After the Sunset

Ron Rooks called the Pitch a couple of months ago to announce that he was planning to sell his famous Westport record store, the Music Exchange, before the end of the year. A few people mentioned that Rooks was kind of a character — not surprising, considering the amount of character his shop possesses, with its purported 1 million records (many of which are of interest only to vinyl geeks) crammed onto shelves and racks surrounded by a bricolage of movie posters, dusty stereo equipment, comics and other trailings of the great slug of culture marketing, all of it hoarded in a 10,800-square-foot building at 4200 Broadway.

The news that Rooks may be closing sounded pretty big. Nobody wants places like this to close — I doubt that even the owners of Barnes & Noble are black-hearted enough to wish such a thing. But nobody seems able to stem the tide of corporate homogenization from subsuming traces of the mid-to-late-20th-century culture that even people in their 20s today used to think was their own.

Sound pessimistic? It’s hard not to be. Heading down to meet Rooks, I figured he was mostly a victim of changing times.

Then I met the man himself. More Hunter S. Thompson than heart-of-America mom-and-pop proprietor, Rooks struck me as someone who only by some miracle had managed to keep a business going at all. Most telling in this regard were his slurred speech, wobbly movements, constant shifting in his seat and occasional lolling of the eyes — oh, and the can of Busch beer from which he was sipping early in the afternoon both times I met with him. Also puzzling was the fact that he had called me about his intention to sell his store, yet he openly admitted to having no definite plan for what to do if the Music Exchange as we know it shut down.

“I’m trying to figure out what I’m doing for the rest of my life,” he said. “I do care, but I don’t care which direction it goes, as long as I can keep up with it.”

His outlook seemed disconcertingly romantic, loaded with tenacity or self-delusion — or both. “It’s been in my blood too long [to quit],” he announced. Then he added, “You know what I want to do — what I plan to do? Weld big things together. Make statues that are 40 feet tall out of various pieces of metal.” He went on to outline a plan for making giant, landmark-style contraptions. Questioned further, he said, “It’s not a dream. It’s going to be a reality. I don’t dream. I make it happen. I play in a band called Three Businessmen, and I do music. I’ve got 4,000 songs I’ve written myself. I’ve got 4,000 poems I’ve written myself.” In addition to welding, Rooks said he could earn a living as a writer. “I am good,” he said of his literary abilities.

This would all be endearing if it weren’t so hard to take seriously — and if his store were in no danger of closing. After all, Rooks has a dozen employees who appear loyal to a fault (“They’re still stupid, still 100 percent behind me,” he said) and who, unlike stereotypical record-store slackers, bustle about the place as if trying to keep it from bursting at the seams.

All of which is not to say that Rooks is completely spaced out. He did discuss several options for what he’ll do if he’s able to sell. Most recently, he said that he wants to become a consultant — a buyer, basically, who hunts down rare recordings for other sellers and collectors. This line of work would capitalize on an indisputable talent of Rooks: his expertise in the music trade. Other options include setting up shop in a smaller space (something for which recent clearance sales were intended to lay the groundwork), moving into a warehouse and going mail-order-only, or some combination of the two. He’s been looking at a number of smaller shops in midtown, including the space above the Corner Restaurant. A comforting thought, to be sure, but whether he’ll be able to pull off such a move is anybody’s guess.

His business has survived hard times before, though, and kept going — thanks to Rooks’ secret weapon, his courageous wife, Nancy, who’s no stranger to saving her husband’s ass. In the ’80s and early ’90s, Rooks served five years in jail for marijuana trafficking. Nancy quit nursing school to take over the business, refusing to give up even when she contracted breast cancer and had to undergo a mastectomy. But that was back when the Exchange was on Westport Road and had a lot less overhead. Now, in a building he bought on a $750,000 loan with a partner who’s long since bailed, Rooks manages to pay rent to the property’s current owner, James B. Nutter and Co. , but sales aren’t covering other costs. Nancy, by the way, is back in nursing school.

The bottom line, though, is that even if Rooks is a little off, he’s still the Music Exchange. The two are inseparable, and without him the place wouldn’t be any sort of bastion, crumbling or otherwise, against the chilling iPodification of the music industry that’s coming on like a whitewashed bulldozer.

Meanwhile, Westport’s other vinyl haven, Recycled Sounds, is holding steady, according to owner Anne Winter. “We’re certainly not getting rich over here, but there’s certainly a demand for vinyl,” says Winter, who has seen a recent increase in sales of records over CDs, which, she says, “tells us that niche market is underserved and that there’s a growing audience.” Winter also cites the lower cost of vinyl and the availability of new mainstream releases (for example, Beck’s new album), rare and old stuff, and hip-hop — all of it alluring to a crowd that just seems to prefer the look, feel and sound of hot wax.

It’s true — vinyl is just cooler. CDs are the paperbacks of the music trade; only on vinyl will you find first editions (in this case, first pressings) and objects that are actually worth the space they take up in the corner of the living room.

And speaking of which, our living rooms — and our lives — will be a whole lot emptier if Music Exchange goes out of business.

Categories: Music