Sawdust hangs heavy in the air as a worker finishes detailing John Cale’s face on a massive mural paying tribute to the Velvet Underground’s White Light/White Heat. Sparks fly as soldering irons reinforce the wrought-iron balcony railings that surround the dance floor. A man consults blueprints laid out on a wooden table. Boxes and boxes of LPs are carefully unpacked and labeled. On Friday, November 22, three days before opening, the largest record store in New York City is still under construction.
After four years of planning, the iconic London-based Rough Trade has finally opened its first NYC location today. The 15,000 square-foot space is a former HBO prop warehouse that has been re-fitted to house a carefully curated collection of magazines, records, and CDs, as well as a sizable performance space. Rough Trade is the latest addition in a trend of label-associated record stores that have opened in the Williamsburg and Greenpoint area over the past few years alongside Mexican Summer’s shop Co-Op 87 and Captured Tracks. (To be clear, though they were at one point connected, Rough Trade, the retail company, and Rough Trade Records, the label, are separate companies today.)
Rough Trade originated as a shop in the late ’70s — before it was a label — specializing in punk and post-punk vinyl before pushing early indie rock. Founder Geoff Travis began to sign bands under the Rough Trade imprint a few years after the shop opened. Some of the label’s most significant releases include the Smiths’ first four studio albums, Mazzy Star’s She Hangs Brightly, and the Strokes’ debut EP The Modern Age. Located on North 9th St., a mere block from the East River waterfront, the label’s third store keeps with Rough Trade’s long-standing tradition of opening shops off the beaten path. Rough Trade’s co-owner Stephen Godfroy refers to the location as a refuge from the bustling commercial Bedford Avenue, and says that although the new store might not garner a lot of foot traffic, that is not unusual for the label, “For some, this would be a daring thing to do,” he says. “For us, it’s natural.” Rough Trade New York is three times the size of their largest store in East London, and Godfroy asserts that the new project is “audacious.”
Opening a massive record store in 2013 seems more than a little audacious — it is pretty close to insane — but Rough Trade has a history of attempting to re-popularize the record shop by designing it as a multi-purpose space. Aside from selling records, the Williamsburg store will house an in-store café (operated by the Greenpoint-based café Five Leaves), Main Drag music equipment store outpost, lounge space, installation gallery, and a concert venue equipped with a bar. The venue space will comfortably fit an estimated 250-300 people. The store has already announced a slew of ticketed events co-hosted by the Bowery Presents, as well as a number of in-store performances. Rough Trade New York is presenting itself as a place that encourages loitering rather than just consumption.
It is easy to accuse Rough Trade of being a foreign company trying to get in on what can comfortably be referred to as the “Brooklyn music scene,” but Godfroy cites the local scene as being the inspiration behind opening the shop. “We don’t want to kill the party,” he says. “We want to join the party.” Indeed, the store seems like it will work well alongside smaller stores, due in part to the fact that Rough Trade will focus only on selling new music with an emphasis on U.K. imports, and will not have a used selection. Captured Tracks, whose small store in Greenpoint opened earlier this year, sells a good deal of used vinyl. Owner Mike Sniper told Stereogum that because Rough Trade is not selling used, they are, “Almost a different business.” Captured Tracks, the label, already plans to host the Juan Wauters record release show at Rough Trade in February.
Regardless of whether an outlet is selling used vinyl, opening a brick-and-mortar shop in this era and economy is risky. Rough Trade NYC is not just a small side project — the enormous space has been carefully designed, with a multi-level interior constructed out of old shipping containers. For Sniper, the Captured Tracks outpost was in no sense a profit-generating endeavor, and he tells Stereogum that a record store will not make anyone wealthy in this day and age. But opening a brand-name store does help garner a following, and a larger outpost like Rough Trade might encourage people to rely more on the physical product rather than MP3s. Godfroy estimates that roughly 50 percent of the London Rough Trade sales are vinyl, which he attributes to the increasing number of records that come with MP3 downloads. Godfroy insists that there is ceremony to opening a record, and a tangibility that makes modern-day vinyl consumption much more than an anachronistic trend.
When Rough Trade East — the large sister shop in East London intended as a companion to the small, original storefront — opened its doors in 2007, it was expected to fail. Six years later, the Brick Lane store has proven triumphant in a location that is not unlike North Williamsburg. Whether or not the New York City shop anticipates similar success, Rough Trade has not put a number on it. This shop has been in the works for long enough, that the company is mostly excited to finally open. When asked for a ballpark estimate of the investment figures, Godfroy grins. He thinks for half a second before jokingly stating, “Blood. Sweat. Tears.”
Rough Trade NYC is now open at 64 North 9th Street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sky Ferreira will play the opening in-store event tonight, and you can check out the schedule for upcoming performances here.
[Photo by Erica Martin.]