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

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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