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The Music Stops for Indie Shop

Times Staff Writer

During the years they ran NYCD, a small record store, Sal Nunziato and Tony Sachs had their disagreements. Sal cringed when Tony played songs by schlock lounge singers. Tony winced at his partner’s passion for Dixieland jazz.

They agreed, however, on the store’s most humiliating moment: Earlier this year, a Yellow Book saleswoman came into NYCD and urged them to buy an ad, saying it might boost sales and win back customers who download songs off the Internet.

Just then, the saleswoman’s assistant plucked a rock CD off the wall.

“Oh, don’t buy that,” her boss blurted out. “I’ll burn you a copy at home.”

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Sal and Tony love telling the story, even though it now has a bitter ending. They closed their shop on Christmas Eve because its once-robust business had virtually disappeared. NYCD (New York Compact Disc) was one of the city’s last independent shops selling new and used records.

“We gave this place everything we had for 12 years,” Tony said. “Sal and I love music with all our hearts. We live and breathe it, every day. But in the end, the business and our customers didn’t love us.”

There is plenty of blame to go around. New recordings don’t sell like they used to. Chain stores lured customers away with lower prices. Casual buyers who once crowded into the store began downloading songs.

These discouraging trends have been plaguing independent record stores across the nation. In Los Angeles, the most recent victim was Aron’s Records, which greatly influenced the way pop music was sold -- including the sale of used LPs -- when it opened on Melrose Avenue in 1965. The store moved to Highland Avenue in 1990, and announced last month that it was closing.

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What hurt the most at NYCD, however, was that many loyal customers also stopped coming to the store on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Shoppers who once spent $100 for Beatles bootleg recordings were now buying strollers and video games for their kids. They owned thousands of CDs, but there was less room for music in their lives.

“Many of the people who were our lifeblood disappeared, and the store died,” Sal said several days before closing. “It was like we were laid out in a funeral home.”

The two owners, both born in New York, became obsessed with music at an early age. They spent hours listening to the radio and bought hundreds of records.

“My grandmother sewed a pocket in my jacket so I could store 45s in there,” said Sal, who grew up in SoHo. “I’d leave school during my lunch hour to go to the record stores in the Village. I’d look at all the LPs for sale. I was fascinated.”

Tony, also raised in Manhattan, learned to play the guitar. Sal played the drums and joined a band. They met in 1992 when both were working at Smash, a record store in the East Village. Tony began to wonder whether he couldn’t open his own shop.

He was on the verge of going to law school when his mother asked him what he really wanted to do. His answer was immediate: He wanted to open a record shop. To his amazement, she gave him the start-up money.

NYCD opened in 1993 and was an instant hit. It was named the city’s best independent record store by New York magazine. Sal, who began as a manager, later became a co-owner.

Their store drew a predominantly younger crowd at first; on weekends, NYCD had $7,500 to $10,000 in sales. The little shop in a narrow storefront hummed with life -- and attitude.

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There were no “hi’s” or “hellos” from the owners, who often sat stone-faced behind a high counter near the door. A raucous mix of bebop and Brian Wilson, Moby, Miles Davis and Johnny Mercer boomed from the loudspeakers.

It was tough moving around the store when it was crowded, especially on weekends; it was almost impossible when the two owners, determined to keep things loose, played Wiffle ball.

Customers browsed through hundreds of new and used CDs in racks on the walls, and in bins lining both sides of a narrow aisle. There were additional boxes filled with old LPs at the back of the store.

Shoppers got bargains that were hard to find in other stores -- a used Hank Williams box set for under $20; Eastern European pressings of American versions of Beatles albums; rare recordings by Janis Joplin, Sting and the Band.

They’d also get a healthy dose of New York shtick. Sal, 41, a slight man with a thick helmet of dark hair, never hesitated to judge shoppers’ choices: “Please don’t buy that! Put it back!” he’d say. “That’s a really terrible album!”

Tony, 36, who periodically dyed his hair pink and wore Hawaiian shirts, seemed more polite. But he once drove a shopper out when he demanded to know why she didn’t buy a vintage Frank Sinatra recording instead of “Manilow Sings Sinatra.”

Many customers -- a mixture of graying boomers, college students, elderly shoppers, musicians and other music industry types -- hung out at the counter like it was a bar. Some schmoozed for hours about rare jazz and the state of pop music. Others shared their troubles, whether the owners wanted to hear them or not.

In between chatting with regulars and ringing up sales, Sal and Tony bickered over Bonnie Raitt. They clashed over the White Stripes. Both loved to inflict their tastes on others.

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“I’ve been waiting all day to play this record,” Tony said, brandishing an obscure copy of “The Very Best of Ann-Margret.” Sal insisted that shoppers listen to Maurice Brown, a young New Orleans-style trumpet player he adores.

Sometimes the owners fell silent, playing a game: They tried to predict which recordings shoppers would buy, based on their dress and appearance.

“We had a simple formula,” Tony said. “Elderly and confused -- looking for Frank Sinatra. Conservatively dressed woman, 35-40 -- Alanis Morissette or Annie Lenox. Middle-aged guy with bad hair and embarrassing leather jacket -- classic rock.”

Inevitably, some customers concluded that both owners resembled the wisecracking, imperious clerks in the novel and movie “High Fidelity.”

“Lots of people would say, ‘You guys remind me of ‘High Fidelity,’ ” Sal recalled. “They’d say it over and over: ‘Have you seen the movie? Have you seen the movie?’ And I’d finally answer: ‘Shut up and get over it! Enough already!’ ”

Several customers survived Sal and Tony’s hazing rituals and became friends. On Christmas Day, they would bring in red wine, cookies and whole roasted chickens from a nearby deli.

On Sept. 11, 2001, the owners expected a slow day. But 20 people came in to buy “Love and Theft,” a new Bob Dylan recording that came out the same morning.

“They were saying, ‘The world is ending, but I’ve got to have this record,’ ” Sal said.

Business, good for eight years, fell off dramatically after Sept. 11. The store lost customers as music downloading grew in popularity. The high prices of new recordings -- which can range from $17.98 to $18.98 -- also kept many people away.

To cut costs, Sal and Tony moved the shop in August 2003 to a cheaper basement location one block away. Sales continued to drop, plunging 50% from 2002. NYCD made only $1,600 during the last Thanksgiving weekend.

Meanwhile, the owners began dabbling in online business and listed some of their stock on Amazon.com. Sales jumped 500% in two years.

As much as they hated to close the shop, they decided NYCD could survive only as an online business. In the future, all their sales will be processed in a small room -- with no customers. Sal and Tony joked that they could go to work in boxer shorts, but life in a Midtown office is not what they had planned.

“It’s a tragedy for the owners and for the neighborhood,” said Ariel Hyatt, a music publicist who has shopped at NYCD since it opened. “They should have been allowed to grow old gracefully behind the counter here.”

When the end comes, most independent record stores typically hold a final sale. They thank customers for years of support before shutting their doors.

Sal and Tony went out in a burst of anger.

In a series of caustic monthly newsletters, they excoriated the music industry -- and their fickle customers. “Come on in, say goodbye, tell us how much you’ll miss us, shed a tear, and maybe spend a few bucks on a CD,” they wrote. “NYCD is a sinking ship with the unfortunate absence of lifeboats.”

A handwritten sign outside the store announced that the owners had lost their desire to be in the shop -- let alone the neighborhood. When people came in, shocked at the news of NYCD’s closing, the owners were polite but characteristically blunt.

“I’m glad people feel this way now,” Tony said. “But this place is empty. It’s nothing like we dreamed it would be when we first got started.”

Complaints about chain stores crowding out independents are nothing new. Yet the loss of smaller record shops can be particularly painful because many of them play a crucial role in the appreciation and marketing of American pop music.

Unlike most radio stations and chain stores -- which focus on top 10 hits and big-name stars -- independent shops promote lesser-known artists. Store owners are like musical missionaries, spreading the word, even as their ranks dwindle.

“We were the victims of competition,” said Jesse Klempner, owner of Aron’s Records in Los Angeles. The store could not compete with the lower prices offered by chain stores, big-box retailers and a profusion of low-cost online sellers.

Klempner acknowledged that his shop was also hurt by Amoeba Music, a Bay Area-based independent store that opened a Los Angeles branch a mile away from Aron’s in Hollywood. Amoeba features a bigger inventory of music and DVDs, and has been praised for its pricing policies and marketing savvy.

Nationwide, nearly 1,000 independent stores closed in the last three years, according to Clark Benson, chief executive and founder of the Los Angeles-based Almighty Institute of Music Retail, which has compiled an industry database. There are 2,800 stores left; 10 years ago, there were about 5,000, he said.

As Christmas Eve neared, Sal and Tony made final plans. They threw a party in the store for some close friends. They started removing stock from the bins.

On the last night, the owners put bottles of vodka, gin and vermouth on the counter; they drank vodka martinis, toasted an uncertain future and said goodbye to customers, as Sinatra sang “One for My Baby (And One More for the Road).”

Just before he locked the door and left, Tony took down the handwritten NYCD signs outside the store. But he decided to leave one over the door, for old time’s sake: “Get insulted by a drunk guy in a Hawaiian shirt,” it read. “Only $1.”


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