The seedy little CD store where music is strict taboo
A few months ago, Bill, the owner of Rainbow Music, spent several hours trapped under collapsed piles of CDs in the tiny back storeroom of his tiny music store in lower Manhattan.
He wasn’t pinned down by the weight. Rather, he was trying to carefully extricate himself, like a human Pick-Up Stick, so he would not upset the “order” of the CDs that had fallen around him.
Bill, who declines to give his surname (“I never give it to anyone”), claims everything inside Rainbow Music, located in the East Village just off St Mark’s Place, is carefully arranged. If so, the filing system is Mayan. Or Byzantine. Possibly Han Dynasty. It is not any known western methodology.
“The order is only in my mind,” he says.
People are welcome to browse but there’s a chance that the shopper will become overwhelmed and feel a sudden urge to flee.
“The average person gets nervous looking through the door,” he says. “The collectors come in and find plenty of stuff. They come back all the time.”
The other danger is there is so much great music here you will greedily start plucking CDs from the stacks.
Which is fine until you change your mind. He will become annoyed because he’ll have to put them back in their allotted places, which requires deep concentration as he enters the Kasbahric maze of his mental classification system.
There are no phone or mail orders, no online shopping. The ideal way to shop at Rainbow Music is not to shop there at all.
Rather, Bill, 70, prefers you hand him a note with a wish list of the music you are chasing and he’ll spend several days fossicking about the calamity-poised CD towers to see what he can come up with.
There’s really only enough room for two customers. There’s not even space for a chair. “If I want to sit down I have to go outside,” he says.
Bill opened the store 13 years ago, not from any wild passion for music but to give himself an interest. “We used to have a lot of Polish music when we started,” he says. “My ex-partner was Polish. People didn’t want Polish music.”
The shop may look like a hoarder’s traumatic nightmare but it has only been this way for a two or three years. When the CD stores of New York, big and small, started shutting down, Bill started buying stock.
His own musical love is jazz and New York dance hall music. His interest in rock and roll hit the wall in the 70s so he takes advice from younger collectors on what to buy.
I pick up a CD by Calexico, the alt-country band from Tucson.
“That’s very good,” he says.
“How do you know?”
“Because someone told me it was. And whenever I have a Calexico CD, it sells straight away.”
For the most part, he knows what people want.
“They look for Dylan, they look for Hendrix, they look for Iggy Pop,” he says. “Pink Floyd sells heavy, the Beatles sell, Iron Maiden sells. Kiss still sells. The Italians and Saudi Arabians like Kiss. Anything on Leonard Cohen I sell right away. Johnny Cash. And box-sets.”
Bill, who is also known as “Birdman”, not for any attachment to the prototype Australian indie band but for his fondness for chicken and turkey, says he was once a star on Wall St.
“I made a lot of money and retired at 35. I’m a multi-millionaire,” he says without any noticeable pleasure.
Bill says he’s been living off dividends all these years, but would never buy shares these days. “It’s too dangerous now,” he says.
Bill’s in the shop seven days, surrounded by 120,000 CDs, plus LPs, VHS cassettes and tapes. He is a small clue in a big puzzle.
“I’m not in it for the money,” he says. “I’m just keeping busy.”
One thing noticeably absent from this music shop is music. It’s more or less banned, for the benefit of the customer. “If I play music, it fouls up their minds, they can’t concentrate.”
I ask him if he’s ever thought of cleaning it up, putting everything in order – perhaps organizing things alphabetically, or by category.
He stares at me. “It can’t be cleaned up. There’s too much stuff in here. How could it be cleaned up?”
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