Mourning and praising Colony Records
By Liz Wollman
Colony Records, which will close on Saturday, September 15th after 64 years of business, is no mere record store. A cavernous, crowded, and never particularly tidy place, Colony has kept one foot firmly in its Tin Pan Alley past, and the other in its media-saturated present. The largest and easily most famous provider of sheet music in New York City, Colony also houses cassettes, CDs, DVDs, karaoke recordings, an absolutely enormous collection of records, and all kinds of memorabilia: pop music action figures and Beatles mousepads; signed, fading photographs of A-, B-, and C-list celebrities from every decade that the store has been open; novelty key chains and promotional buttons from countless Broadway musicals; old concert programs, playbills, and t-shirts; Ramones coffee mugs and “Glee” lunchboxes; and locked shrines in dank corners, filled with dusty Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, and Elvis Presley collectibles. The staff, depending on whom you talk to, is comprised either of snobbish, standoffish jerks or brilliant, walking encyclopedias who can help you locate a piece of sheet music within seconds of your humming a few notes from the song in question, no matter how obscure. I suppose that genius and churlishness, just like Tin Pan Alley and rock and roll, are hardly mutually exclusive; the owners’ understanding of this is, in the end, likely why Colony managed to last as long as it did.
Colony Sporting Goods became Colony Records when its owners, Harold S. (“Nappy”) Grossbardt and Sidney Turk, took it over in 1948. Their sons, Michael Grossbardt and Richard Turk, are the current and will be the last owners. Initially located at 52nd Street and Broadway, Colony moved in 1970 to the Brill Building, at Broadway and 49th Street, where it has remained. On a typical day, visitors to the store include tourists from all over the world, members of the theater industry, professional and amateur musicians, and record and memorabilia collectors. Countless celebrities have patronized Colony in its six decades: Benny Goodman, Miles Davis, Frank Sinatra, John Lennon, Elton John, Neil Diamond, and Jimi Hendrix. The bizarrely image-conscious Michael Jackson used to make furtive visits via a back entrance, specifically to buy up enormous amounts of his own memorabilia. According to lore, both Bernadette Peters and Dusty Springfield decided to become entertainers after merely walking by the store and hearing music emanating from it. When James Brown visited, he apparently exclaimed, “This smells like a music store!”
He’s right; it does. And before paying my last visit to Colony this past week, I’d completely forgotten what a music store smells like. Also, what one looks like and feels like.
I am no stranger to Colony. I’ve bought plenty of sheet music from them in the 25 years that I’ve called myself a New Yorker. In that stretch of time, I have been, at various times and sometimes simultaneously, a reasonably good vocalist, a truly terrible pianist, a middling guitar player, and a music scholar who writes frequently about the post-1960 stage musical. I’m not an atypical patron, I think. In the weeks since news of Colony’s closing broke, I’ve heard plenty of people mention that they used to go there regularly when they dabbled in trumpet or in cello, or taught guitar or voice lessons, or before they decided to quit pursuing a career in the theater, or before Amazon started carrying everything they needed.
Yet despite how much it has served us New Yorkers — not to mention the millions of tourists who stroll, sometimes maddeningly slowly, through Times Square at some point during their visit here — I wasn’t terribly surprised by the news that Colony had fallen prey to declining sales, the Internet, and (the final straw) a landlord who plans to quintuple the rent of the store. None of this is shocking, especially when it comes to commercial real estate in Manhattan, which at this point heavily favors conglomerates. Really, the big news to me, at least initially, was not that Colony was closing. It is that Colony has managed to stay open for so very long.
Think about it: Colony opened in 1948. During the 1950s, rock and roll arrived, purportedly to destroy Tin Pan Alley in one fell swoop. During the 1960s, again purportedly, young people en masse abruptly turned their backs on the musical tastes of their elders. During these decades, Colony only grew in size — —so large, in fact, that its owners had to relocate. Its move, in 1970, coincided with one of the darkest periods in New York City’s history. Mired in financial crisis, and inching dangerously close to bankruptcy, New York was hardly a happy place in the 1970s. Times Square, Colony Records’ new home, had become internationally notorious — a sleazy, crime-ridden example of everything that had gone wrong with the urban jungle.
And yet Colony survived it all. It outlasted Beatlemania, psychedelia, disco, punk, hair metal, and hip-hop, MTV, VH1 and the first two decades of the Internet. It outlasted Napster and the dot-com boom. It outlasted Tower Records, HMV, Patelson’s, and Footlight Records. Arguably, it even outlasted, for a while at least, the neighborhood around it; Times Square was given a Disneyfied “facelift” in the early 1990s, which has resulted in a more tourist-friendly and seemingly safer, if also increasingly generic and corporate urban environment. Since it first opened in the postwar era, Colony has grown with and adapted to the times in ways that none of its past competitors managed. My initial reaction, then, was merely to praise Colony — not to mourn it for a second — because in the end, sixty years is a pretty impressive run for a family-owned business in the middle of Times Square.
But then I went to visit, and my logic gave way to a surprisingly emotional wave of nostalgia.
James Brown was right: it’s the smell of the place that gets you first — a mix of old, comfortably dusty things; of vinyl and paper and cool, musty formica. The sounds, too: a mix of Beatles songs blasted through the speaker, competing with several languages being spoken by as many tourists. “Look, honey, a Lady Gaga backpack!” a woman with a thick Long Island accent shouted down the aisle at her absolutely mortified pre-teen son. A man in a suit and sunglasses paced back and forth through the brass section while he talked shop on his phone. “We need to give them more bang for the buck this year,” he said. “Maybe we could get another few animals up on the stage this time around?” As “Strawberry Fields” came on over the speakers, I wandered through the aisle of picked-over cassette tapes, passed a group of Italian women looking at Beatles memorabilia, and found a huge basket of promotional pins from past Broadway musicals. I grabbed three, almost at random, from shows that all flopped at least a decade ago: Nick and Nora, Mayor, James Clavell’s Shogun: The Musical. The producers of those shows would have killed for even a fraction of the run that Colony has had.
I was about to leave, but then I started rifling through music books for the sake of rifling through music books. New ones, used ones, ones for woodwinds, piano, violin, voice, and guitar. They are, I am sure, all available online should I ever decide to become a terrible violinist or a horrible oboeist. But wandering through so much sheet music, being able to reach out and touch it, page through it, admire the quality of the paper is — much like spending an hour or two in a store flipping through records, or cassettes, or CDs — something I’d completely forgotten the pleasure of. I’ve spent a great deal of my life killing time in stores like these. I miss them, even as I understand that times change and modes of commerce with them. The automats are gone, too, from Times Square. So are the dime museums, the grindhouses, the arcades and the penny restaurants, and yes, the notorious if occasionally hilarious XXX theaters (a favorite marquee post from the early 1980s: “Hot As Hell! A Potent Groin Grabber!!”). I am sure that whatever chain store opens up in the place of Colony — be it a Gap, an Urban Outfitters, or a particularly snazzy Applebees — will, someday, also eventually close up shop.
I ended up purchasing the three pins, along with two used books of classic rock and pop songs “for very easy guitar,” which is about my speed these days. Warren, the longtime Colony employee who rang me up, gave me one of the pins for free, and then called my attention to the song that had come on over the speakers. “Man, this is the Beatles before they even sounded like the Beatles, you know?”
“Sure,” I replied, snapping out of my fog of nostalgia to focus on his. “Because it wasn’t their song, right? It was one of the songs they covered. It was originally by — by –”
“It’s ‘Matchbox,’” he said. “Carl Perkins. 1955? No. 1956.”
I chuckled. “Thanks.” I said, taking my bag and preparing to leave Colony for the last time, and realizing that my eyes were welling up. “For everything. I’ll miss you.”
He didn’t look surprised at all. “I know,” he said, gently. “We’ll miss you, too.”
Elizabeth L. Wollman is Assistant Professor of Music at Baruch College in New York City, and author of Hard Times: The Adult Musical in 1970s New York City and The Theater Will Rock: A History of the Rock Musical, from Hair to Hedwig. She also contributes to the Show Showdown blog.