[media-credit name="Photo by Bob Krasner " align="aligncenter" width="600"]
The Birdman among his stacks of CD’s at Rainbow Music store, at First Ave. and St. Mark’s Place.
BY BOB KRASNER | One thing about the East Village that keeps it one of the city’s most interesting neighborhoods is that those mom-and-pop stores manage to hang on amid the ongoing tsunami of corporate chains such as K-Mart and Starbucks.
This is the story of a “pop” (pun intended) store — a wildly packed, used CD shop called Rainbow Music, run for the last 13 years by a fellow who prefers to be known as “The Birdman.” That’s not the name his parents gave him, but since he refuses to give out his real name it will have to do. The moniker dates back to when he had employees; they noted his constant consumption of chicken and turkey and dubbed him accordingly. He had a business partner back then, as well as a few other businesses, including a chocolate store, a restaurant and another music shop in Brooklyn, but they weren’t profitable and the partner ripped him off.
After severing ties with the dubious associate, he closed the other operations. He has no idea of his former colleague’s whereabouts other than that he has most likely left the country.
As for his employees, even the honest ones didn’t always open the shop on time (sometimes not at all) and The Birdman learned that “a business is best run by its owner.”
Not that there would be much room for another employee anyhow — there’s barely enough room for the customers. The walls contain alphabetized groups organized by musical genre, but the floor is another story. Piles of just about everything leave just enough room to walk. On a recent visit, a prospective customer — obviously not the hardiest of crate diggers — proclaimed the shop “overwhelming” and left shortly after.
The proprietor estimates that there are more than 100,000 CD’s in a space that is much too small for them. And that’s just in the front — the back room holds another 20,000. Not long ago, The Birdman spent five hours trapped in that room when the piles collapsed, trapping him until he could dig himself out. “I’m a little overstocked right now,” he recently admitted.
Besides the pop, hip-hop, classic rock and show tunes, that stock includes a lot of what collectors are looking for: jazz, blues, reggae and, especially, box sets of all kinds.
There are all manner of DVD’s and VHS tapes (“They last longer than some of the DVD’s,” he noted), as well as piles of vinyl. He’s not out to gouge anyone, he said, and it’s too much trouble to sell on the Internet. A lot of his clients come from overseas, having heard about him on the Web. The Japanese apparently come to buy sealed cassettes, which, incidentally, are the only form of recorded music allowed in most prisons.
He won’t take any returns unless they are sealed, but he goes out of his way to take care of his customers. He’ll hold items because he knows one of the regulars will want them and he’ll give somebody a deal if they are deserving. He won’t buy from drug addicts, preferring to deal with former music business collectors, downsizers and ex-Wall Streeters who need some extra bucks.
He’s an ex-Wall St. guy himself. He was “a whiz kid — one of the best” when he was young. He made enough money to retire at 35 and he opened this shop when he was 57 — because, as he informed his sister, he doesn’t have to work, he enjoys it. He’s much more gregarious than he seems at first and he’s happy to chat about old movies (“Anytime they do a remake, it’s no good”), his favorite music (Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett) and the stock market (“I invest in what people need — food and drugs”). He remembers when he was a kid and his mom gave him a dollar — at a quarter apiece for double features, that meant eight movies. When he closes up shop, he heads for his home in the Bronx and an old movie, a little Cary Grant, Rock Hudson or Doris Day, before bedtime.
His lease comes up again in a couple of years and he’ll see what happens to the rent then. The Birdman’s philosophy and modus operandi are spelled out in a series of somewhat amusing hand-written notes on his windows, but he sums it up simply: “You treat customers good, they’ll come back to you.” And, he adds, “This is the last of the good stores.”