Cherish the Dust: Mrs. Maisel and the Wonderful World of Old Record Shops
One of the many pleasures tucked into Amazon’s award-winning series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is the occasional trip down a set of mysterious stairs to a 1958 record store.
A vintage record store, run by slightly demented people who passionately loved those records, is one of the things that’s really, really worth missing about 1958. Or 1968. Or even 1978.
I was thinking about that when I read an obituary the other day for Robert Plotnick, also known as Bleecker Bob, who ran a real-life record store in New York’s Greenwich Village for more than 40 years.
I think about it when I watch Audience TV’s Loudermilk. Title character Sam Loudermilk (Ron Livingston) walks through life acting like he hates everything, especially himself. But he was a music critic once, and when he sees a good album at a record store, all that other stuff melts away.
Some record stores are hanging on today, battle-hardened survivors of the digital music revolution. A few are just hoping to catch a wave of chic. Others still do it right. It’s good to find them, here and there.
In 1958, they were starting to be everywhere, because in that Paleolithic pre-download era, records were the only way you could buy music.
The earliest records, back toward the beginning of the 20th century, were sold in furniture and hardware stores. They were considered software for Victrolas, the original record players so big they really were furniture.
Records gradually got their own stores, and by 1958 they were multiplying, as baby boomers started to become teenagers and get small affordable record players of their own. Their parents didn’t have to hear that noise in the living room any more, because Ricky and Taffy could play it in their rooms with their friends.
The record shop in Mrs. Maisel, however, takes us a step past Ricky and Taffy, to the 1950s equivalent of the Dark Web.
The store into which Susie (Alex Borstein) takes Mrs. Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan) has a ground floor where you can buy Sinatra and Elvis and My Fair Lady and the hits of the day, all in lovely classic bins full of 12-inch vinyl albums.
Downstairs is where they keep the hi-test.
Call it the musical underground, literally and figuratively. It’s presided over — guarded, really — by two ultra-geeks, Virgil (David Bluvband) and Oz (Patrick O’Neill). They dwell among chest-high stacks of prized vinyl and related material, like reel-to-reel tapes. They specialize in comedy records and they know it all. You have to earn their trust to even touch one of the records. Many are not for sale.
What an unexplored Egyptian tomb is to an archeologist, lairs like that are to record collectors. It’s where you go when you’re serious, and sometimes it’s not even a physical space as much as the sense of being around other people who share the passion. It’s the feeling captured note-perfect in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, though a little less in the movie than the novel.
Mrs. Maisel comes away from her first trip to Virgil and Oz’s den with a Redd Foxx album.
Before Redd Foxx became the funny old cranky guy on Sanford and Son, he made his reputation and a lot of his money recording “party records.” Those who remember the comedy of the 1940s and 1950s as refreshingly clean have never listened to a Redd Foxx party album.
They’re a revelation to Mrs. Maisel. And on another level, part of the power and glory of record stores was that they could make those introductions.
Bleecker Bob’s for many years served that real-life role. Plotnick started by selling oldies, his personal passion, then he smartly caught the early waves of punk and New York’s alternative music scene of the 1970s. He made his shop the gathering spot for artists and fans who wanted the newest and latest. You went there, you heard new stuff, you talked with people who knew and appreciated it.
A good record store spoke your language, a language that a lot of the people in your life probably did not. New York over the years had dozens of shops like that. You went into Commodore, you talked jazz. You went into Times Square Records, you talked the Orioles and the Del-Vikings. You went to Rainbow Records, you talked gospel. Bobby’s Records was where you hung out when you had some time between sets at the Apollo, a block away.
Rock & Soul for more than 40 year has been a shop where you find the musical tools for hip-hop deejaying.
Nor was this ever just a New York thing. Every city had shops where fans and collectors met. Ernest Tubb’s in Nashville. Randy’s in Gallatin, Tennessee. The Record Shop in Big Spring, Texas. Syd’s Record Shop in Cincinnati. Jazz Record Mart in Chicago. Cutler’s in New Haven. Skippy White’s in Boston. Jazz Man in L.A. Leroy’s in Denver. Joe’s in Detroit.
Even some chains had the feeling. King Karol. Tower. They didn’t have the creaky wooden floors and the smell of vinyl, but at their best they captured the spirit.
As a sort of full-disclosure footnote, I should add that when I think about the golden age of record shops, there was also the night around 1969 when I was in the Village and dropped into Bleecker Bob’s, then located at 149 Bleecker St. and called Village Oldies.
I was carrying a box with couple of 78s, since one of the things you did at oldies record shops sometimes was trade. I put the box on the counter and while I was waiting, another customer put an album on top of it. The register guy rang up the album and when the customer walked away with his purchase, my box was gone.
There were a couple of people behind the counter. “What box?” they all shrugged.
That was my last visit to Bleecker Bob’s. He did fine without me, and I was glad he did. The fact it wasn’t my record store didn’t mean it wasn’t a gem for others.
I had plenty of other places to go, sometimes with co-hunters, and on the best days it was like finding presents under a Christmas tree.
If they were more often wrapped in dust than bright shiny paper, that only enhanced the sense of discovery. I suspect Mrs. Maisel would agree.