Super Subcultures

Vinyl Voyagers

By land, air and sea, earning a profit along the clandestine transatlantic record route.

Vinyl Voyagers

Ducking into a crumbling and cramped hideout from the imminent downpour, it took only a minute to confirm that, yes, I had found the world’s greatest record shop and, no, it wasn’t in New York City. My wife Erica and I had encountered Record Station—an unmarked boutique slathered in white paint and framed by tall windows—as we walked along rue des Récollets toward Canal Saint-Martin on an overcast June afternoon in Paris.

The secondhand store, in the city’s tenth arrondissement, faces Jardin Villemin, where a military hospital for French troops stood during their war with Prussia. Today, more than one hundred and forty years later, peace blankets the neighborhood, where Record Station provides some welcome grit wedged between its posh café and consignment shop neighbors.

Behind its heavy glass door, crates of obscure albums, dog-eared 45s, box-set bootlegs, and “Blaxploitation” DVDs piled around a lanky, blue-eyed thirty-year-old named Quentin Devillers. “Bonjour,” we announced in our attempt at a customary afternoon greeting, the same one we’d used when entering any fromagerie, boulangerie, or bistro in Paris. “English?” he responded with a tight grin, his jaw wrestling a piece of chewing gum as he punctuated each syllable. Soft-spoken and sporting a crew cut, Devillers opened this shoebox of a shop in December 2009. It dwarfs New York’s vinyl stores based on selection rather than space, and with good reason: Devillers gets most of his stuff from places in Manhattan and Brooklyn, and keeps French record fanatics satisfied with a business model that involves closing for days at a time without warning while he shops in the U.S.

Record Station in Paris (Photos courtesy Record Station)
Record Station in Paris (Photos courtesy Record Station)

“I have, like, two lives,” he told me.  “My colleagues don’t know it.”

Just as every disc Devillers sells offers two sides, he, too, has a flipside—one that revolves around working overtime overseas when his supply runs low. That means dropping everything for a last-minute flight to New York, where other buyers from Europe and Asia often unearth rare American and British vinyl they would never find back home. Devillers travels quietly, and says little about his former job with an American airline, a connection that affords him this opportunity every few months.

Once stateside, he rents a Chrysler PT Cruiser—a vehicle big enough to carry boxes of vinyl but compact enough to park anywhere—and drives down the Eastern Seaboard, crashing with friends along the way. He shops during the day, sacrificing sleep as he packs his purchases overnight. During a recent five-day excursion with stops in Pittsburgh, Boston, Baltimore, Washington and New York, for instance, Devillers amassed about 1,000 albums. He once escaped injury when he nodded off at the wheel and totaled his rental car.

Profit enters the picture upon his return to Paris: Devillers might flip a $10 record he found in Richmond, Va. for sixty euro—roughly $75—in Paris. If not for international buyers like Devillers hitting the five boroughs by planes, trains and automobiles, many New York record store owners say their own vinyl businesses would suffer.

Jeff Ogiba, manager of Black Gold Records in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, relies on these customers to supplement the waning buying habits of even his most dedicated locals. Japanese collectors account for about one-third of his online orders from outside the country, Ogiba told me, while another 25 percent comes from the United Kingdom.

“I know a few people who actually build skids to ship out there,” he said of international vinyl traffic.  “It’s that big of a trade.”

Bins full of vinyl at Gimme Gimme Records
Bins full of vinyl at Gimme Gimme Records 

Take Eelco Jorissen, a record shop owner in Amsterdam, who must wait until next year to unload the albums he’ll buy from the WFMU Record Fair in Gramercy this weekend. The intrigue behind such a transaction involves not what records Jorissen will buy but how he plans to get them home:  A boat will carry 2,000 LPs across the Atlantic to his store, Waxwell Records, where Jorissen stocks about 100,000 hip-hop, disco, and Brazilian titles. He doesn’t expect his maritime shipment to arrive until January. And since he visits New York only once a year, everything rides on this vinyl voyage.

“It’s sort of a unique selling point to us,” Jorissen told me. “It’s actually sort of a tiny store, but we have a big basement that’s flooded with records.”

When Erica and I met Devillers the day before we boarded our seven-hour flight home to New York, he told us that every album he stocks is a transplant from either the U.S. or the U.K.:  blues, folk, jazz, reggae, punk, a remarkable collection from soul singer Solomon Burke, and first pressings from ’60s American garage bands like The Box Tops, The Standells and The Seeds. Original pressings here carry high value abroad, even higher depending on the condition of the vinyl and its album sleeve.

“I don’t want to have common pieces,” Devillers said, pointing to his even pricier finds, like Pink Floyd’s “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn,” sealed in plastic packaging and pinned to the shop’s back wall, out of reach.

“You want to buy something, Hubs?” Erica asked me, knowing I could have easily hauled a few box loads out of there. I’ve collected ever since I inherited Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” from my Nana as a kid and, as of last count, I have four hundred and twenty records in our six-hundred-square foot Manhattan apartment. (The movers through the years have always hated me for it.) But never before had I paid $75 for an album. And so, for all its charm and choice I walked out of the world’s greatest record store empty-handed.

The author shops for vinyl in Paris (Photo by Erica Flanary)
The author shops for vinyl in Paris (Photo by Erica Flanary)

“The most eclectic mix imaginable,” I wrote in my journal at the time. “Drawback was he wanted 60 euro apiece! Couldn’t swing it.”

How such a high price for vinyl goes unchecked in places like France, where people pay more in taxes and fewer of them hold steady jobs, at first frustrated me. But we collectors understand the gravity of the unattainable. And the price point makes sense when you consider an album’s journey across borders and the cost required to get it there in one piece. On eBay, most sellers demand a hike to ship internationally. Say you find a copy of Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” for 99 cents. Depending on how fast you want it to get from New York to a friend in Paris, the record instantly soars to $20 or $40—more if you spring for FedEx, Devillers’ preferred method. And that’s before the packaging and insurance expenses. Considering his flights, food, car rentals and occasional hotel rooms, sixty euro for vintage vinyl doesn’t seem so unreasonable.

Yet, while stores like Record Station thrive in Europe, New York’s vinyl haunts continue to surrender to higher rent and lower demand. In September, after 64 years, Colony Music closed its doors on Broadway in Times Square. The East Village, New York’s longtime hub of vinyl collecting, continues to hemorrhage music stores, including my favorite, Gimme Gimme Records, which, following a rent hike, will shutter next month and move to Los Angeles after almost two decades on East 5th Street. Last weekend, the shop’s owner and an employee removed posters from the walls and packed much of the store. An officer from the police precinct next door stopped in to say goodbye.

Several blocks away, near Cooper Square, a fast-talking, pony-tailed Army veteran named Donny Reith has been selling popular rock albums from his white van for nearly thirteen years. Most afternoons you’ll find him on the sidewalk on Astor Place, one of the few dealers still catering to everyday collectors as the neighborhood’s vinyl market vanishes around him. “I was always on the low-priority list with hardcore record guys; they never came around,” he told me. “Now that the stores are closing, I’m gettin’ them guys and I’ve got nothin’ for ’em.”

Over on St. Mark’s Place, a bubble-tea joint will soon occupy the space Rockit Scientist Records held since 1996. “Retail is really intense,” said John Kioussis, who shuttered the store in April. Only a tattered sign remains, covered in graffiti and decaying duct-tape letters; inside, Rockit Scientist’s battered and stained floor reveals outlines of the record shelves that once stood there.

Clockwise from top left: The now-shuttered Colony Music and Rockit Scientist Records; Donny Reith sells vinyl from his van (Photos by Patrick Flanary); Gimme Gimme Records owner Dan Cook packs up his wares (Photo by Sara Huneke)
Clockwise from top left: The now-shuttered Colony Music and Rockit Scientist Records; Donny Reith sells vinyl from his van (Photos by Patrick Flanary); Gimme Gimme Records owner Dan Cook packs up his wares (Photo by Sara Huneke)

To maintain his connection with the customers whose loyalty has faded in the era of iTunes, Kioussis now sells his inventory through websites like eBay and Discogs. When we spoke, he recalled how the international vinyl trade emerged decades ago, when the press overseas hyped American rockers like The Stooges and The MC5. The exposure, he said, ignited a revolution.

“The Germans would come from the early- to mid-’70s and spend like a month or so enjoying what now gets called ‘scorched earth policy,” said Kioussis, using the wartime and business expression for seizing an enemy’s assets. “They would rent a van or a truck and they would hit all the cut-out places up and down the East Coast, spend a month or so here, and just buy multiple copies of each record.”

That policy still works for Devillers, who purposely lacks a website and only takes orders from those who visit his Paris shop in the flesh. “Some Etta James, some Nina Simone is always requested. But unfortunately it’s not the kind of record I get ten copies of in the shop,” he explained.

“Sometimes a record really costs a lot of money, but it’s more easy to find,” he added, mentioning The Beatles’ “butcher cover” of “Yesterday and Today” as an example. Replaced with an alternate cover long ago, the original—highly regarded by collectors—features the band, dressed as butchers, draped in red meat and headless baby dolls.

Other titles on his shelves prove tougher to track down because of their physical condition or the fact that few copies remain. About a dozen of Devillers’ customers are waiting for an original U.K. pressing of The Zombies’ psychedelic “Odessey and Oracle,” but Devillers has found only one in his decade of collecting. Other American and British oddities on his list range from The Velvet Underground’s “White Light/White Heat” in mono—a single-channel audio mix which predated stereo sound—to the self-titled album Buddy Holly cut a year before his fatal plane crash.

Devillers’ biggest get? Howlin’ Wolf’s debut, “Moanin’ in the Moonlight,” a late ’50s blues mono classic seldom found anywhere. It fetched a thousand euro at Record Station.

In a back room of the Holiday Inn in Hell’s Kitchen one morning last month, up a short flight of stairs and past the lobby restrooms, tension was rapidly building at the monthly New York City Record & CD Show.

On the third Saturday of every month, you’ll find the same ten or so dealers—mostly beer-bellied guys in their fifties drinking coffee—stretched out behind sprawling stacks of albums. One of the few young sellers makes the three-and-a-half hour drive from Connecticut every month just for this. The dust and fluorescent lighting will parch your eyes, but this vinyl tradition is a thing to see. During a trip earlier this year, I watched as Gary “Baba Booey” Dell’Abate, of Howard Stern fame, brought a VH1 crew to shoot a TV pilot about collectors.

Plenty of friendly bickering and backslapping happens in this congested room, where the conversation will seesaw from the perfection of analog sound to the perils of a Mitt Romney presidency. After a few visits, you learn whom to approach and whom to avoid. Once I pay the $4 admission and get my hand stamped, I always head straight for the bald dealer with the moustache, whose table in the room’s northeast corner holds up plenty of great ska and psychedelic stuff.

Gary “Baba Booey” Dell’Abate’s film crew at the New York City Record & CD Show (Photo by Patrick Flanary)
Gary “Baba Booey” Dell’Abate’s film crew at the New York City Record & CD Show (Photo by Patrick Flanary)

On this particular morning, though, haggling devolved into nagging as a short and overbearing Frenchman wearing thin-rimmed glasses and a rumpled windbreaker spread out dozens of LPs across the seller’s stacks, obstructing me from my monthly crate-digging fix. His persistence and impatience threatened to break the dealer at any moment. In fractured English, the shopper proposed, “You make me price, I buy everything?”

“I already priced ’em good,” the seller shot back, shaking his shiny head and shuffling through the man’s pile. Some of his selections cost a couple of bucks, while Gang of Four’s “Entertainment!” and Procol Harum’s “Broken Barricades” were already marked as half off the $40 sticker.

When the total came to $222, the shopper pushed back again until another ten percent was knocked off. “There, $202,” the dealer said, resigned. “Look here–you’ve got the vinyl with the original booklet. See? That’s worth somethin’!”

“Sure is–just wait till he gets back to France,” I grumbled to myself as the buyer cradled his new investment. At that moment, I noticed him locking eyes with a younger, fitter man across the crowd. This other guy was lanky with a short haircut, and he was flipping through a box marked “Classic Rock.” The two of them, it appeared, were in cahoots, working the room together and buying more records than they could carry. I was pissed. But my mood shifted to curious when déjà vu hit as the rumpled guy’s partner and I came face-to-face.

“Hey, weren’t you in my store?” the man asked me.

I smiled and extended my hand. It had been three months.

“Paris,” I managed, stunned by this second encounter half a world away from our first. “You run the greatest record shop in Paris.”

“Yeah,” Devillers muttered through his chewing gum. Here we stood again, a dozen Saturdays later, this time just two blocks from my Hell’s Kitchen apartment. In his grip were The Doors’ “Strange Days” and The Ramones’ “Rocket to Russia.” Both were marked $10.

Shopping at Gimme Gimme Records
Shopping at Gimme Gimme Records

Seeing Devillers in action disarmed me a bit. He was clearly the good cop of this duo, the dovish yin to his partner’s hawkish yang, and he hadn’t reacted as if I’d caught him red-handed. Here he stood, the quiet taskmaster handling the necessary legwork while his wingman brokered the deals. Devillers is, after all, running a business, traveling far and wide to hunt down the Holy Grails for his customers and turn a profit back home. His price markup—offensive as I had found it months ago in Paris—now seemed fair, even if it comes at a price I would never pay.

As Jeff Ogiba, of Brooklyn’s Black Gold Records, put it about shop owners here, “I think if our country can make money off of other countries’ happiness, we should do it as often as we can. Because we need the money.”

“When I come in back from the U.S., they know I bring good stuff,” Devillers told me that day in Manhattan. “So each time I come back, it’s like a mess for at least two weeks. I put everything on the floor. People are just swimming in records.”

He would spend that evening packing most of the day’s finds, a hundred to a box, then ship it all home to Paris before flying back with two hundred of the more valuable records at his side.

If you come upon Record Station in Paris and the glass door won’t budge, the shop hasn’t closed for good—its owner has only gone shopping for a few days, likely somewhere in New York, trapped between a steering wheel and his latest load of vintage vinyl. But that’s just business—he’s used to cramped spaces.