Iris Records: A Vinyl Speakeasy Moves On
Preparing for the final weekend at Iris Records
A shift in the retail scene here in Jersey City began earlier this month when Iris Records owner Steve Gritzan announced that Dec. 12 would be the last day for retail hours at his Brunswick Street store. The response was swift with tearful crate diggers near and far asking: “Why?” Another likely response, this time from some neighbors, was: “There’s a record store on Brunswick Street?” Little did they know, there had been for 13 years.
This vinyl speakeasy was located on a quiet mixed-use residential street in a 1930s-era pharmacy that used to always have a card game going upstairs. Iris Records didn’t have a big sign announcing that it was open for business. In fact you’d need to look and look hard for the green security bars across the front and the show flyers in the window if you wanted to go in. Most times the front door was locked and you’d have to knock. Instead of the new Susan Boyle CD, you’d find old and new vinyl LPs by popular and obscure artists in the rock, vintage pop, soul, disco, funk, jazz, and blues veins. Add to that the fact that the store was only open on Friday and Saturday afternoons, and it’s clear that Gritzan wasn’t running a conventional brick and mortar retail business.
Nonetheless, over the years famous record collectors like Woody Allen and Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones have come looking for vinyl, and it was not uncommon for Japanese and European collectors visiting Manhattan to make a pilgrimage out to Brunswick Street. DJs Frankie Bones and Morgan Geist were regulars of the store as well. The store has even been covered in The New Yorker, New York magazine, The New York Times and Time Out New York over the years.
Inside, Gritzan had the air of a record store clerk that could have been immortalized in book and movie High Fidelity: he has an encyclopedic knowledge of music (the Late Show with David Letterman called when they were looking for an obscure piece of music for a skit), but Gritzan was just as happy to wax poetic about the plight of the small businessman, the status of the music business, or every move the Yankees make (in season or out). He’s skinny with wrinkles under his eyes that have been earned by years of hustling. Closing in on 50 but still youthful looking, the telltale gray hair has begun to speckle in with his original brown color.
The son of a systems analyst and award-winning junior high teacher, Gritzan was born and raised in New Jersey before heading off to American University in Washington, D.C. He finished school and became a staff writer for NBC Radio in D.C. After four years of that, he worked for Merrill Lynch as a stockbroker. Then he chucked it to buy and sell a more obscure commodity.
“Iris Records was not planned,” Gritzan explains. “I left the brokerage business in December of 1992 and wasn’t sure what to do next. I started selling my records off (this had been my major distraction from Wall Street) because I had too much of this, doubles of that, and I needed cash badly. My brother had started doing the same, and he had also started to buy record collections to resell at flea markets in Manhattan. We started off as a team, but we had too many brotherly disagreements, so we broke up.”
‘Always Been More of an Underground Thing’
Selling vinyl at a hard to find location with occasional hours just doesn’t cut it in the current economic and social climate. A recent story in the New York Times pointed out that kids of the iPod generation are getting into vinyl, but while big stores like Best Buy are again selling the format, Iris was always a different animal.
“My store has always been more of an underground thing,” Gritzan says. “I didn’t have a big sign and I’m not open that much so there are certain things I could have done to make it better.”
Gritzan isn’t forsaking record sales entirely. The store was really the smallest portion of his business and will still function as a warehouse and showroom for bulk buyers. As with other used CD/LP merchants, Gritzan has gone online in recent years, doing a brisk business selling through various outlets like eBay. He also is a partner in a group that presents Record Riots, a swap-meet style event where thousands of CDs and LPs are bought and sold over the course of one or two days. The Brooklyn Record Riot is the most notable, but there are others in the greater metro area as well. Jersey City residents also benefit from Gritzan setting up tables weekly at the Creative Grove Artist Market at the Grove Street PATH Station Plaza, and he’s even looking to do a Riot locally here in March or April.
Ironically, it was the Friday markets that prompted Gritzan to reevaluate.
“The nail in the coffin was a recent Friday,” he says. “Things have been going well and we’ve been selling a lot of records up there. For two months I’ve been handing out fliers to people telling them to stop by the store, and they’d always be excited about it and then they would never show up. Translating business from the PATH to the store was very difficult, which to me is a sea change in the way people shop, and the attitudes towards shopping now. If it is in front of their nose, people will buy something.”
Whither the Crate Digger?
These days people also don’t seem to have the patience to dig. Part of the tradition of record collecting is to spend hours flipping through thousands of albums looking for something specific or often just looking, sometimes even buying a record based on the cover artwork, the label that put it out or something else less tangible. This concept was the bedrock of Iris: vinyl was grouped by genre instead of alphabetically and crates of records sat atop tables with budget stuff stacked on the floor. Sometimes you had to move Mayfield the cat when you dug.
Asked why he discontinued regular retail hours, Gritzan offers other reasons as well, many having to do with himself. “The store keeps you on the weekly treadmill, so to speak,” he explains. “Also, I’m sort of a crappy salesman. I can get surly when people mess up the store and spend only four dollars. Cartridges break, turntables break. Some of the customers aren’t very nice. I’m comfortable with the decision.”
The response to the news has been heartfelt for the most part. One customer said via email that the announcement had brought tears to his eyes. Someone wrote in the log kept in the store during the closing days: “Brunswick Street will never be the same. Neither will I, dammit! I’ll miss it and my dirty fingertips.” Another wrote in the log: “Every record tells a story; Iris was the setting for nearly all of them. The store will be greatly missed.” Customers on the busy but not mobbed final day included a Filipino buyer and a Grove Street waitress. The last customer was a guy named Flash, who drove over from West Orange for his first visit to Iris. The store had a good day, but not good enough to make Gritzan change his mind.
The act of shopping for records is an experience unto itself for many of the customers who went there. Like Norm walking into Cheers, regulars are greeted as they enter. And they are, almost as much as the clerks and music, a part of the ambiance when you shop in Iris and other music havens that still manage to stay open. People dig and hang out. They listen to prospective purchases and gossip about the music and people involved in the music.
“I’ve always felt somehow responsible for having a vinyl store in Downtown JC, at least once it was up and running,” Gritzan says. “And yes, there is a serious good feeling knowing that you operate a place where folks can hang out and talk music. I remember when I first moved here — I was a bit star struck: Kool and the Gang went to high school at Ferris, Doug E. Fresh’s label was on Communipaw Avenue. Queen Latifah was headquartered in Jersey City (she owned the video store up the street). The early years of the store were fueled by this kind of tradition, by amazing local musicians stopping by.”
Things have changed over the last 13 years. DJing using vinyl used to be all the rage, and finding samples off of albums was the pastime of many of Iris’ customers. The internet was in its infancy; iPods weren’t around; top-of-the-charts pop and rock CDs still sold in the millions. Not everyone had tattoos or piercings. Now anyone’s garage band or bedroom recording can reach wide audiences with the right combination of luck, savvy and (sometimes) talent.
On the chalkboard on the sidewalk out front of Iris on the final weekend was a T.S. Eliot quote: “In my end is my beginning.” Gritzan plans to reopen the store for occasional one-time sales and will continue to sell on Fridays at Creative Grove. And while he moves on to new challenges, he hopes that someone else will fill the void left by Iris.
“The argument can be made that Jersey City needs a full-time, seven-day-a-week record store on Grove Street, similar to Grove Street Bicycles or to Another Man’s Treasure,” he says, offering an impromptu business plan. “So I’ve been thinking that the closure of Iris Records might make psychic room for such a store. That way I’ll have paved the way for another enterprise that creates community and spreads music.”