Following popular demand, here are four shops reviewed from the archives of The Secret List – New York. Each shop was visited anonymously at least once, often twice or three times.
The rating system follows the Michelin guide’s line: 3 stars is outstanding, 2 is excellent, 1 is highly recommended.
For places to visit please check the New York City Guide in the menu bar above.
A1 RECORDS 3 STARS
439 EAST 6th Street, NEW YORK, NY 1009
OPENING TIMES: MONDAY-SUNDAY: 1PM-9PM
TEL: (001) 212-473-2870
I am outside A1 Records, peering through its heavily stickered windows. I can see masses of records and I really want to go in but the door to the shop remains firmly closed. An assistant spots me outside – the shop is a good half an hour late in opening – and lets me in. I enter and within a minute I realise that the shop easily satiates a record lover’s needs: all genres are covered and soul and funk are especially good. Eavesdropping in on the assistants’ banter was equally interesting.
“What’s my man drinking?”
“Carrot juice, $4 from across the road.”
“Carrot juice? $4? Check Mr Williamsburg in the house.”
Williamsburg, the area, carrot juice vendors and all, is the mecca for record shops. But make no mistake the East Village locale where A1 is located is its equal. And if you need further evidence then look at A1 Records, which is, quite simply, incredible. The shop is huge and dusty with racks and racks of records. It can be almost overwhelming at first, as a sea of vinyl seeps into the abyss wherever you look. Once you have adjusted to the sight of the sheer scale and range of records, you could easily lose yourself for hours here, happily rifling through the stock (no CDs), eyeing the rarer but not too expensive 12”s on the wall and admiring photographs of the rich and famous who have visited the shop.
This is a lovely area of New York, with a huge concentration of record shops. On each visit, new shops seem to have sprung up, ready to be discovered, that are not always on the radar of even the most discerning vinyl hunter. What is fascinating for an outsider is the mix of independent shops in what is a very residential part of the city. The main thoroughfare is quite edgy with lots of tattoo parlours, bars etc. However there are also leafy side streets full of brownstone apartments with stoops that do not seem the most obvious setting for shops selling rare hip hop breaks. But here it is. And the hush of the area is matched by a quiet ambience inside the dens of wax.
You can listen to records on a handful of record players dotted around the shop. Calling them listening posts would be an exaggeration as the well-used turntables are positioned haphazardly. Initially the shop seems a tad intimidating and the dusty environment can be off-putting for the less hardened record lover but the staff are knowledgeable and helpful.
It is when the headphones are on, and the needle hits the record that the sound erupts and “you hear a drumbeat go like this.”
On my visit I spotted:
Da Enna C’s ‘Throw Ya Hands In The Air’, Jay Dee’s first production, for $40;
Gary Bartz’s ‘Another Earth’ ($25, good condition); and
The Latin Jazz Quintet’s ‘Oh Pharoah Speak.
A1 records is the granddaddy of New York record shops, helping spawn the much rated The Sound Library and Big City shops, now both closed. A New York institution.
GOOD RECORDS 2 STARS
218 EAST 5th STREET, NEW YORK, NY 10003
OPENING TIMES: MONDAY-FRIDAY: 12PM-8PM
TEL: (001) 212-529-2081
Get on the good foot
If crate digging is all about the ‘find’, then the discovery of the record shops that hold these rare records are ‘finds’ in themselves. Good Records is one such place.
Located in a mainly residential part of East 5th Street, a plethora of steep stoops and narrow residences with wrought iron balconies and metal fire escapes gives the area a quiet buzz.
Although Good Records starts the trail of record shops on this street, it is easily missed, situated as it is on a lower ground floor. Inside, the shop is bathed in light, decorated in pale wood, with records neatly stocked in boxes. This may be a far cry from a crate digger’s messy, unkempt shop heaven but be warned the stock is to die for. The elongated space houses jazz, rock and folk on the left of the shop, disco and hip hop to the right. A medium-sized selection maybe, but a quality one nonetheless – a real treasure trove of delights.
The whole buying experience is highly enjoyable, from the pleasant surroundings to the very friendly and chatty owner, and all accompanied by the constant whirring of a record machine cleaner keeping the stock in pristine condition. Ultimately record shops all come down to interesting finds, and this is where Good Records wins handsomely.
Manu Dubango’s ‘Soul Makossa’ with a different album cover $30; American Gypsy ‘Inside Out’ $20; and
The Electric Prunes ‘Underground’ $20.
EARWAX RECORDS 1 STAR
167 NORTH 9TH STREET, NEW YORK, NY 11211
OPENING TIMES: MONDAY-SUNDAY: 11AM-9PM
TEL: (001) 718-486-3771
“You put your record on wax” – The Gas Face, 3rd Bass
This review is for Earwax’s previous location in Bedford Avenue at the foot of Williamsburg. I first visited in 2007 at the beginning of the hipster revolution, which has its roots in the area. I loved walking across the Williamsburg Bridge, with its imposing gothic gates, from the Lower East Side. Looking at the panoramic view of the city from the bridge is one of New York’s magic moments – the sheer size of the Gotham metropolis coupled with a Zen like calmness.
The shop was in an area punctuated by independent bookshops and eateries and was one of the must visit shops in the area for alternative sounds. Online reviews suggest the new shop in North 9th Street continues the tradition, and what a tradition! Earwax was my first port of call during any record shop tour of Williamsburg. I much enjoyed rifling through multiple genres, surrounded by a pleasant and friendly vibe.
Two-thirds of the shop’s stock was indie, rock or alternative, very much like the UK’s Rough Trade chain of shops. If you were looking for an old Stone Temple Pilots album, the new Arcade Fire CD or an Aphex Twin re-issue here was the place.
Earwax’s vinyl selection was very good focusing on reissues and second hand funk, soul and hip hop.
There was a varied enough selection of genres to keep the crate digger happy and whilst there was no record listening post (it was broken on my visit) the shop was happy to audition CDs. The friendly member of staff, complete with washed out dungarees, faded baseball cap and long beard, rocking a ZZ Top roadie look, was – in keeping with the shop’s friendly atmosphere – very accommodating.
Vinyl issues included: French soundtracks; Serge Gainsbourg; Fania label; Mulatu etc; rare eighties boogie 12”s – prices ranging between $20-25 for sealed copies.
THE THING 2 STARS
1001 MANHATTAN AVENUE, BETWEEN HURON ST & GREEN ST., NEW YORK, NY 11222
OPENING TIMES: NOT KNOWN
TEL: (001) 718-349-8234
The legend that is The Thing
The legend that is The Thing is well documented on Youtube, blogs and is on the lips of every serious record collector (“have you been to The Thing?”). Its reputation is thoroughly deserved.
On my last visit to New York, I took a long stroll from Williamsburg to The Thing. It is quite a distance, but it was a sunny week day, so the area was not drowning with people and I photographed some wonderful graffiti which just happened to be next to Futura 2000’s workshop, who – bang on cue – walked past me. En route, I also discovered The Record Grouch, so this nicely set the stall for my visit.
There is no other word for it. The Thing is huge. On entering the main shop, with its relaxed vibe, which stocks furniture, assorted bric-a-brac and books, you walk to the far end of the store and into a back room. There are masses of records. Tens of thousands of records, all genres, all eras, all conditions, and laid vertically in shelves in (I think) no particular order. It was overwhelming but after taking a deep breath, I ventured into digging through the massive collection. All records are $2, and there are some finds. There is one turntable to play records. Being able to audition your selection is crucial here, as it allows you to sample the many records you are unlikely to know.
But there is more. There are a few stairs, complete with a cautionary notice warning you to step carefully, which lead down to what is the biggest ‘mess’ (meant in a nice way) of vinyl I have ever seen. The basement – dark, slightly damp with a breathe carefully vibe – has hundreds of thousands of records, on shelves, stacked in crates and piled horizontally on the floor. There is vinyl everywhere, including in the closed back part of the shop.
It’s a great experience diving deep into the masses of vinyl although wash your hands afterwards! You will find many records you will like, some you will know but most will be discoveries. I am not sure if there are any rarities to be had; if you have three days to spare, you might find out.
The legend lives on. An absolute must.