[JPL] In Princeton, an Offline Haven for Music Shoppers Thrives

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Sun Apr 13 12:13:48 EDT 2008


April 10, 2008
In Princeton, an Offline Haven for Music Shoppers Thrives


For better or worse, it¹s all here.

The used CD of Bruce Springsteen¹s ³The Rising² already marked down to $1.99
and the five-LP set of Wagner¹s ³Lohengrin² 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, ³Jail.²

There¹s 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 Stones¹ ³Their Satanic Majesties Request.²
³Cha Cha with Tito Puente at Grossinger¹s.² ³Brigitte Bardot Sings.² ³Hi-Fi
Zither.² ³The Supremes Sing Rodgers and Hart.²

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. Weisfeld¹s
place. Of course, we¹re more likely to honor things when they¹re long past
their prime ‹ witness Bob Dylan¹s honorary Pulitzer Prize this week, and
Martin Scorsese¹s homage to the Stones, ³Shine a Light.² Still, the lesson
of Mr. Weisfeld¹s store seems to be that if you¹re going to be a dinosaur,
be a serious dinosaur.

³A lot of people who come here are obsessed,² said Mr. Weisfeld, a
resolutely low-tech guy wearing an incongruous orange Yahoo! cap. ³I¹ll 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. They¹re not
people looking for Michael Jackson¹s ŒThriller¹ or something by Billy Joel.²

The Princeton Record Exchange isn¹t the last of the hard-core independents,
but it¹s 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. That¹s also said to be true
for the behavior of Mr. Weisfeld¹s 20 employees, who pride themselves, like
the characters in Nick Hornby¹s novel ³High Fidelity,² on having way too
much knowledge of useless musical trivia. ³They don¹t roll their eyes
anymore,² said Matthew Hersh, 31, a Princeton native and longtime shopper.
³They used to be holier than thou. They might still be, but they don¹t show
it as much.²

In fact, ³High Fidelity,² which was made into a movie starring John Cusack,
is sort of PREX¹s 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.
³That store was always empty,² he noted. ³How did it stay in business? You
can¹t really keep a place like this going if people spend all their time
sitting around making lists of their 10 favorite ¹60s records about
doughnuts and dogs.²

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 10-year 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.

³It¹s a cold, sterile world on the Internet, and people get an experience
here you can¹t get online,² he said. ³If there are five stores left
standing, I think we can be one of them.²

E-mail: peappl at nytimes.com

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