oldies on carmine

January 15, 2009 | add comment

Originally published in WestView

The store is long and narrow, like the interior of so many New York City buildings. But there is one thing that sets it apart: the music lining the walls from floor to ceiling. All in all, House of Oldies holds about 700,000 records, including the 45s. I wonder how he keeps it all organized.

Bob Abramson seems to have a knack for scouring the stacks. I was in his shop a few weeks ago looking for music by the late blues guitarist Big Bill Broonzy. It took Abramson all of maybe 15 seconds to pull out a small assortment. He tells me ninety-nine percent of the store is organized by artist. The genres are all mixed together, aside from a few compilations.

House of Oldies has been around for more than forty years, though it resided on Bleecker Street before relocating to Carmine Street. Original owner Richard Clothier put the store up for sale in 1968. Back then, Abramson was a customer. He borrowed money from a couple of his uncles so that he could take his rightful place on the other side of the register.

Every time I step inside the store, Abramson is sporting his navy blue ball cap. He loves his Yankees. You wouldn’t guess that he grew up a mere three blocks from Ebbetts Field, once home of the Brooklyn Dodgers. To avoid the torment of his neighboring foes, he took to sprinting by them. Despite the constant risk of getting beat up, the sway of Mickey Mantle proved enduring.

Abramson grew up poor. His family didn’t have a TV. There was, however, a tiny radio in the tenement courtyard. While the other kids were cheering on the Dodgers or doing their math homework, Abramson would just sit and listen. With a notebook in hand, he’d write down the tunes that were climbing the charts. I suspect even if that radio didn’t exist, he would’ve found another one.

You might think that a man who sells music for a living would be drawn to obscure or rare artists. “I’m very boring with my musical tastes,” he says matter-of-factly, as he takes a sip of his coffee from The Grey Dog, which is just next door.

I suppose that is only natural, since he has spent a lifetime listening to popular music. In the ‘50s, that meant artists like Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Joe Turner and Perry Como. WWRL, a predominantly African American station, introduced him to Little Richard, LaVern Baker and early doo-wop. Today, his favorite artists are ones who were born out of the classic rock era — the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who and Bob Dylan. Dylan is his favorite. In fact, it is his son’s middle name.

Abramson found most of his records at yard sales over the years. If it was clean, he bought it. In other words, he’s been stockpiling for ages, which has turned out to be a blessing given the resurgence of music that younger generations, including DJs, are interested in. He’s been rotating secondary artists to make room for a revival of ‘70s and ‘80s artists like Depeche Mode and U2. Frankie Avalon records, which sell maybe one per year, now reside in the basement.

Abramson is a down-to-earth fellow in every respect. But when it comes to record quality, he is somewhat of an elitist. That’s what makes House of Oldies stand out — its dedication to quality. Nearly every single record is in mint or near-mint condition. Scratched vinyl has no place in his shop. “You really gotta have the goods,” he says. It’s the only place around that specializes exclusively in vinyl.

He has seen the shop change over time. Thirty years ago, it was packed on weekends. It’s quieter now, but as he kindly said to me, it is a labor of love. He handles everything on his own, aside from the legal work and accounting. Still, when he heads into work, he likes to say, “I’m going to my hobby.”

House of Oldies has outlasted many of its neighboring businesses. With the influx of high-end luxury boutiques, it is more-than-ever a treasured rarity. When asked how the Village has changed throughout the years, Abramson is quick to say, “The people haven’t changed. People are people.” That’s a nice reminder. As rents get higher and recordings go digital, there will always be a core set of folks who prefer the sound of needle on record.

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