18 April 2012
Articles | Interviews

Village People: Bleecker Bob’s

Landmark Greenwich Village record shop Bleecker Bob’s is closing down after more than 40 years in business, and the only person in New York who doesn’t know is Bleecker Bob

Words Hazel Sheffield

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Forget about the records for a minute. There are stories at Bleecker Bob’s on West 3rd Street in New York’s Greenwich Village — stories about people. People who travelled cross-country to get hold of tickets for Woodstock in 1969, when the organisers asked Bob to be their ticket vendor, even though almost everyone who went to the festival climbed over the fence.

People like Bob’s friend Robert Plant, who came into the store to brag after Led Zeppelin sold out Madison Square Garden six times in June, 1977. Plant didn’t recognise the short, dark-haired man browsing crates listening in. But he laughed, a bit embarrassed, when Bob finally decided to introduce him to Paul Simon.

People like a young Thurston Moore, who, a couple of years later, hid out in the back of the store when Patti Smith sauntered in the open front door. He watched her approach the counter in aviator sunglasses, pizza in hand. He saw Bleecker Bob show her the sleeve of a new Ian Dury record and he overheard her say to Bob, “I don’t listen to music by people I don’t want to fuck.”

Bob’s gone. He’s not dead, but he’s not there, and his famous friends aren’t either.

Now, there is dirt between the shrivelled floorboards and gaps in the white and black chequered linoleum in the back room. Layers of posters cover the walls and flap when the wind gets in. Teenagers from nearby New York University flip through the laminated pictures looking for decorations for their new dorms.

A long CD rack, installed in the nineties, runs down one side of the store. It looks out of place now, like an arcade game in a library. Art deco clocks hang at the top of the walls in rows. Many of them have stopped. And there are crates and crates and crates of hand-labelled, meticulously catalogued records. But forget about the records for a minute.

On a six-foot long counter sits an ancient cash register covered in peeling band stickers. When he makes a sale, Chris Weidner punches in the numbers, a bell rings inside the mechanism and white digits spin through a window on the front. Chris has worked at Bleecker Bob’s since the early seventies, when he was in his twenties. He’d finished a degree in political science and listened to a lot of Mothers Of Invention and Captain Beefheart. Bob tested him on old vocal groups before he’d let him behind the counter. Bob used to make fun of him because he didn’t know that much about music at the time.

On this particular day, the digits on the front of the cash register weren’t spinning too often. A white-haired couple from out of town had been browsing the store for nearly an hour. At least, the man had. Chris set a folding chair in the centre of the store for the woman to sit on and wait. Then they approached the counter.

“I hear you’re closing,” says the man.

“Probably, yes,” says Chris. He carried on pricing record sleeves, slamming the ticker down with a metronomic thwack. The couple managed some platitudes about times changing, something about the internet, something about real estate prices. Then they left empty-handed.

“We’re closing,” says Chris to himself once the couple were gone, colour flushing across his pale face, “because people like you aren’t buying records.”

No campaign has been launched to save Bleecker Bob’s since The New York Times reported in January that the landlord is pricing them out. They’re not the only ones in the area to suffer. Shuttered shops and ‘For Rent’ signs are a common sight in the streets outside. Six years ago and just a few blocks away, CBGBs lost a rent dispute and closed down. Tower Records, a chain store started in Sacramento, California, filed for bankruptcy and closed its New York store that same year.

When The New York Times followed their report with a comment forum and a request for reader’s memories, the response was mixed. Among the tributes to “the end of an institution” and “a cavern of delights” are those who remember overpriced records and hostile service.

“Bob was gruff and rude and impatient and had no time for an unconnected teenage kid, but he had the music,” wrote Scott Schnipper from Brooklyn.

“Bleecker Bob’s is (was) a dump and a tourist rip-off joint,” wrote Seth. “Bob himself was El Creepo Supremo. I have lived a few blocks away for over 25 years and buy vinyl and CDs at all the Village record shops, so I am speaking from experience… A shame if they close, but it’s their own fault.”

David Shebiro, who owns Rebel Rebel Records on Bleecker Street, remembers the baseball bat Bob kept behind the counter. “My first impression of Bob was that he was a bit of a dick,” David says. He remembers buying the first Generation X album from Bob in 1978, and seeing a Gary Numan record on Bob’s wall with a sticker that read, “For fans of David Bowie.” A few years later, he found U2 hanging in that same spot, labelled, “Great new Irish band.”

“Bleecker Bob’s was one of the few stores importing records from the UK,” continues David. “Me and my friends would go in there to find out what we should be listening to. Bob yelled at me a couple of times and asked me to work for him a couple of times. He was like that — hot and cold. He was one of those old-time New York personalities. They’re fading away.”

Bleecker Bob was born Robert Plotnik in 1942 to a Russian-Jewish family in Baltimore. He moved to New York to go to Fordham law school in the sixties and made friends with a record dealer called Al Trommers, or Broadway Al. Figuring owning his own store would mean he could get hold of the rare street doo-wop records he coveted, Bob gave up his job at the District Attorney’s office and went into business with Broadway Al. Village Oldies opened on 149 Bleecker Street in October 1967 and moved to 170 Bleecker Street for more space three years later.

Business was good. As well as records, Village Oldies sold tickets for concerts at rock venue Fillmore East on Second Avenue. On show nights, Broadway Al would pick up the musicians in his 1940 limousine and take them to the venue. Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jeff Beck took rides in that car. Grainy black and white photos show it parked outside the store.

Village Oldies moved to MacDougal Street in the seventies before Bob and Al parted ways and the store became Bleecker Bob’s Golden Oldies on West 3rd. “I liked to drink,” says Al on the phone from his country home in upstate New York, where he keeps a garage of vintage cars. “Bob didn’t like to drink.”

Bob liked to sell records. By the eighties, he had made enough money selling UK punk imports to buy a place in Los Angeles and open a store on Melrose Place. Bob and Chris started dividing their time between the east and west coasts.

“I liked it in LA,” says Chris. “I would stay at Bob’s place when he wasn’t there, and I got a girlfriend and a dog that I adored.”

When the LA punk scene died down, they did well out of a rockabilly revival and eventually new wave and indie bands like The Smiths. Bob got married, had a daughter, bought a Doberman, got divorced.

Then one day when he was back behind his counter on West 3rd in New York, a pretty blonde called Jennifer Kitzer came in with a friend looking for a 45” dance record. Bob was in one of his moods. He eyed JK over the counter.

“Mosquito bites,” he said, looking at her breasts.

“Excuse me,” she replied, looking him straight in the eyes. “Now you must be about as old as all of these records!”

Before long, JK was travelling all over with Bob on his record buying trips. They went to Paris and London. They fought all the time. And they dreamed of moving to California permanently.

That never happened. In August 2001, Bob had a huge stroke while out walking his precious Doberman, Mel, in LA. It was supposed to be a short trip and JK had stayed New York. By the time she got to the hospital in LA, Bob was in a medically induced coma. He never went back to work again.

While Bob was fighting for his life, 9/11 happened. Fearing World War Three, one of the staffers in the LA store left for Hawaii immediately. Without Bob to direct them, Chris and JK put the LA store into liquidation. Chris broke up with his girlfriend. He left California and moved into the house his father left him by the coast in New Jersey, making the daily commute to Manhattan to try and keep Bleecker Bob’s in business. “I just manage,” Chris says. “I just kept it going. I’m the only one who had the willingness to pay the bills and keep the books.”

When Bob was conscious, JK moved him back to New York where she cared for him at home for eight years. He couldn’t walk, but his speech improved a little, and sometimes JK would take him to the store.

“He looked forward to coming in even if he was in a bad mood and wouldn’t say anything all day,” remembers Chris. “But he liked knowing that he owned this store, and he’d still fire me if I said something he didn’t like.”

After Bob had a second, smaller stroke two years ago, JK couldn’t care for him on her own anymore. Bob moved into a nursing home on the Upper West Side, several miles from his store, and JK rented a small one-bedroom apartment a block or so from the home to be near him. Every day, JK smuggles Coca-Cola and crisps into the nursing home and sits with Bob. She doesn’t like to play him music in case it makes him sad. They don’t visit the store much anymore.

Downtown, Chris and a small team keep Bleecker Bob’s open almost 24 hours a day, every day of the year, just like they’ve always done. None of them are sure what they will do next. On long days logging purchases and sales with a Biro pen in a dog-eared notebook, Chris has time to think about what he might have done differently.

“If I had devoted all my time to the store and perhaps learned computers…” he starts. “If I was a more sociable person and if I networked, or if I went out and I met a whole bunch of people…” He stops, and the colour rises in his face again. “If I was more like Bob…”

Neither Chris nor JK can bring themselves to tell Bob the store is closing down.

“Sometimes all a man has is what he’s built,” says JK. “When you take that away brick by brick, that man has nothing left.”

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