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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

The Prisoner of Sixth Avenue

Or... My worst Fourth of July. (1991)
by Paul J. Pelkonen

The year was 1991. I had finished a desultory freshman year at Fordham University. Being a young college student (OK, I was 18 and a year ahead) I had to get myself a summer job.

The month before, I had started applying to record stores. Most of these were part of a large, uncaring chain run by a larger, uncaring holding company. Back then, these stores were everywhere in Manhattan. HMV. Tower. Coconuts. Sam Goody. Most were bloated, badly run supermarkets, each of which was filled with a vast selection of recorded music that most of the staff didn't care about.

But what did I know? I was 18. After several failed applications, I found out that the brand-new Sam Goody in Greenwich Village was hiring for its classical department.

"Classical?" I thought. "I can do that."

I went for the interview and aced the three-question test posed by my manager, Rick. One of them was to name the composer of Pagliacci.

He seemed stunned when I said "Leoncavallo" (and pronounced it right.)

From the first few days, this was not a good place to work. The store was badly designed, and the employees either condescending or downright unfriendly. It was wedged in and above a bank on the block between W. 8th St. and Washington Place, right over the subway. (The store is now a Staples.)

It was directly across the street from Coconuts (another crummy chain record store), and near "good" record shops like Disc-O-Rama, Rebel Rebel, Bleecker Bob's, It's Only Rock and Roll,  Revolver Records and the king of the record store: Tower on W. 4th and Broadway. All of these emporiums (including Tower) were cheaper, and didn't package their CDs and cassettes in those finger-busting plastic "toy trays" designed to prevent theft and put an early end to one's chances of becoming a virtuoso pianist.

The ultimate insult to both clerk and composers was the location of the store's the classical department. It was on the third floor of the store, an afterthought at the top of a steep, high staircase with no elevator access for customers. As a result, this lonely height that attracted no customers, and came equipped with a very limited selection of music that one could play on the store's big stereo to while away the tedious days.

Things went from bad to worse in this retail job. Aside from having to wear an uncomfortable tie every day, there were almost no customers, except for the odd, shifty would-be shoplifter trying (for whatever altruistic reason) to scoop a wrapped boxed set copy of the Solti Don Carlo or Götterdämmerung from the shelves.

If the record industry was in trouble, or going to be in trouble, this almost unvisited outpost of culture was a good indicator.

Yes there was an employee discount, but as I didn't own a CD player, the selection of classical works available on cassette was very limited. And the worst part was, this white-and-pink-neon elephant of a store was OPEN on the Fourth of July, including my remote classical aerie.

On that miserable Fourth, I bought myself one cassette. It was the Leonard Bernstein-New York Philharmonic recording of Appalachian Spring. I bought it on my lunch hour. I played it in the store. My manager was mad at me for playing what he called an "unauthorized" recording.

Not long after, I lost that job. But for those 30 minutes, Copland's music made that miserable place better. And this was well before The Shawshank Redemption.

So for all of you reading this blog on the Fourth, here's a little bit of classical fireworks: the Simple Gifts section of that famous recording. Now go outside, see your friends and family and look at the fireworks. The music will be there when you come back.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats