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Joe Friedman of NYC Retail Giant J&R Music World Dies at 76

With his wife Rachelle, Friedman built a retail empire on New York City's Park Row that pulled in an estimated $350 million annually at its peak.

Joe Friedman, co-founder of famed New York City retailer J&R Music World, passed away on May 17. He was 76.

The business, which Friedman founded with his wife Rachelle Friedman, was the retail anchor of New York’s financial district in the decades surrounding the turn of the century. During that time, the power couple built a retail empire with as many as 10 stores in six different buildings on Park Row, located across the street from New York’s City Hall Park and at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge.

At its peak, Billboard estimated J&R’s retail stores and mail-order operations were pulling in $350 million annually, of which $15 million was from music sales. Founded in 1971, J&R Music World operated through the 2010s and went toe-to-toe with music superstores like Tower Records, HMV and Virgin Megastores — during the 1990s there were 10 music superstores in Manhattan, ranging in size from 12,000 square feet to 50,000 square feet — and J&R held its own.

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Like Rachelle, Joe was born in Israel, and both of their families immigrated to Brooklyn when they were young. But they didn’t meet until they were set up on a blind date while Rachelle was attending the Polytechnic Institute 0f Brooklyn and Joe was an electrical engineer for Western Union, according to Billboard stories published over the years.

As one Billboard story, written by the late Jim Bessman, noted, “Joe is a true entrepreneur and visionary. He dreams up a truly unique scenario and then gives them over to Rachelle to negotiate so that it should be profitable.”

What began as a 500-square-foot audio equipment store on Park Row mushroomed all over the block. Unlike other merchants that repeated their model over and over again to build a web of stores with the same concept in many locations, J&R opened new complementary businesses right on Park Row. Down through the decades, that included the music superstore, a world music store, a video store, an appliance store, a technology store, a budget music and video store, a portable device store, an office store, a computer store and a camera store, housed in Park Row at Nos. 1, 17, 23. 27, 31 and 33, according to various Billboard stories. They even carried health and beauty items for the nearby office workers in the financial district.

As one Maxell ad — for a 1991 Billboard special on J&R Music World celebrating the company’s 20th anniversary — observed, “20 years ago they were the new kid on the block; today they are the whole block.” And in brilliant planning for the future, one by one the Friedmans began buying the buildings housing their stores in anticipation of phase 2 of their business career: real estate development.

Following three decades of success, J&R eventually succumbed to the loss-leading pricing practices of big box stores like Best Buy and Circuit City and shuttered its various stores in April 2014. While the Friedmans still dabbled in retail, running stores-within-stores for Macy’s and Century 21, they largely pivoted to real estate, and the buildings they owned were redeveloped into condos, offices and retail space.

Rachelle Friedman and Joe Friedman
Rachelle Friedman and Joe Friedman attend BUONICONTI FUND GREAT SPORTS LEGENDS BENEFIT at Waldorf Astoria on Sept. 17, 2007 in New York City. CHANCE YEH /Patrick McMullan via GI

But before that happened, Joe and Rachelle left their mark on Manhattan’s retail scene.

“We were the single largest independent store in Manhattan and we weren’t just music,” Rachelle recalls. “Joe was a visionary and brought in computers very early when they were still costing $10,000. I asked him ‘Who’s going to buy a $10,000 computer?’ And he answered, ‘Well, I would.'”

Eventually, J&R stores would collectively house some 250,000 SKUs (stock-keeping units), while its mail-order business was distributing 2 million catalogs every six weeks. Along the way, the American Jewish Committee awarded Rachelle and Joe the Human Relations Award. Because they were in the same city where the then-six major labels had a huge presence, and due to the stores’ proximity to City Hall and surrounding city, state and federal government office buildings, Joe and Rachelle also became the music industry’s ambassadors to the political world, helping the business make its case whenever a music-related political issue came to the fore.

Beyond that, J&R had one of the highest profiles in NYC-centric publications, always taking anchor advertising positions. They also held festivals and shows in the City Hall Park across the street, featuring some of the artists whose music they sold in their stores. According to Rachelle Friedman, these artists included Green Day, Korn, Common, Joe Walsh, Ben E. King, Pat Metheny, Lisa Marie Presley, Solange, Michelle Williams and Earth, Wind & Fire. What’s more, they worked with BET to co-produce shows such as Future Wave, which was hosted by Herbie Hancock for BET on Jazz.

In New York’s darkest hour on Sept. 11, 2001, Joe and Rachelle turned their store over to first responders, who used it as a triage center at the request of then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Later, it was used by officials dealing with the aftermath of the World Trade Center’s destruction. When it came time to open lower Manhattan again, J&R was one of the first retail stores to return, signaling the beginning of the financial district’s revival.

At the time, the late Sony Music Distribution chairman Danny Yarbrough noted in Billboard that Joe and Rachelle set out to build a successful business based on honesty, service and selection and had achieved that goal completely.

“In that process, they have become part of the emotional soul of the city, truly an integral component in the fiber and diversity of New York,” he said. “We look forward to joining them in the healing rebuilding and resurrection of the heart of the city.”

Joe is survived by his wife and J&R co-founder Rachelle, their two children Jason and Daryn and three grandchildren: Micole, Oliver, and Anabelle.