Music enthusiasts take note: if you continue reading this column, be prepared to spend freely and uncontrollably for hours on end at what is arguably the best independent record store in the region and among the best in the country.With that said, you might already be familiar with the drawing power of the Princeton Record Exchange and what it offers at 20 S. Tulane Street in downtown Princeton. Celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, the Record Exchange, or P-Rex as some fondly dub it, has caused music lovers of all kinds to willingly (and quite happily) unleash their wallets on intended purchases, and, in the best cases, on the stumbled-upon, unintended purchases found while browsing through upwards of 160,000 new and used CDs, LPs, DVDs, and videos.
The Record Exchange is a magnet for music lovers from around the country. Many of us have even spotted the famous Record Exchange beacon -- the bright-yellow plastic bag -- in places far from its humble home in Princeton Borough. Or else we have heard the stories from some enthusiast who discovered a vinyl pressing lost in the depths of obscurity, or a compact disc, long forgotten by American labels, but still embraced by some foreign distributor (for twice the cost, of course). For locals, the record shop in that long anomaly of a building between a parking lot and John's Shoe Shop has provided a consistent and competitive, selection of music of all kinds: from classical to Cash; rock to rhumba; Bollywood to Bach, even if you don't find it at the Record Exchange, you're going to find a whole lot of everything else.
One customer's story could serve as that of virtually every regular customer. On this particular day, early in December, Brian Groth enters the store while on a lunch break from his job in Belle Meade: and he makes a bee-line for the "recent arrivals/unfiled" cds.
"These are the ones that either just came in or that people were holding, considering to buy, and for whatever reason, put them down; this is where I always look first."
Mr. Groth is not alone. Most regulars have their favorite sections: Rock and Alternative; New Arrivals; Classical; Bargain Bin; DVD; jazz; you name it, but after the customary checking of the bag at the door, most customers have a destination and explore from there.
At weekday opening time, 10 a.m., there are already serious browsers plowing their way through the stacks. But a good sampling for the casual customer of what the Record Exchange is offering is what is featured in the "New Arrivals" section
In most larger, commercial record stores, the new releases section comprises a veritable "what's hot" taste of the Top Forty, but here, you can find recently released nuggets: performers like UK vocalist Kate Bush, hip hop artists the Roots, reggae legend Bob Marley, guitarist Charlie Hunter, and John Coltrane (who needs no introduction).
But it wasn't always this way. Since its renovation three-and-a-half years ago, the Record Exchange has taken on a new look, but maintained all the collector charm. Before that, it was a slightly messier, dingier, dustier affair, and before that, well, let Barry Weisfeld, owner, baseball nut, and one of many brains behind the scenes, tell the story:
"I went to college for marketing at the University of Hartford, graduated college and was a deejay at some clubs."
This was the mid-1970s, mind you, so Mr. Weisfeld was playing the club music of the time, Disco -- a genre that is not necessarily compatible with the current vibe at the Record Exchange. In fact, one could imagine disco and Mr. Weisfeld's love of baseball joining together with the White Sox's 1979 "Disco Demolition Night" at the old Comiskey Park where fans were encouraged to bring their least favorite disco records and watch them being detonated in center field.
Mr. Weisfeld is still a fan of disco, and, in fact, really does not pay a lot of attention to modern music. Even in the Record Exchange's embryonic stage, his taste was not necessarily what mattered most.
Beginning as a record gypsy traveling around to college campuses and selling records out of his van, Mr. Weisfeld "realized pretty quickly" that hard work and marketing were invaluable tools to the business.
After a stint at the the University of Maryland's bookstore, he eventually landed a regular spot selling records at the Rutgers Student Center in New Brunswick and subsequently established a connection with the Princeton University Store's music department.
By 1980, Mr. Weisfeld recalls being "within 24 hours" of signing a lease for a store in Long Island.
Turns out, we were the lucky ones.
"In retrospect, I figured if a local business were to survive, it had a better chance in Princeton," he said, citing the town's walkability and the college presence.
While walkability is a major factor in the Record Exchange's appeal, Mr. Weisfeld "totally underestimated" the driving factor, for it was the long distance driven by customers determined to get to his store that would ultimately ensured its success.
So from a van to 20 Nassau Street, the Record Exchange was born, with some 1,000 LPs and eight-track cassettes. The store was there in that tiny, narrow space for five years before moving to Tulane in 1985.
The Record Exchange has also been subject to every stereotype in the book when it comes to the classic independent record store. Anyone who has seen the movie High Fidelity knows that an independent record store is often depicted as having snotty, holier-than-thou staff members that claims to know more about music than you do, but, of course, does not.
In contrast, the Record Exchange boasts a surprisingly willing staff that actually knows quite a bit about music. There is no litmus test for being hired there, other than a passion for music, said Jon Lambert, the general manager of the store since 1989.
Mr. Lambert, a Princeton native, who, like many, "grew up" with the Record Exchange, is in charge of staff hiring, troubleshooting store problems, and design of the showroom floor. But when it comes to staff, Mr. Lambert said individuality and the quality of people is what he looks for when hiring someone.
"Getting that balance between someone's personal expression, but still respecting and dealing with the varied clientele we have is sometimes difficult.
"I feel that the preconceived notion of a 'super-hip' record store is really wrong in a lot of ways," he said. But he did say that traditional customer service, in the more-aggressive "can-I-help-you" manner was not the aim of the store. "I like that, personally. I like to leave people alone.
"We have such an incredible stock that I think it sells itself. We're not like a mall store where people say 'let me sell you the Top Five.'"
All those elements combined could leave a customer used to a more commercial environment put-off, even slightly intimidated, but take it from the scores of customers seated on the floor flipping through stacks and stacks hidden gems: individuality and privacy is not only important, it's essential to shopping at the Record Exchange.
"Most people here understand that it's the love of music that counts, and it doesn't really matter what type of music you like." That, Mr. Lambert said smiling, is how Mr. Weisfeld can get away with liking disco.
Both Mr. Weisfeld and Mr. Lambert discussed competition, which comes less in the form of other music stores, though that is a factor, than it does in the form of MP3s and other online downloads. In its battle with the Internet, the Record Exchange has expanded exponentially its budget cd section where choice selections are available anywhere from $1.99 to $4.99 -- a fraction of the cost of many online full-album downloads, often listed at $9.99.
But, Mr. Lambert said, the intangibles also factors in how the Record Exchange competes with the Internet. Because of the store's forte, to browse and shop, the physicality of holding a product appeals to the store's clientele. "It's not fun to shop for music on the Internet," Mr. Lambert said, conceding that while there has been a dip in new CD sales, used LP and CD sales have increased greatly.
And, of course, let's not forget the records, the raison d'être of the Record Exchange. On any given day, a collector can be spotted unloading his or her car with hundreds of records to either sell or exchange. This, Mr. Weisfeld said, is what upholds the store's status as a destination.
"People bring in a lot of Beatles, Stones, modern jazz, bebop, Monk, Coltrane, Davis, Parker, Dylan, Hendrix, Floyd, and Led Zepplin, but you have to know what to buy it for and what to sell it for."
It's the passion found in this, Mr. Weisfeld said, that after 25 years (more if you include the van days) that keeps him going.
"If I treated it like a hobby, we'd be out of business."
Fortunately, for the rest of us, this is no hobby.
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