrills sold its 3,000 ticket-allotment for a 1984 Michael Jackson concert in nine hours, and a year later sold 1,500 Bruce Springsteen-Giants Stadium tickets in five hours.
Both times, police presence had to clear out hundreds of hopefuls who weren’t able to score.
“Police feared the disappointment of the beer-drinking fans would erupt into street violence,” a 1985 front-page article said of the Springsteen seekers. “One group of about 15 by JJ’s Deli & Restaurant began shouting ‘Hell no, we won’t go.’”
The police eventually dispersed them with “threats, jokes and counseling.”
The physical promotions game was also big at Cheap Thrills. Its owners were associated with a distributor and got a ton of promotional items.
“That was a whole side business they had too, and people knew about it,” Bridges said. Stores weren’t really supposed to sell the stuff.
“They had this secret catalog and they would sell these very rare promo items. People were like, ‘Oh, man, I need to get a hold of the catalog… What kind of crazy promo stuff do you have?’” Bridges said.
“If it was some sort of, like, gothic doom band, [distributors] might make a coffin CD holder or something, and send it out to stores,” he said.
“Cheap Thrills was a really well known store, so they got a ton of that. And they would put it on display or whatever. And again, blogs, websites, they’re not getting promo stuff nowadays,” he said. “The promo game is probably not that strong these days, I would think.”
Cheap Thrills wasn’t as spacious as the recently departed Vintage Vinyl on Route One, Bridges said, but more in line with the mighty Princeton Record Exchange, which just celebrated its 43rd birthday last month.
Some of Bridges’ working hours were spent thwarting analog pirates.
“People would take a handful of records, twelve-inch records, and put them down their pants and walk out of the store,” Bridges said. “It was just crazy. And you just walk around the store looking for thievery, because that was a big thing.”
Online music piracy was, of course, a big factor in tanking music sales at the turn of the century.
Cheap Thrills and the other independent stores had first staved off a challenge from a corporate rock chain, Sam Goody, that inhabited space in the new buildings at the bottom of Easton Avenue by the train tracks, starting around late 1994 or 1995.
Bridges helped coordinate a guerilla campaign with shirts and flyers featuring slogans like “Corporate Rock Stores Suck,” a play on the SST Records slogan, and “Scam Goody.”
Some of those flyers were recently resurfaced on the New Brunswick Music Scene Archive Facebook page.
“And I would say that was a battle that was won. [Sam Goody] wasn’t there that long, and Cheap Thrills was left standing when they left.”
But after a good long run, Cheap Thrills and vinyl went the way of much of the New Brunswick scene at the time, swept away in a “perfect storm.”
“The vinyl markets had deteriorated, online sales were coming on, and the scene itself was kind of withering too,” Bridges said. “The Melody lost its lease [in 2001]. The Roxy lost its lease [in 1995]. The Bowl-O-Drome didn’t last very long [burned down in 2006]. But these places were kind of just going away. It was like a perfect storm of different things.”
Rutgers also stopped having so many shows on campus. “There used to be a concert organization for each campus even. And they would bring in national acts and would have local bands open for them,” Bridges said.
“There was just such a scene and so many aspects of the scene, and each one started to kind of deteriorate,” he said. “And then it just all basically ended up to the basement scene.”
Staying on the subject of records, records and more records, I asked Frank if he has a record player (yes), and if he had to whittle his collection down to one, what would it be?
“Wow, that’s a tough one,” he said. “That’s a tough one because I had a pretty okay-size collection of vinyl, and then I got rid of it. Which was a huge regret, and I kind of felt that as I was doing it. But I have some certain things that I kept and certain things that I’ve been getting over the years…”
He takes the plunge on one of his own records. (Someone in this town had to!)
“And I just want to frame it so I don’t sound too pretentious, but it would definitely have to be the split seven-inch Duochrome record I did on Well Primed Records. It was Duochrome and then our buddy Norm’s band, they went by the name Yellow No. Five. And the song that’s on there, ‘Formica,’ is like the first song that Duochrome did. And I still like that song so much. It was just a really good song,” he said.
“Everything really worked for that seven-inch; our recording came out good, our buddy Norm’s recording was good. I don’t know if it was necessarily our best song ever, but it was really good. Love the artwork on it. There’s a lot of things that I would have done differently on different releases or things I was part of, but that worked out perfectly.” Released in 1994, a few are even up for sale on Discogs.
Frank’s answer left us wondering. What chooseth you, New Brunswickers, if you had to whittle your own collections down to just one record?
Andrew Spina, who long ago “cannibalized” his own collection to start his store, nevertheless keeps a private stash at home. His choice is the first record he bought, the record he has the most attachment to: The Beatles, “Magical Mystery Tour,” 1967.
“I bought it mint when I was like eight, and I didn’t open it until I was like twenty-two. So that’s the one I’d save,” he said.
Aaron Leszczynski, the carpenter, chose the 2011 EP “Coloring Book” from a favorite hardcore band, Glassjaw. It’s a crafty DIY record that comes apart in three pieces and three colors, so it can be reordered somewhat.
“I appreciate when someone puts some thought into something,” the craftsman said.
I doubt they were making these in 1987, so we included a “Coloring Book” demo from Lesczcysnki’s Instagram.
Hip hop artist Jahan Nostra, who filmed an award-winning music video inside Spina Records in 2021, was also struck by the Beatles, going with “Abbey Road,” 1969. He called it a combination of great visuals and great music, with a great story behind it.
When you do all that, Nostra said, “You’re not creating an album, you’re creating an experience.”
Up the block from Spina Records, NJ Skateshop owner Steve Lenardo is also keeping the first record he ever bought, the “Juice Crew All Stars.”
Lenardo used to ride bikes with Juice Crew member Masta Ace, he said, and Masta Ace so happens to be on the album version of the song Jahan Nostra used for his Spina Records music video, “Dedication.” Small world!
A couple blocks over at Friends Cafe, at the corner of Robinson Street and Central Avenue, owner Mo Fakhrzadeh used to have a record collection but sold it long ago. If he were starting his collection anew, his first record would have to be a legendary one, he said. He quickly arrives at Pink Floyd, “The Wall,” 1979.
Pressed on having to choose only one of his wife Josephine’s pastries, served in the cafe, he says it would be the macaroons.
In downtown, at Above Art Studios on Morris Street, pragmatic proprietor Dontae Muse remembered lugging records crates around as a DJ. So he wants a double album for maximum playtime, one that also must be of the highest quality, artist talent, and variety. He opts for Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” 1982.
Looking Glass drummer Jeff Grob, the funniest man in the New Brunswick music scene and one who scored New Brunswick’s only Billboard #1 hit with “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)” in 1972, has a collection of 33’s, 45’s and 78’s numbering in the thousands.
For his choice, he went for both quality and quantity too: “The Beatles 1962-1966.” Released in 1973, it “captures all their music that really revved me up and got me wanting to play the drums in the first place,” he said via email. “This first-half period displays all the joy and unrestrained enthusiasm that young rock and roll has to offer, and they had it in spades!”
Good answer. These Beatles have sold a few records, huh? Let’s see, who’s next…
“If I were to sneak one more on the desert island,” Grob asks.
Eh, yes, okay, we’ll allow one more for Jeff Grob. But only Jeff Grob.
He presents the blues: “Stand Back! Here Comes Charley Musselwhite’s Southside Band,” 1967.
Writes Grob of Musselwhite: “While my earliest exposure to the blues was Paul Butterfield’s first album, some Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee records, and the three-album set of Chicago/The Blues/Today on Vanguard, this one gets me right in the balls.”
As good blues tends to do.
Okay, a few more please. And some album art, a little farther down.
Christie Lutz, Rutgers librarian, archivist with the New Brunswick Music Scene Archive, and drummer in the band Hair Magic, chose Bruce Springsteen’s fourth album, “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” 1978, which evokes a certain feel of New Jersey for her.
Jim Babjak, Smithereen, takes The Beatles’ second U.S. album, “Meet the Beatles!” released January 1964. “It was a breath of fresh air,” he said.
“It opened up a new world, not just influencing the future of music, but with fashion, hair styles and youthful energy. An exciting album!”
Kaila Boulware Sykes, book maestro at Hidden Gems Literary Emporium, can’t resist Groove Collective’s smash “Everything is Changing,” from their 1999 album “Declassified.”
“Great song with an amazing message!” she said.
Reggie Parker, host of the Monday comedy open mic at the Ale ‘n Wich pub and the funniest man in New Brunswick after Jeff Grob, drops the needle on “Live: Ravi Shankar at the Monterey International Pop Festival,” 1967.
“One of my favorite pulls from crate digging,” he said.
Michael Steinbruck, who raises money for charities through his promotion coalition Iguana Music, and who is in about fourteen bands himself, considered “Abbey Road” for his pick. But with only one forever record, he went with family, and for Simon and Garfunkel, “The Concert in Central Park,” released 1982.
“My late brother, who passed in 1990, he turned me on to them, along with all other great music,” Steinbruck said. “But they held a special place, and I have the one he owned. So this would be a sentimental pick.”
Rob J. Lilly, co-host of the Know Good Music podcast and one-time Melody Bar bandstander (“We were a new wave band… Benediction. The crowd was rough… Would have been around 1991.”), chose Jim Croce’s “I Got A Name” from 1973, with songs he can listen to over and over.
Mo Haddara, Technical Director at the George Street Playhouse, has a Pink Floyd ritual: “Any big welding project I start always begins with ‘The Wall’ on full volume,” he said. “Always in a setting where it can be loud and played over big speakers, like the scene shop.”
But, he has something more intimate in mind for his whittled collection: Louis Armstrong’s “La Vie En Rose,” recorded 1950.
“Divine,” said Haddara.
Nishad Datta, frontman of Dusters, Hub City Hardcore’s finest, and a candidate for New Brunswick Board of Education, says the band’s seven-inch record from last July was the first to come out of the basement scene in close to a decade.
Most of his own records are from his days as a “crust punk nerd” though, featuring stuff he doesn’t really listen to much of anymore. His refined tastes now lead him to Motown or reggae record bins.
So for Datta today, it’s a record from “The king of Rock Steady: Mr. Alton Ellis!” Were this back in 1991, a visit to Auntie I’s would have been in order.
Rocker Carlos Alonso is keeping “one of the best albums of all time,” Cursive’s “The Ugly Organ” from 2003, another double record with a bunch of cool extras and cool artwork. It also has some “dark cello” on it, per Alonso, for any of you dark cello aficionados.
Christian Fryc, recent Rutgers grad whose band Horse Boy (née The Thrill of Meandering) is performing at Spina Records’ Record Store Day show, chooses a 2007 Bon Iver record, “For Emma, Forever Ago.” It was a gift from his girlfriend, purchased in a serendipitous manner on a trip together to Portland, Maine.
Claire Ruiz, guitarist and singer for the hardest working band in New Brunswick, Pillowinde (new album “Jets to Brunswick” out last week!), goes with Todd Rundgren’s surreal 1973 record, “A Wizard, a True Star.” Bonus points: it has a unique jacket shape.
Bram Coleman, musician and New Brunswick’s sharpest dresser: “I’d probably say… maybe… I’ll go with Wire, ‘154,’” a 1979 British punk import.
Two great music journalists: Kelly-Jane Cotter, whose archived Home News Tribune articles are frequently excerpted onto these New Brunswick Today music pages, went with The Smiths, “The Queen Is Dead,” 1986.
“Whittling is impossible,” she said.
Bob Makin chose Springsteen’s second record, “The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle,” 1973. In a tie with “Abbey Road.” He has both on vinyl.
“Couldn’t part with either,” he insisted. “The latter was won for me on the Asbury Park boardwalk by my grandmother when I was five years old in the late spring of 1970, two weeks before Asbury’s race riots.”
Okay, that’s a second record for another participant. But rock and roll is about breaking the rules, I think.
As for this reporter, you’re wondering? (No one asked me!)
I get it, it’s cool. I could go on about my choice, for all the great reasons listed above, whether it’s the music, the artwork, sentimental value, or all three.
But since I’ve gone on long enough already, I’ll just link to it. Happy digging to all.
Ben Kelly reports on music for New Brunswick Today. In 2022, he won the first place award for Best Arts & Entertainment Coverage for his coverage of the New Brunswick music scene, from the NJ Society of Professional Journalists.