Tales From a New York Record Store

I spent the entire decade of the 1980s running St. Mark's Sounds, which was, at the time, pretty much the most happening record store in The Big Apple on the most happening block of St. Mark's Place.
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I spent the entire decade of the 1980s, and then some, running St. Mark's Sounds, which was, at the time, pretty much the most happening record store in The Big Apple (don't mind the maggots), on the most happening block of St. Mark's Place -- between 2nd and 3rd Avenues -- the main drag in the East Village.

And, yeah, modesty momentarily shoved to one side, I had something to do with that.
I was the head of the used, promo, specialties (Blues, Country, etc.) and collectable sections. I was also one of two import buyers. And by the mid-80's, thanks to Bon Jovi single-handedly chasing me away from Guitar Rock, I was, somewhat by default, the resident expert and head buyer of the Dance/Rap/House/Techno 12" singles section, too.

I even wound up in a few guide books, along with Sounds' most fashion-foward and second most opinionated staffer, Sgt. Mitch Z. A Japanese customer once came in and showed me the page in his Guide to Cool New York that translated to, "Be sure to ask for Binky or Mitch."

It was totally commonplace to have Johnny and/or Joey and/or Marky Ramone, a Beastie Boy or two, John Belushi, Afrika Baambaata, Tim Sommer, Bob Quine, Rick Rubin (who asked me to tutor him on Blues and Country), Arthur Russell, Richard Hell, Craig Kallman, John Zorn, Joe Jackson, B-52s' Fred Schneider, Steve Buscemi, Thurston Moore, Paul Schaefer, various Blondies, out-of-towners like John Doe and Exene, Natalie Merchant, Henry Rollins, Buzzcocks, among others, shopping there, sometimes with three or four of 'em in at the same time; usually even being left alone by the other customers. Although I recall a funny moment when two kids approached the head Talking Head as he cruised the used rock bins and told him he looked a lot like David Byrne. He replied, with mild mock shock, "Wow, really? That's my name, too." When they asked him to sign a copy of a Talking Heads album they'd just bought, he printed his name in big block letters.
The kids were baffled. I was impressed.

St. Mark's Sounds was/is about 20 x 50 feet, and on a Saturday, we could have over 80 people squeezed into the two aisles with another dozen or so standing on the stoop waiting for the crowd to thin out a bit inside. The running joke was we were the only record store that needed a velvet rope.

Odd little happenings were almost run-of-the-mill.
When we first opened, we were using the dumpster of the Grassroots bar downstairs for our garbage. About 8 weeks after we'd launched the shop, a little guy in his early 60s, wearing a porkpie hat, smoking the stub of a cigar, came in and handed me a bill for $120.00.

"What the hell's this for?" I asked.

"The company I work for has this store on their route. That's your monthly fee for your commercial garbage pick up."

I got the owner out of the back room.

"Sorry, we won't need you, we use the Grassroots' dumpster with their permission."

"Oh, okay." said the little porkpie guy. He smiled, folded his invoice into his pocket, and left.

The next morning, I was the first guy to get to the store. The entire stoop and sidewalk was completely covered with eggs shell, coffee grounds, used diapers, chicken bones, rotten fruit and vegetables, the rawest of garbage... and there was a tall sanitation policeman in his dark olive green uniform standing there, writing a ticket. I walked up to him and asked him what was going on.

He asked, "You work at this store?" I said yes.

"Well, this is a hellavuh mess you got here. Gonna cost you a bundle." He handed me a fine for $350.00.

Later that same day, little porkpie guy came back into the store and said that he'd heard we'd had some trouble with the Sanitation Department. I nodded and took six 20-dollar bills out of the register, and handed them to him. He handed me the same bill he'd had the day before and announced, "I'm here the first Wednesday of each month. See ya then."
One Friday afternoon during Spring Break, schools were out and the place was packed. Suddenly, I realized that, among all the standard East Village and bridge and tunnel customers, there were three guys in the store that did not belong. And, then, the front door swung open, and in came another.

All four were tall and the same height. All four were wearing the same black suit, crisp white shirt, shiny black shoes, and muted dark tie. All four had a small nondescript pin on their left lapel. All four had plain dark sunglasses on. All four had earpieces with thin wires going down into their collars. All four seemed coiled like predators on the verge of the pounce. Their heads seemed to swivel rather than turn.

Even in the East Village, this was weird and disconcerting. They noticed that I'd noticed them and it seemed like they did not like that.

I decided to deal with it, walked over to the nearest one and asked him if I could be of help. His head turreted towards me. "No," he replied, as coldly as I've ever heard anyone say anything, and turned away. Clearly, I was an insect. I was also now totally baffled and frankly, genuinely intimidated.

I decided that since he was actually on the premises at that moment, I should probably let Sounds' owner know what's going on in his store and headed down the main aisle toward the back room.

As I passed the letter R in the Rock section, a sorta goofy-looking strawberry-blonde teenage girl said, "Excuse me, sir..." and asked me if we had every Ramones album in stock.

I hurriedly said, "Yes, the ones you're holding are the complete set."

"Well, then, I'd like to buy these, please."

"Uhh, mmm, okay, follow me."

I quickly walked up to the cashier podium, opened the spare register, and rang up the 5 or 6 LPs. As this slightly fish-out-of-water teenage girl handed me her money, it suddenly hit me that I'd just sold a Ramones catalog to Amy Carter, POTUS Jimmy's daughter.

Let me tell ya, those Secret Service guys up close were no joke. Way Not Fun! For the five minutes Amy was in there, they owned that store.
One day, I faced another type of scary.

It was another pleasant Friday afternoon, and two out-of-place guys had just walked in. Both had dark curly mullets. Both were at least 6' 3". Both must've weighed close to 300 lbs. Both wore short-sleeve white-on-white shirts open halfway down their enormous cast-iron bellies. Both had hairy chests and at least 3 gold chains around their necks and, for good measure, each wore a pinky ring.

"You're gonna save my life today, my friend."

"I am?" I replied.

"I gotta weddin' tuhmarruhh and if I don't have "Your Precious Love" by The Moments onna play list, I'm a dead man. You unnuhstann? I been to twelve fuckin' shops tuhday. Ya gonna have dis rekkid fuh me, right!"

Remarkably enough, about an hour earlier, I'd actually put a sealed cut-corner copy of a double album, "The Moments Greatest Hits" under "M".

I told these two "soldiers" to follow me.

We walked back to the "Soul" section of the store, I pulled out the album, flipped it over, found "Your Precious Love", and handed it to the one who had done all the talking. "Look at side three." I said.

"Holy shit! Johnny! He's got it. He's got the goddamn song!" Johnny, the larger quiet one, beamed and nodded his approval.

"I'm tellin' ya, kid, I been lookin' all over the fuckin' city fuh dis rekkid. Unbelieeevable! Ya got it!"

Feeling cocky, and digging the fact that I was dealing with blatant authenticity, and had just made the real deal's day, I leaned in towards the guy and said, doing Brando to the best of my ability, "So, why didn't you come to me first?"

The very air instantly changed. I have never in my entire life experienced as drastic and frightening a mood swing.

The talkative one's smile slid off his mouth in less than a second. Suddenly, he was looming above me, and with his face about 10 inches from mine, he quietly asked, "Any puhhtickuluhh reason you said that to me like that just now?" with a cool hard menace in his voice that I've never encountered before or since. His eyes had truly gone dead, just like you always hear.

Behind him, Johnny, not knowing what was happening, but sensing something was up, came around and stood next to his boy, and I realized for the first time that Johnny was more like 6' 6"... and the one I really needed to be frightened of.

"What's goin' on, Richie?"

With my voice literally cracking, I stammered and squeaked like Jerry ("Nice lady") Lewis,"Well, you, you, ummm, you said that you'd... ummm... gone to all these other stores and ummm... I had the record and ummm... I coulda saved you a lot of time and I..."

Richie held his hand up, I slammed on the brakes of my yammering, and he said, as cold as dry ice, "Lemme pay fuh dis."

I scampered back to the register, moved the cashier aside, rang the record up, full price with tax, took his money, handed him his change, and said thanks. He and Johnny turned and started walking out the door. Then, Richie turned and stared at me for about 4 seconds, like he was trying to make up his mind about something. Then, while Johnny held the door open for him, they both walked out... and within about three minutes, I was able to start breathing again.

As the head buyer for promos, I dealt with critics, DJs, label people... some penny ante, some serious.

It was common to see the same rock critic come in once a week with 30 to 40 different albums or a club DJ to come in with a record pool's weekly 50 to 100 12" singles to either sell or trade.

And, yes, there were people from record labels who would regularly come in with 10 to 50 promo copies of the new Van Halen or Sade album to dump.

I met many a friend this way... buying their promos. Someday, I'll tell you how I met my wife at Sounds!

In the late Spring of 1987, Caroline Records released a 5 song Live @ CBGB EP by, yours truly, Binky Philips (I see it on eBay now and then these days, going for crazy prices like $10).

Over a several week period after the label had serviced it, I had fun with various reviewers and writers, who, as they tried to trade my own record in to me, would be mortified when I asked them if they'd at least listened to it before bringing it down to sell. Ooops!

One afternoon, a young guy who'd been in a few times to sell albums came in with about a dozen discs under his arm. The one on top was mine.

Before I could give him my usual crap he said, "I'm not here to sell these, Binky. I came by to tell you what just happened. I was in the elevator of the Tower Records building on 4th St and Broadway and the door opened and Keith Richards got on. [Keith's NYC apartment was in that building in the 80s] I said hello to him and he looked at what I had under my arm and said...
'Binky Philips, huh! I've heard he's quite good.' Cool, huh!"

I was in a daze for the rest of the day! Having just typed this... I still am!

Now, directly across the street, on the north side of St. Mark's Place stood a very wide five-story building with almost every window bricked up. It had once housed The Dom, the club where Andy Warhol had put on his "Exploding Plastic Inevitable" shows with The Velvet Underground in 1966. In fact, in 1975, Velvets guitarist Sterling Morrison said the band's shows at The Dom turned St. Mark's Place "into the sleaze hole it is today." By 1969, the name of the venue had been changed to The Electric Circus. In it's early days, The Electric Circus' house-band was a group called Sly & the Family Stone.

The ground floor space of the old Dom was a wide low-ceilinged room, with blond wood floors and high and wide windows, that was primarily used for Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings.
One morning, a few weeks after we'd been invaded by the Secret Service, I arrived at work around 11:30am for our noon opening time to find that St. Mark's Place had been taken over by several huge trucks, the sidewalk sprawling with top-flight film equipment and bustling crews prepping the AA/NA room across the street for what was clearly gonna be a big production.

Maybe an hour later, a stretch limo pulled up, and out stepped Christie Brinkley, looking distinctly better in person, with a short stocky guy, yes, the King of Long Guyland, Billy Joel.

It turned out that Joel was about to film his video for "A Matter of Trust," featuring, for the first time ever, Billy playing guitar instead of piano. This performance was gonna take place in the AA/NA room.

From the floor-to-ceiling parlor floor windows in Sounds, overlooking the whole scene, when I wasn't busy, I was able to watch them do take after take of Billy Joel and his band miming to the track. In fact, there are several shots in the video where you can see the window I was looking out of in the background. I'm not there, but, hell, it's much cooler to have been in "Gimme Shelter" during the "Jumping Jack Flash" sequence anyway, right?

By about 2:30pm, Billy and the crew had gotten what they wanted, and the laborious breakdown process and packing up of equipment had gotten under way. When about three quarters of all the stuff had been torn down and loaded up, there was suddenly an uproar. From across the street, I heard vehement yelling and cursing, trucks' doors being thrown open with a bang; some kind of chaos was ensuing. All the equipment was now being dragged out and set up again. From my window, I could see that the entire crew was just flipping out, absolutely furious. It seemed like they were having to start from scratch.

I was just too curious. So, I strolled outside, crossed the street, and walked over to one of the younger slightly less pissed off guys on the crew and asked him, "What the fuck is happening, weren't you guys done?!"

The guy replied, "Just as Billy was getting into his limo to leave, one of the guys on the crew said 'You know, Billy, I think it's really cool that you used that old Fender Telecaster as an homage to Bruce Springsteen.' Billy, on the spot, just completely lost it and instantly decided the entire fucking video has to be re-shot with him using a different guitar. Can you fuckin' believe this shit?!"

If you ever see that video again, you will notice that Billy is playing a gold Gibson Les Paul, exactly like the one Dickey Betts used for decades. I strongly suspect that no one ever mentioned that to Mr. Joel.

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