[JPL] About Bobby Robinson
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Wed Oct 29 15:34:21 EDT 2008
August 21, 2007
An Old Record Shop May Fall Victim to Harlem¹s Success
By JOHN ELIGON
Bobby Robinson sat in a lawn chair in the Harlem record store he opened
before R & B music got its name, speaking softly about days of old and of an
uncertain future, his strong face barely betraying his 90 years of life.
Around him, family members and friends chatted about topics ranging from
food to Barack Obama. One person sat in a chair reading a newspaper, another
sat on a cooler drinking a can of beer with a straw, yet another ate a slice
And in a span of roughly two hours, the store had only three customers, who
browsed the selection of gospel, jazz and soul records, cassettes and CDs.
Only one made a purchase.
With computerized music in full swing, Mr. Robinson¹s store, Bobby¹s Happy
House, which he opened in 1946, is hardly about selling records, cassettes
or CDs anymore. It has become a landmark of Harlem¹s black heritage and a
place that residents of the neighborhood can call home.
³It¹s a positive place,² said Josephine Bush, 55, who grew up with Mr.
Robinson¹s daughter and often spends time at the shop. ³It¹s just
comfortable. You can come in and relax.²
But because Mr. Robinson¹s store is no longer lucrative, it may succumb to
Harlem¹s growing corporate landscape. This summer, the building that houses
Bobby¹s was sold to a development partnership of the Kimco Realty
Corporation and the Sigfeld Group. Mr. Robinson was asked to leave by the
end of last month.
Some neighbors held a rally on his behalf, and then his lawyer helped
arrange a deal last week that will let him stay until early next year and
receive money from the new management group for his move. The new owners did
not return several phone calls seeking an interview.
Even if Mr. Robinson finds a new location, however, the market rates for
commercial space in Harlem, and throughout Manhattan, could make it
difficult for the store to survive, said Denise Benjamin, Mr. Robinson¹s
daughter, who now runs the store.
³I¹m concerned that we may not be able to reopen anywhere,² Ms. Benjamin
³And I¹m really concerned about him because it¹s his life work,² she said of
Mr. Robinson came to Harlem and opened his store after serving in the Army
in Hawaii. He was originally on 125th Street, at the corner of Frederick
Douglass Boulevard. Nearly 20 years ago, he was forced around the corner and
onto Frederick Douglass by the advent of a Kentucky Fried Chicken branch.
Even with that move, Mr. Robinson had the same landlord, a friend who Ms.
Benjamin said gave him a good deal on rent. When that building owner died,
his daughter took over and continued to charge Mr. Robinson a manageable
Ms. Benjamin said they now pay $2,850 a month for about 1,200 square feet,
which is the equivalent of $28.50 per square foot per year. Retail space in
Harlem is generally going for $75 to $200 per square foot per year,
according to separate estimates by Shimon Shkury, a managing partner at
Massey Knakal Realty Services, and CB Richard Ellis, a brokerage firm.
Of course, Mr. Robinson could move out of Harlem, but that would be less
than desirable. For one thing, Mr. Robinson is widely believed to be the
first black business owner on 125th Street a distinction that his new
landlords agreed to note in a plaque at the site of his original storefront.
He has also lived within walking distance of his store since it opened.
³Harlem is my home,² he said. ³It always sets me apart as the first colored
man to ever own a store on 125th Street. That¹s my big thing.²
Indeed, some people believe that Harlem without Bobby¹s would not be the
The store is a stop on Hush Tours, which takes people for a close look at
the hip-hop culture in Harlem and the Bronx. Debra Harris, who owns the tour
company, said the visit to Bobby¹s helps people gain a sense of the roots of
hip-hop: Mr. Robinson produced records for several performers under his own
³With that being gone, it¹s really, really going to hurt the community and
the preservation of the roots of hip-hop,² Ms. Harris said, ³because he¹s
like one of the last Mohicans up there.²
For the moment, however, Mr. Robinson, who was dressed in a suit with a top
hat and snakeskin shoes, seems to be proceeding with the unruffled demeanor
of a man who has lived his life note by note.
³I¹ve had a great life so far,² he said.
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company
Besides the aforementioned Fire & Fury Records connection of Bobby Robinson
by my colleague David K, Bobby Robinson owned the Enjoy label which was the
second record label to record the then new genre of hip hop. Curiously Sugar
Hill Records which was the first label to issue a hip hop recording was
owned by another Robinson, Sylvia-no relation. Enjoy had recorded the
seminal and true hip hop crew, Grandmater Flash & the Furious Five, the
Sugarhill Gang was a studio group that "borrowed" the rhymes of the seminal
Cold Crush Crew for Rapper's Delight. When that song hit the airwaves in
1980 hip hoppers who had been listening to those rhyhmes for several years
in clubs, parks and casette tapes weren't surprised with the sound, they
just aksed themeselves "who the heck is the Sugar Hill Gang?"
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