National Record Store Day has once again come and gone and [doh!] I keep forgetting to post a piece on that day mentioning that for years I worked for one of the biggest post World War II record chains on the East Coast: Sam Goody records. I clerked at the 49th street and Broadway store in Manhattan through the 1970s. Eventually I wrote a memoir of the experience which community radio pioneer Lorenzo Milam published on his Ralph Magazine website. It was the first essay I ever wrote on the web. I hope that Lorenzo won’t mind my posting a lengthy excerpt about some of my co-workers. My favorite was Louis Weber, who enjoyed a city-wide reputation as classical music’s occupational equivalent of the insulting waiter.
“A short, stocky man in his early 60s, Lou didn’t suffer fools easily,” I wrote. “Actually, I think he enjoyed fools. . . . “
Lou would camp out on the northeast corner of the store, and hum to himself cheerfully, waiting either for his first coffee break of the day (9:15 am) or for some naïf to torture. An elderly lady might walk up to him with two recordings of Beethoven’s “Pathetique” in hand, one performed by Vladimir Horowitz, the other by Arthur Rubinstein. “Which one would you recommend, Mr. Weber?” she would ask respectfully. “Frankly madam,” Lou would reply, “I don’t think you could tell the difference.” He would then politely hand her one or the other album.
During the four years I worked at Sam Goody’s, I saw scores of people patiently endure this kind of treatment, and come back for more. One afternoon a customer came into the store and asked me to show him the “male vocals” section. I took him to the classical male singers bin, divided into names like Dietrich Fisher-Dieskau and Tito Schipa. He looked unhappy. “No,” he explained to me, “I mean, you know, like Frank Sinatra.”
Lou observed this confusion and waved a chiding finger in my face. “Matthew, Matthew, Matthew!” he said, affectionately. “Can’t you tell by the level of mental perspicuity on this man’s face what kind of singers he wants?” The man laughed and thanked us as Lou led him to the popular male vocals section, from which he took three Mario Lanza records to the cash register.
Jeff Atterton ran the jazz department. A tall, wiry man, Atterton had served as a pilot in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War. I didn’t know much about Jeff besides the fact that he treated me kindly and was, in my opinion, slightly barmy (as the British say). If you annoyed Jeff, as did Lou Weber, he would write obscenities on your locker in the employee room. Most of the time, however, Jeff simply walked up and down the jazz aisles offering commentary about Bix Beiderbecke or Fats Waller to various friends. “I used to know Fats, you know,” he would mumble, as often to himself as to anyone else. And, of course, Jeff detested modern Jazz, which meant Charlie Parker and beyond.
I am grateful to Atterton for one favor—an introduction to an especially interesting customer. One afternoon he nervously approached me, and asked if I might assist “a friend” of his with the purchase of some classical recordings. I looked at the friend. He sported a black, drapelike overcoat, and was, as I correctly guessed, by virtue of his sunglasses and long cane, blind. In addition to these objects, he wore a top hat with feathers sticking out, a wide variety of necklaces, rings and wristlets, and carried several musical instruments, including a clarinet and a soprano saxophone on hooks attached to his coat belt.
I looked at this customer, and glanced at Lou. He stood at the opposite side of the store, anticipating with horror the possibility that he might have to deal with the patron. I had clearly been assigned the job. “I would like to introduce you,” Atterton began gratefully, “to Mr. Rassan Roland Kirk.”
We shook hands and “Kirk,” as his friends called him, explained that he wanted to check out some contemporary classical music. We walked over to the avant-garde area, and it soon became clear to me that my task was to pick out compositions that I thought au currant and describe them to him.
Kirk became my regular customer, and I quickly became accustomed to his tastes. He always wanted a complete rundown of the orchestration. If in my reading of the instruments we came across anything electronic, the jazz master would immediately nix the prospect. “No man, no,” he would intone grimly. “I don’t want any electronic instruments. Just acoustic.” In this fashion, Kirk would accept a copy of Boulez’s “Hammer Without a Master” and veto a just released version of George Crumb’s “Ancient Voices of Children.”
We would then march over the to the opera vocals section and pick out five or six Caruso, Chaliapin, or Kirsten Flagstad solo albums. Kirk loved old opera recordings. But the same rule applied. I’d have to scrutinize each record to make sure it hadn’t been somehow remastered. “No remasters man,” he’d warn. “Just tracks of the original acoustic tubes, you know?” After about an hour of this kind of research, I’d trudge up to the cashier’s desk with 20 or 30 albums, a very satisfied Roland Kirk clanking along behind me.
Over the years many people have written to me about the essay. Some have corrected some of my recollections (in my defense, I wrote the piece decades after my last day with the operation). Others have written in to share their memories as well. I even get market researchers asking for advice.
In 2006 a clerk who sounded like he was about my age (back then) wrote to thank me for my piece. He was working for Sam Goody in Arizona. “I liked your story,” his email continued. “It was pretty interesting.”
I just thought i’d write to you to tell you that. I guess they are closing 200 stores after christmas…for being “continually not performinng” stores. They’ve already knocked off the other two that were closest to mine. I’ve been there for a year. Only time will tell, but i think they’ll close ours down too. I like being employed there, especially after that rotten Best Buy Inc. sold us because we were losing them money. That’s business for ya I guess. We are owned by Sun Capitol Inc now which from what I understand is a business that buys other companies to help them when another company sells the company. It’s weird. Oh well. That’s about all I have to say. Have a good one.
With that, what was left of the Goody chain gradually disappeared. As far as I can tell, the last Sam Goody outlet in the United States closed in San Diego in 2011. Happily, vinyl records are coming back. Here is hoping for more memoirs about crazy cranky record store clerks!