“No, we closed yesterday," he said. "But if you want to come in and browse and buy something you can. I’m just busy taking care of things.”
As I examined the depleted bins of plasticware, a slow trickle of middle-aged men came into the dilapidated store asking the same thing, and getting the same answer.
Bob's "cleaner," as it were, is Chris Wiedner, and he helped every person who walked in while struggling to tie up a multitude of loose ends and take care of his own personal business. Chris, along with John DeSalvo, JK Kitzer and a small cadre of others, have kept Bleecker Bob’s going since namesake Bleecker Bob Plotnik suffered a crippling aneurysm in 2001. Bleecker Bob and friend Broadway Al first opened Village Oldies Records in late 1967. They moved a few years later and then again, and by that third time, Broadway Al and Bleecker Bob had parted ways and Bleecker Bob’s could be found in Greenwich Village on West 3rd Street between MacDougal and Sixth Avenue.
Bob’s timing was good. The music business was expanding and then the punk movement exploded. Bleecker Bob’s thrived in the late 1970s, selling tickets, posters, albums, bootlegs, singles, T-shirts and all other manner of collectable fetishistic artifacts of substance -- 365 days a year. Punk, New Wave, Heavy Metal, 45s, LPs, EPs, imports, whatever. For a time, business was good enough that they opened a store in Los Angeles on Melrose. But in Manhattan, Bleecker Bob’s was one of those places where unknown bands hawked their stuff and rock-stars invariably bought things.
Those glory days are, of course, long gone. After the heady success of being an independent rock 'n' roll retailer and tastemaker with an exaggerated New York attitude and volatile, often abrasive personality, Bob Plotnik now resides in a nursing home and all that’s left of his store is its remaining inventory, which is basically the stuff that nobody else ever bought.
For many of Bob's generation and their progeny, frequenting a record store was like hanging at Cheers, where everybody knew your name -- or loafing at the Barbershop where an assortment of semi-socialized individuals came together and agreed to disagree. But like most small businesses, a record store usually relies on one person to keep the enterprise going. Independent retailers can endure only as long as that one person is able and interested.
In the case of Bleecker Bob's, someone was sorely needed to embrace the 21st century's social and marketing trends and modernize the retailer in order to stay connected with those who might actually patronize the store. And for those who can't make it to New York City in person? Enter: the e-tail option.
But Bob was no longer in the game and Bleecker Bob’s was never going to have a nice online marketplace like Dusty Groove in Chicago. They should have, but the thing about these older operations is that the folks who run the stores are so busy with the day-to-day tasks of inventory, pricing, decorating, buying, selling, talking music and making sure that the tonnage of vinyl doesn't crash through the floor, that they never get a chance to do anything else. Those work habits can actually sustain a business for a long time -- but not long enough to make it to the next generation, sadly.
Another huge hurdle for today's small brick and mortar outlets or mom and pop shops: if you don’t own the building, forget about it. Landlords and their ever-raising rents will surely get you, which is what happened in the case of Bleecker Bob’s.
So what becomes of those faithful record store clerks, now older and greyer and with expertise in a skill appreciated by a feeble few? No doubt, Bob's remaining inventory will be parceled off in one form or another, but it seems little consolation.
I stayed there for a good long while on Sunday and paid my respects to the passing of the time and the place. After buying a few CDs as a token of appreciation and making my way out of the store, I decided to go back inside and rummage through the LP bins to make an additional purchase, one more time. Chris had given me such a good deal, I felt like I needed to spend some more money there.
Eventually I found three albums that I wanted -- P. F. Sloan Raised On Records, Savoy Brown Lion’s Share and a sealed Tim Hardin LP that I’d never seen before called Unforgiven. Chris put them in a bag for me and said no charge, just appreciation for being a good customer.
Wouldn't you know it, that sealed Tim Hardin album is actually rare and goes for big bucks on eBay. And there’s still one more copy in Bob's LP bin marked Tim Hardin/Tim Buckley/Tim Rose. If you're in the Village, and the door’s still open, you might want to step inside.