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The Music Stops for Indie Shop

For 12 years, NYCD was a neighborhood record store with attitude. But it lost too many clients to chain stores and downloading.

December 26, 2005|Josh Getlin | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — 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."

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.

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.

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.

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