J&R, New York's Last Classical Record Store, Faces Uncertain Future

Monday, January 06, 2014 - 06:00 PM

J&R Computer World holds a 30% off clearance sale. Industry observers say this is the final hurrah. J&R Computer World holds a 30% off clearance sale. Industry observers say this is the final hurrah. (Brian Wise/WQXR)

By traditional retailing logic, J&R Computer World should have marked the holiday shopping season with a brisk business at its downtown classical music store and on its website, JR.com. But instead of doorbuster deals on CDs and DVDs, the company greeted shoppers with a sign announcing that its classical, jazz and world music floor was "closed for renovations."

Online shoppers, meanwhile, would have had an even tougher shopping experience: In early December, J&R quietly removed the music retail store from its website without notice.

Former employees, suppliers and industry watchers say that J&R has closed its classical music section for good, bringing to an end New York's last brick-and-mortar record store with a dedicated classical section. The closing comes as J&R has consolidated its operations from a block of storefronts on Park Row down to two corner buildings. The 43-year-old company has said it plans to lease the former storefronts to new tenants at rents in keeping with this gentrifying area.

Store management declined to be interviewed about the closing but one source close to the owners said on Monday that they will be "considering opportunities" over the next month. But former employees say that J&R held several rounds of layoffs over the past six months, and according to one source, shed "between 15 to 20" music employees. Among those who left was Sue Bryan, the music division's general manager (who declined to comment for this story) as well as longtime classical sales clerks.

Jeffrey Tarlo was a J&R classical salesman from 2001 until he was laid off in December. He said he couldn't understand the timing of the closing before the holidays. "That’s puzzling to me and everyone who worked there,” he said. He noted that the store was increasingly forced to return unsold product to labels and distributors. "The customer base was waning and they weren’t adjusting.”

One former employee, who declined to be identified for fear of angering J&R and hurting future employment prospects, said, "I knew this was going to happen. CD sales and DVD sales have been on a downslide because of streaming, downloading and Netflix.”

The former employee added that the company was slow to adapt to a changing retail landscape, balking at suggestions to add a download store to its website, or allowing customers outside the U.S. and Canada to make online purchases. Along with music, J&R also sells computers, electronics and home appliances, amounting to a $25 million business.

Rebranding Effort

On a recent afternoon, the third-floor pop and rock store remained open and a clearance sale was underway, with all recordings marked down 30 percent. Business was brisk as workers stocked shelves; many bins were full, albeit with catalog recordings. None of the employees would comment on the store’s future.

Despite the activity, recent moves suggest an air of finality to the music store. Along with closing the online music store, the retailer has changed its name: J&R Music and Computer World has become J&R Computer World (a web tagline announces "your gadget wonderland").

Classical record industry executives say orders for recordings dried up last month.

“I find it tremendously sad,” said Sean Hickey, a national sales and business development director at Naxos of America. “I’ve been going there every few weeks as a salesperson in this business and it’s not part of my routine any more. They were the last independent record store in New York City.”

Hickey said that J&R has offered several advantages for musicians and their labels. Unlike other stores that drew after-work and pre-concert shoppers, J&R caters to a lunchtime crowd that includes a mix of Wall Streeters, City employees and tourists. As a result, artists could draw a reasonable crowd for midday CD signings and in-store performances. From 2002 until 2012, the store also sponsored an annual summer music festival in City Hall Park featuring mainly jazz and R&B performers.

To some, J&R was a survivor, holding out several years after the closings of Tower Records, Virgin Megastore, HMV and other mega-chains that used to operate around New York City. Classical CD buyers today have a handful of smaller options: the Metropolitan Opera Store, the Juilliard Store and Barnes and Noble at Union Square, as well as the used offerings at Academy Records on West 18th Street.

"We at Warner Classics were very sad to see J&R close their classical store,” said Brian Joosten, the senior director of Warner Classics North America in an e-mail. “They were a wonderful partner throughout the years and a major supporter of classical music. As the last major independent physical retailer for classical music in New York City, this truly marks the end of the brick-and-mortar era – an era of which we all have many warm and nostalgic memories." 

Joosten added: “That said, we are excited about the future of classical retail – from online ordering, to digital downloads, to streaming services, there are actually more ways to gain access to classical music than ever before."

But Becky Starobin, co-owner of Bridge Records, said in an e-mail that a record store has other advantages: "I feel strongly that New York City needs, and can sustain, a deep catalog store which also serves as a social and musical gathering place."

Updated 1/7/14

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Comments [32]

Oscar from Copenhagen

noooooooooo,

this can´t be true. I live in Denmark, and over the years I've been in NYC quite a few times. Never have I missed to pay J&R at least one visit, learning about albums not available at home. Being a huge fan of jazz, J&R was like a candy store for me. Last time, in 2012, Irene Reid was played by the shop manager. Never heard of her - a minute later, I was the owner of a great CD! I searched The Gadd Gang, and was told that I should also check out Stuff, looking for Quincy Jones, finding a jam session with Bill Cosby from 1969. And so on... I have introduced music purchased at J&R to friends back home - who then downloaded the music I am going back to NYC soon, but where should I go? To Park Row observing a minute´s silence?

Apr. 23 2014 03:17 PM
Al from New York City

I dealt with this store on many occasions, and it got worse and worse especially with their Returns policy. Add to that the fact that the husband-wife owners were not very nice to me in a relatively simple question-and-answer query by mail. Ya have to treat your customers with fairness and respect, or else we take our business elsewhere. This time the entire J & R store complex is kaput.

Apr. 13 2014 06:37 PM
karen from highland park, nj

whoops, that should have been JAY not JOY SONIN at the old Record Hunter

Apr. 13 2014 04:36 PM
karen from highland park, NJ

Answer to Q re Record Hunter (1993 NYTimes) Last week, JOY SONIN, the president and owner of the Record Hunter, was inside doing the grim work of taking his final inventory, making sure his final tax bill would be paid and answering the endlessly ringing phone. He wore a sweatshirt and blue jeans and smoked lots of cigarettes. What he seemed to cling to, beneath the numbness, was a bittersweet pride. "On a per-square-foot basis, we did more business than any record store in the world," he declared.

Apr. 13 2014 04:34 PM
CookyMonzta from Brooklyn

Closed April 10 for, in their words, "Park Row redevelopment", I assume the renovation of the entire block.

I got a feeling this is the last we may have seen of J&R. Like The Wiz and Circuit City, I will bet a big stack of horse money that they will NEVER reopen, once renovation is complete.

Apr. 11 2014 06:13 PM
magnetismus from rye brook, ny.

but; does anyone remember this location as the home of Patterson Bros.(hardware, machine & hand tools,& raw materiel). and later on,as the home of Keuffel & Esser (drafting & surveying instruments & slide rules)?

Apr. 10 2014 09:40 AM
andytechie from nyc

F*&@ them!

What goes around comes around...try and make a return at JandR....

they have a moron in the returns who is to never take returns...

Apr. 05 2014 10:59 AM
Susan from Boston, MA

A question for the world of classical music lovers: Does anyone know the family name of the original owners of The Record Hunter? I believe it was a German Jewish name, but I haven't got more than that. Any information would be appreciated! Thank you.

Mar. 31 2014 02:13 PM
Debra Louvre

I started shopping at Kim's Video & Music. They have the best collection of movies that I love. Also, their staff are really friendly and helpful.

Mar. 25 2014 04:12 PM
CookyMonzta from Brooklyn

The first record I remember buying from here was Alisha's "All Night Passion", while on a training run from Brooklyn Tech in 1984. Amid many changes in the music and movie industry, I have bought many vinyl and CD singles and albums from this place, and I have bought numerous movies, almost all of which are DVDs.

As it turns out, not only did they close their classical music department, but for the past month and a half they have been liquidating ALL of their music and videos. EVERY CD, every vinyl, every DVD, every Blu-ray, GONE! I do not think the liquidation is a temporary plan, and that they will restock their music and videos once renovation is complete. They are done with music and movies, because they have taken it all off their Web site.

When Virgin closed in 2009, I wondered how long it would be before J&R would empty their music shop. When they closed down almost all of their Park Row stores (even their original storefront, 23 Park Row, that served as their music and video hub for many years) and moved everything to 1 Park Row, I knew the first shoe had dropped, and that it was only a matter of time before they decided to no longer sell music and video.

It doesn't seem right that the place that started out as J&R Music World will no longer sell music. And if it is true that soon enough the whole place will be gone, you can bet your horse money that P.C. Richard is licking their chops, getting ready to make their next wrecking-ball commercial to commemorate the demise of this legendary franchise, so that they can brag once again about having outlived it, just as they did when The Wiz (1976-2003) and Circuit City (1949-2009) shut down.

Mar. 24 2014 03:25 AM
herb lesser from Monroe NJ

I am sitting here crying for the imminent demise of J&R. I have been so close to this company since1971.

I was an electronic representative and personal friend of the owners and also an employee for 10 years.

It looks like the end of an era.

The buying public shows how uninformed and uncaring about quality in our dumb world.

Mar. 21 2014 01:15 PM
Malibu Mike from Flushing

I Loathe Vagner!!!!!!!!

Feb. 11 2014 05:08 PM
tony from new haven

it will be a sad day in the world of classical music,if this wonderful store closes..here in new haven,at yale we lost are classical record store.first towers,now this store..i hope not..

Jan. 10 2014 06:51 AM
Henry Miner from Brooklyn, New York

I knew that trouble was coming when Liberty Music at Madison and Fifth closed in the sixties. Remember when you could preview a 78 in a record playing booth?

Jan. 09 2014 11:37 PM
Luis Gutierrez from Brooklyn

I worked for about a year-and-a-half in the mid-80s in the classical department at Tower Records in the West Village, and what a learning experience that was! I was introduced to many of the composers whose music I now know and love during that time, and in the store there was always the anticipation of new releases - be they the latest interpretation of a popular favorite or a "world premiere" of some undeservedly obscure masterpiece.
I fondly remember the lively debates among my fellow staff members and the occasional visits by composers or recording artists to see how their records (and yes, I mean vinyl - as we were just transitioning to CDs then) were selling.

Jan. 08 2014 09:12 AM
Rosanna from NYC

Manhattan classical record shops were great fun! Who remembers The Record Hunter on Fifth Avenue just north of 42nd Street? At the West 49th Street Sam Goody's a veteran salesclerk in the classical section introduced me to a Peter Serkin recording with the comment: "Much finer pianist than his father." I enjoyed hearing such freely-offered opinions, scrutinizing aisles of tantalizing merchandise, and deciding on-the-spot which new treasures my tight student budget would allow me to carry home. And it seemed there would always be a next time or later sale for what I couldn't afford at top price ...

Jan. 08 2014 01:59 AM
Shepsl Topaz from Jackson Heights (Queens), NY

As for that headline -- "New York's Last Classical Record Store" -- the author of the article clearly doesn't know about Academy Records & CDs -- still very much alive on W. 18th St. and a treasure trove of classical CDs. Nor did he do some simple googling to find more sources of CDs -- classical and otherwise, in NYC. And, yes, the offerings are not huge, but they are there. Just trot on up to Lincoln Center and go to the Juilliard store, for heaven's sake. So here's a link to try for one Google result: http://www.citidex.com/646.htm#C3436.
So please, Mr. Wise, next time you think of writing an obituary, make sure the patient is actually dead first.

Jan. 08 2014 01:12 AM
Charles Fischbein from Front Royal, Va.

Re the Metropolitan Opera Gift shop, they do have an excellent selection, however I do not like the two tier pricing they have, one price for Guild members one for those who are not Guild members.
Under Mr. Volpe I was a Guild member for years, however in the second year of Mr. Gelb's directorship, after hearing and reading his interviews I decided I could no longer support the Met other than being a season subscription holder. Hopefully once Mr. Gelb is gone I can once again join The Metropolitan Opera Guild, but I will not give then a dime under Gelb with the exception of my ticket costs.
FYI for those who live outside of New York City or do not go to The Met, Amazon has much better prices, a wider selection, and with their Prime membership costing only a few dollars a month you get free two day shipping. Not like walking out with the CD or DVD but 48 hours is pretty close, and you do not have to spend the high shipping costs the Met shop adds to purchases. God Speed, Charles Fischbein

Jan. 07 2014 08:06 PM
Mark Hannay from East Village

Why on earth they closed this section of their story before/during the holiday season is baffling. For retailers, that's when they really sell. I went there to buy classical, jazz, and world music CDs as gifts for friends and family (my usual practice) and found the space closed off, and was very disappointed. They could have waited until after the holiday season at least if they wanted to end this line of business. Stupid and inconsiderate!

Jan. 07 2014 04:19 PM
R. Jaye

I have a friend, now in his eighties, who steadfastly refused to switch to CDs back in the 1980s. He remained loyal to vinyl even through the '90s when it must have been almost impossible to buy records. I'm sure at the time he would have never believed the pendulum would swing the other way and that by 2013 vinyl would be fashionable again, (albeit a niche market.)
I'm fully willing to be called naive but I do not think the physical media market is gone for good.
Remember: it is the job of every new generation to reject the current mainstream. Now that the mainstream is digital distribution, whose to say physical media might become the popular alternative?

Jan. 07 2014 02:45 PM
David from Flushing

Aside from the general decline of interest in classical music, one has to face the fact that little of the genre has been written in recent years. New artists do appear, but how many versions of the same piece do you really want to own? Personal CD collections reach a certain size then there is a falling off in adding additional recordings.

I recently replaced my stock of underwear. I could have gone to a major retailer, but they would not have the the style, size, color, in the quantity I desired. So, I purchased online with free delivery that arrived yesterday. The greater offerings available online today put all brick and mortar stores at a disadvantage. It seems ironic that the giants of mail order retailing are either gone or in decline as this business has picked up.

Jan. 07 2014 01:31 PM
Brunnhilde from NYC

Weh, Weh, Weh,! How sad. Tower Records, Virgin Records, Sam Goody, among the biggies.... not to mention the small independent little record/CD stores - Grand Prix on Broadway and 84th Street......does anyone remember the "Discophile" on 8th Street between 5th and 6th?? Many memories in my younger days of walking across 8th and hearing classical music, and strange music (the opera "Aniara" for instance that I immediately fell in love with and saved up my money to buy) wafting from the basement store. Change is not always for the good. Those store clerks who knew what you wanted, debates with clerks and customers over the best interpretation of whatever.....Another industry and its workers cast into the abyss. The older I get the more I understand my parents and grandparents.

Jan. 07 2014 12:56 PM
Ken from New York City

Thank goodness for the Metropolitan Opera Shop, which has an outstanding collection of cds and dvds. Historic releases, obscure titles as well as the great commercial recordings one would expect. In the sad wake of J&R closing, one may at least shout "Bravo" to the Met Shop.

Jan. 07 2014 12:48 PM
Peter Matthews from Brooklyn

Personally, I stopped buying CD's and vinyl several years ago. But, for those who still crave flipping through vinyl and CD's, you can still get your fix at Academy Records on 18th Street! http://www.academy-records.com/

Jan. 07 2014 10:26 AM
af from nassau county, long island

very sad!

Jan. 07 2014 04:05 AM
David

Big "surprise." What took them so long? (I haven't shopped there in years.)

You can buy MP3s without paying sales tax. You can download YouTube classical music videos for free.

While it is true that J&R had terrific Classical music salespeople (as opposed to their atrocious computer people), I can't say I miss going to a brick-and-mortar record store anymore.

Jan. 07 2014 02:10 AM
Jim Stenerson from Westchester

I must admit that I gave up on J&R when they crammed everything into the corner building!I knew something was up and it was obvious that management gave up respect for the audio CD business-especially classical.

Jan. 06 2014 09:46 PM
Lisanti from New Jersey

All the salesclerks at J&R were tremendous, but the ones in the classical store were amazing - you could hum a couple notes and they would pull out the CD. I wish them all the best in the future, and I thank them all for sharing their knowledge so willingly. This is very sad.

Jan. 06 2014 09:30 PM
J.B.Lee from Hugheston, WV

In 1976 I walked into Turner's Record Shop in Charleston, West Virginia, as was my custom, and the man behind the counter handed me an album: "This is right up your alley," he said. It was a recording of music by Luciano Berio, and he was on the nose. He knew his customers, you see. That experience is gone, along with Turner's and practically every other independent music store. For some years I've expected classical music to ultimately become an online-only business, at least in America; looks like we're well on our way to that, when even New York can't support a brick and mortar shop.

And I didn't have to be named Nostradamus to see it coming.

Jan. 06 2014 08:33 PM
Andrew from yestercenturypop.com

The curmudgeon in me wants to ask the gentleman from Warner Classics how he can be excited about classical (or just musical) retail, when going to a store and picking up a desired piece of music, or finding a new one, is pretty much a thing of the past. Going to J&R, or any record store, didn't have shipping and handling costs or estimated delivery dates. You even got things like liner notes, album art and a bunch of other things that, let's face it, really don't matter to most self-described ""music lovers."

Jan. 06 2014 07:47 PM
Charles Fischbein from Front Royal, Va.

What a shame. I remember walking directly to Tower Records after leaving Metropolitan Opera performances when walking uptown to my hotel on 80th St. I would spend hours there after performances looking at the Opera and Classical collections.
When I first retired from Journalism in the early 2000's I got tired of sitting home and feeding the sheep while everyone I knew was working. I applied for a job at Tower Records in Fairfax, Va. I was hired to work in there classical and opera department, which was like being a kid in a candy shop, talking opera all day. Unfortunately shortly after beginning work there I needed my tenth major knee surgery on a failed knee replacement and could no longer stand or walk for hours at a time.
No matter how many selections Amazon and other web sites have there is nothing that compares to looking through hundreds of selections, talking with knowledgeable sales staff and other customers, and reading the CD and DVD jackets fully before deciding what to purchase. It was also great to walk out the store with your purchase in your hands.
These wonderful shops will me missed. God Speed, Charles Fischbein

Jan. 06 2014 06:53 PM
Sanford Rothenberg from Brooklyn

Another one bites the dust.This sad tale is the perfect example of an increasingly insecure and unhappy time for classical music.Buyers will have to make do with the fewer,smaller remaining choices.

Jan. 06 2014 06:12 PM

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