“Some of the best records come [to our store] when people die,” said Barry Weisfeld, owner and founder of the Princeton Record Exchange, adding, “But that might be a little too grim for your article.”
Besides estate sales, the Record Exchange has accumulated its titles over the years through flea markets and private acquisitions. Of current efforts by the store to hunt through the music haystacks, Weisfeld says that they do “occasionally, but a lot of collections aren’t worth the hassle.”
The Princeton Record Exchange lies nestled on 20 South Tulane Street, just off Nassau Street. The shop contains an impressive inventory: 60,000 records, 60,000 CD’s and 8,000 DVD’s. A Record Exchange novice myself, questions flew through my head before my first visit to the independent enterprise. “Are records all they sell?” “Will they have the kind of music that I like?” “Is only independent rock stocked in the store?” “What am I going to do after I graduate?” Well, my visit answered most of those inquiries.
Upon arriving – Weisfeld was “startled” to learn that it had been my first time there. And I, in turn, was startled to enter a space that reminded me of an old Laundromat converted in a makeshift music store. New and used selections mingle together in a very Marxist fashion throughout the varied music categories. To the left stands a large section of rock music, with diverse acts like Papa Roach, Liz Phair, and Pearl Jam all hanging out in the same row.
As loud, abstract rock suddenly starts playing, I wander past posters of Beck and Kelly Osbourne into the smaller, but substantial areas of rap, electronica, metal, country, folk, reggae, and blues. Jazz stretches over a considerable amount of space, as does classical. The wall and aisle to the right are devoted to bargain-priced CD’s, and old-fashioned records occupy the central arena of the shop. I note that the store really does seem to have it all, as I take in the new and used opera section – not merely a few shelves, but a significant, one might even say elegant, area of the store.
Walking past the varied DVD section, I finally arrive at my favorite, oft-misunderstood music section: World. I spy favorites ranging from Ladysmith Black Mambazo to Astrud Gilberto and wonder why I have not been at this store sooner. With boisterous yellow signs hanging from the ceiling encouraging the best of American capitalism, that is, the bargaining and buying of things at the lowest possible cost, the store has a homemade, cluttered feel to it. It’s as if your older brothers decorated it, displaying their favorite posters and figurines to make the place seem cooler.
Weisfeld’s own office is a hidden burrow behind the checkout counter, from where he yells out questions to his staff. He appears from it looking slightly disheveled this afternoon, seeking to venture out to Panera for a coffee refill. A certain personality, one could argue, would have to be necessary for managing this type of eclectic store: one that is not afflicted by ADD, preferably. Weisfeld does not seem to be, but is in fact a frenetic man, occasionally gruff, forward, and often amusing. With a blue baseball cap pulled on firmly and a cigarette tucked behind his ear, he leads me to Panera for a conversation about his early days with the Record Exchange.
Weisfeld attended the University of Hardford, where he DJ-ed for the college radio station. After graduating in 1975, the Long Island native realized that he did not take to the stifling world of “suit and ties.”
Instead of getting a job with corporate America, went to flea markets to buy records for literally pennies. Next, armed with “spare time” and his “parents’ spare money,” Weisfeld went to college campus centers and bookstores to hawk his goods. In 1980, he picked the quaint borough of Princeton for his business, primarily because it was located between New York and Philadelphia and had the ready-made clientele of the University students. Providentially, the store’s opening coincided with the oil embargo of the early ’80s,when “gas went to 5 dollars a gallon.” The store’s location allowed Princeton residents to merely walk to the store.
“We draw a lot of people from around the world really interested in music, and from New York, Philly and the rest of the state,” Weisfeld explains.
Weisfeld estimates that the University provides 20% of his business. The Record Exchange buys music from students and struggling stores. Originally, it bought only records until CD’s became popular around 1987. But his store, like many others, is trying to fight the growing popularity of music downloading.
And what of his mysterious, yet helpful, employees? The store founder says that he values hard work over musical expertise.
“We get people in every day that want to work in the store, saying they know music, but it’d be helpful if they had serious retail experience,” Weisfeld says. The Record Exchange has had 12 employees remain with the business for over 12 years, prompting Weisfeld to state, “We’re like a real business.” One that’s clearly preferable to his employees and him to the offices of the corporate world.
When asked to describe his clientele, Weisfeld simply says, “People into music,” adding, “A lot of people are coming back to see stuff they don’t see all the time.”