By Kevin Redding
Stu Goldberg’s lawyer told him he was never going to make it in the midst of opening up his own record shop, Mr. Cheapo — a nickname his wife, Marcia, lovingly bestowed upon him— in Flushing, Queens.
His pursuit of a high school dream hinged on $4,000 he’d saved delivering candy to supermarkets and a lifelong love affair with music, which had turned Goldberg into a regular at garage sales and flea markets, where he bought up piles and piles of records of every genre under the sun. A self-professed “child of the 60s,” he went to Woodstock with then-girlfriend Marcia.
But nearly four decades, and two Long Island locations after taking the plunge into uncharted waters of record shop owning, Goldberg, 68, has not only made it — he’s conquered it.
Mr. Cheapo, a beloved new and used CD and record exchange business chain and haven for music enthusiasts young and old has outlived giant competitors like Virgin Megastore and Tower Records as well as a crop of local independents and stands strong in the age of Spotify and iTunes.
“I just followed my dream — I always say, part of our success is that I wasn’t smart enough to know this wasn’t a good idea,” Goldberg said as he laughed, surrounded by a library of vinyl LPs, CDs, and cassettes at Mr. Cheapo in the Mayfair Shopping Center in Commack, a town he’s worked and lived in since 1988. He set up shop there soon after closing the original Queens store for good and building a loyal customer base at his other location in Mineola.
His son, Josh, 36, who’s been working at the store since he was 13, helps him run the business now, bouncing between both locations.
The shop feels like a vibrant museum of music, perhaps a fascinating new world for younger visitors but extremely familiar territory for older visitors, with an array of album art and posters of rock icons lining the wooden walls.
There are tens of thousands of new, used, and imported records, CDs, cassettes, and 45s, on shelves and in crates. Ceiling-high shelves are also filled to the brim with DVDs, a varied collection of dramas and horror films and concert documentaries.
Customers of every shape, size, nationality, and gender gaze longingly at the fronts and backs of albums, studying them as if there will be a test on their content later.
“There’s a percentage of people that just like tangible things, they like to touch it, they want to read the liner notes, they want a real CD or record,” Goldberg said. “If they’re only listening to Spotify or Sirius radio, sometimes those just don’t have what they want.”
Steven McClure, from Nesconset, sifted through some Kinks vinyl and said he’s been a loyal customer for 16 years.
“I think it’s kind of exciting to come in and find something that you’d forgotten about a long time ago,” McClure said. “I may come in here to look for Dire Straits and I’ll end up seeing something else, look at this one and that one, it’s kind of crazy — I can spend hours here. And, for me, I have to have the artwork, artwork is the most important thing apart from the record.”
When asked why his is one of the last stores of its kind, Goldberg held up his hands and explained.
“We got it all … we sell everything from Dean Martin to Metallica and anything in between,” he said. “10 years ago, I remember feeling that things were fading, the digital age was coming and we just thought we were done. Then people started thinking vinyl was a fun thing to collect, so we’re back and I don’t see it going away for a while.”
According to Nielsen’s 2016 U.S. Year-End Report, vinyl LP sales grew to more than 11 percent of total physical album sales last year.
“This marks 11 years of year-over-year increases for vinyl LPs, reaching a record sales level in the Nielsen Music era (since 1991) with over 13 million sales this year,” the report said.
“I’m very happy we have this and we seem to continue to do pretty good … I don’t think records and CDs will ever die,” Goldberg’s son, an avid record collector himself said. “We also sell video games and patches and T-shirts, and that gives us a bit more of an edge than the typical, new Brooklyn record store, where they’re just selling overpriced vinyls.”
Goldberg said every customer who walks through the doors is different.
“Our customers range from 12 to 80, you’d be amazed by what people buy … there have been old guys in their 70s buying heavy metal and young kids buying Frank Sinatra,” he said.
Pointing out a mother and young daughter buying records at the counter, he said he’s seen a new trend grow in recent years.
“That’s something new in the past three or four years, mothers buying girls record players and girls coming in to buy vinyl,” he said. “I’d never seen that before like I do now. 16-year-old girls buying Zeppelin, it’s so cool.”
Less than 10 minutes away, on Main Street in Kings Park, sits Record Reserve, a small but well-organized and fully-stocked shop that’s serious about vinyl, the only format on the shelves.
“It’s just the best form of music,” Tim Clair, the store’s owner and sole staff member said.
Clair, 52, opened the doors in 2011 when vinyl was starting to have a resurgence.
“I like giving some people a place to go to do what they enjoy and I like to bring that back to people who miss it,” he said. “People come in and look through thousands of records … you’re going to find something here.”
Shelves are decorated with records of every generation and style of music imaginable, from Miles Davis to Joe Walsh to Linda Ronstadt to obscure R&B and punk artists. Whatever there’s a market for, Clair makes sure to order it and make it available for customers.
The store is also equipped with a Spin-Clean record washer to restore and clean old records, which Clair uses to eliminate mold and dirt that might cause skips when listening to vinyl.
While he said Record Reserve sells enough to stay alive, Clair noted the record shop industry isn’t easy.
“It’s a labor of love,” Clair said. “We’re still not making money, it’s not easy at all … but I’m not going to retire. It’s something I enjoy.”
He said when he started he considered himself knowledgeable about music, but has been continually “trumped by customers.”
Roger Wilbur, 57, from Smithtown, has been a regular for about two years.
“Tim knows what I like so he’ll tell me what to stay away from, what’s good, what’s rare, and lets me play music here if I want and not a lot of places let you do that,” Wilbur said.
The customer has been trying to build back his lost record collection from the 70s.
“I got the vinyl bug,” he said. “It’s something that you can put in your hand, it doesn’t have to come off a computer. I look at this place as a time capsule, it brings me back to the 60s, 70s and 80s.”