New York has always been something of a haven for record stores, but it’s not immune to the peril that digital media have put them in. Not only have the big, well-loved chains such as Tower Records and (both) Virgin Megastores closed down, but countless indie shops have shuttered their doors; and in a city with the dance music history of New York, that means loads of record stores focused on house and techno. One of New York’s most revered stores of recent times is Halcyon, previously located on Smith Street in Carroll Gardens, and a real community hotspot where big names such as Jus-Ed and Levon Vincent used to hang out. Halcyon has since moved to the waterfront district of DUMBO, and whenever I head down there it’s usually Taimur Agha handing me records and tipping me off to the best new arrivals. LWE sat down with Agha recently to chat about how he got started as a record clerk, the record stores that shaped his taste upon arriving in New York, and some of his personal pet peeves. He also fashioned a mix for us (available after the interview) representing the breadth of music on offer at Halcyon, as well as what you can expect Taimur to put in your hands when you head over.
What are some of your earliest memories of going to record stores?
Taimur Agha: I never purchased records before; I grew up in Abu Dhabi, in the Middle East, in the Emirates, and we didn’t have any record stores. So when I came to New York, my first experience was in ’99, and that was — I’d say Satellite Records was the first one. They had a really small store down on the Bowery, and it was one of those shops where you go every Wednesday for the new arrivals. And you’d have a room full of people, and there would be one of the clerks playing records, and it was kind of like an auction — he’d play it, and if you were the first person going, “Hey, I want that,” he’ll throw it right across the room to you. So it was really cool; it was really small, intimate. I would be there every Wednesday at the front of the line.
Through that I kind of walked around town, and Sonic Groove was around, there was Dance Tracks, as well, that was the Lower East Side. I think those three, mainly, were my first experiences in New York, for records stores. And you had Other Music and Tower Records, when it was open, would have records there so we’d go in and buy from there. It was cool. I didn’t really stick to one store; I went all around New York, see what I could find and just collect from that. And we would also order from the UK from Massive Records, when it used to be open. It was one of those things where they didn’t have an online site so you would call them and the guy would be like, “OK, I’ve got these records,” and then he would play them for you on the phone, and you’re like, “Oh, I want that one!” So it was cool.
Were there certain people that you bought from?
I bought records from James Ben, who was from Astro & Glyde. They were kind of like a big progressive duo. Leo Lipsztein was another one, from Satellite Records. And — who else was there? Ori who now works for Made Events. I bought records from him, as well. I would go in and they would give me stuff, but I would also dig because I wasn’t always satisfied with what records there were.
How did some of those early experiences record shopping inform how you approach how you do your thing?
When I came here, I was going to all the night clubs in New York, mainly Twilo, then you’d have Vinyl, you’d have Limelight. It was my first experience with a big DJ on a big sound system, and back then the parties were special. It was kind of like a free-for-all. You’d meet all sorts of people there, and progressive house was really big then. We would go see Sasha and Digweed at the end of the month religiously, Danny Tenaglia, Deep Dish were there, Richie Hawtin would come. So from all that I was buying progressive records, and then I heard Craig Richards and Lee Burridge as Tyrant, so I started buying different music. I got more into tech house, breakbeat, the minimal techno stuff, and then listening to the 112 Crew, which was Bill Patrick and other guys. And I guess it just evolved after the late 90s to 2000s: my sound evolved, in terms of what records I was buying. You know, then you start getting more stuff from overseas, like from Juno, Phonica, yeah. And Halcyon, as well, is one of the stores I’d buy a lot from — in New York, back in the old location.
So when did you start working there?
I’ve known Shawn [Schwartz] since 1999, but in 2008 it came to a point where I really hated my advertising job, and they were laying off people and I wanted to get out. So it was one of those things where they wanted to lay me off and I just got out at the right time. I was like, “If I don’t start this music career that I want to do, then I’m never going to do it. And I’ll regret it for the rest of my life.” And I did it. It was a struggle for two years, and, you know, now I’m good. I’m happy with where it’s come.
What made you specifically want to work at a record store?
You know, when it comes down to artists names and remixes and tracks, I just had a really good memory, and I knew what I was buying. When I had spoken to Shawn he said, “Do you want to come to Halcyon?” And I said, “Honestly, I’d like to give it a shot because I have nothing to lose.” And it’s good to have all the music at your fingertips and, you know, sell it to everyone in the city, or people coming in from out of town. You know, I feel [that] what I’m purchasing, people are buying. So it’s a good sign for me, seeing that it’s working.
How do you approach what you buy?
Yeah, I’m a buyer. I basically — you know, we started with a few mailing lists I was given by Shawn for local, U.S. distributors, and then it kind of grew into, “Let’s start doing import orders,” because we weren’t getting the full amounts of records that we had ordered from these U.S. distributors, the full fills. And just from doing my parties, I felt that I knew all these artists and labels and their contacts to direct me to distributors in Europe. So it kind of opened the doors for a lot of things. For example, right now we’re exclusively doing all the Ar:pi:ar stuff from Romania because those guys come to play for my party in New York, and through just becoming friends with them, now we get all the Romanian labels directly from Romania. We’re in ties with Ricardo Villalobos’ Sei Es Drum label. There’s a lot of artist friends we have who also live in New York, they just come and sell to us direct. So I just feel like having all those connections, with working the record store, with doing all the buying that I have, it’s just a perfect circle. It works fantasticly.
Is there anything you buy that you don’t personally like?
We have buyers for all sorts of genres in the store. I mainly focus on techno, tech house, and deep house. Sure, there are a few records that I don’t feel I would play but I feel that customers at the store would buy so it’s kind of like trial and error to see exactly will sell and what won’t, at the store.
There are a lot of events thrown in the store, some of which you do, some of which other people do. What do you think the importance is of doing these events at the store?
I think it’s important. For example, my events with Blk|Market Membership, since day one, I’ve always had Halcyon as a partner. And I think it’s really good to have that record store establishment involved in all the nightlife parties. Even if it’s not at the store, people see your name and, you know, I have my radio show probably once every two weeks, called The Bandwagon. It’s really important to have those kids who come to the parties and never come to the store, and they’re like, “Wow, this place is great. There’s so many records.” And then they keep coming back. So now in my 74th episode, I’m starting to get customers who had never walked in here before, and a lot of the younger kids who have been playing Traktor for a little while and didn’t have the means to buy records are coming back and saying, “OK, forget this Traktor stuff; I want to try the vinyl.” So it’s a matter of educating and talking to your crowd. If you can pull them to your parties, I don’t see why they can’t come to the record store. It’s not that far away. And it’s pretty important for me; I’m happy to be part of a really good establishment.
How does your job as a buyer inform your DJing, and vice versa?
I’m very selective of what I buy. A lot of the buying that I do, it’s — I have a kind of sound that I’ve figured out after DJing since ’99, which is a long time. I went through all the phases, like progressive house, deep house, techno, electro, and tech-house, but now I’m kind of all across the board, and I just feel that the buying I’m doing, it’s really keen for what I’m playing these days, as well. I feel it just plays a vital role. Like, if I wasn’t necessarily working here, I don’t feel like I would have the style that I do today, by having so much music at my fingertips, which is great.
Halcyon sells digital files. What’s your take?
Yeah, we have a digital site. I honestly — I don’t like it, per se. I feel like it’s worth a shot, especially in this day and age where you see a lot of record stores closing, and, you know, in order to survive in today’s market, you have to do more things than just sell records. In terms of digital sites, you know, Beatport, I just feel like it’s kind of lost what it used to be. I really don’t go looking on it much anymore because anybody can put up stuff on it. It’s not filtered. It’s kind of like, “OK, you have a digital label? Oh, let’s put it up; just pay the money.” I get promos. It takes me a month and a half to go through everything. So I’m really focused more on vinyl. Like, 95 percent of my buying at the store is vinyl, you know?
Satellite, Sonic Groove, Dance Tracks: we’ve seen all these stores disappear. What’s your comment on that?
You know, I think in every evolving stage of the years I’ve been here, I feel like all of them were an institution for learning. I’ve learned more of the techno stuff from Sonic Groove, you had the progressive stuff from Satellite, and I feel like if I didn’t go through all those, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing right now — even with the nightclubs such as Twilo. They are very relevant to what’s been happening in New York, and I feel like it’s a shame that a lot of them are closed, but there’s still quite a lot of record stores in New York. I’d say off the top of my head there’s about 15 or so stores, and all have their own different niche. In terms of, “Will the record stores stay open?” I clearly think they should because this year record sales have gone up and been the highest since 1991, from what I’m reading, which is great.
People talk about this vinyl resurgence, but have you really felt it?
I’ve felt it. A lot of it actually has to do with our mail orders, as well, other than people coming into the store. We’ve started our Discogs upload in their database, and we’re getting buyers from all over the world because we have quite a lot of records that people don’t have in other parts of the country. They’re like, “Oh shit, these guys have got this title. We’re going to order from them.” So I think more and more people are hearing about us also, internationally, from Discogs. I feel like the store’s at a really good place right now. Record Store Day, that was just the other day, there was a line outside the block at 9:30 in the morning. That was a very good day for us.
Do you have an idea of what some ballpark figures are for mail-order orders?
We started at, like, five mail-orders when we first did Discogs, to now going up to 100, 100 plus in a week, which is really good for mail-order. People order from Australia because over there they have no more record stores, which is quite a shame. So they’re pretty excited when we have titles that they want.
Where do you see people getting their tastes from? I mean do you see people coming in sort of with an idea in their head, or…?
Yeah, they come in, they kind of tell you, “OK, I like so-and-so records,” and once I give them a stack of a few records that they work through and they’re like, “OK, I like this,” I can easily figure out what they like and give them the following records. And I think that’s kind of what all of us buyers at the store do, with each person from, say, the drum and bass department, or dubstep comes in, and it’s like, “Oh, I want this record, sounds like this.” It’s up to you, really, to put it in the customer’s hands. Through trial and error and working with a lot of people that do come to the store, I’ve figured out what the customers want. It’s a good feeling when they’re like, “Oh wow, all the records you gave me, I liked seven out of 10.” So it works. I feel that where they’re finding their education from, in New York especially, right now that the nightlife is — well, electronic music in general is on a boom right now, and New York is really good. So a lot of the local customers who come in I feel are coming from the parties, and they’re like, “Oh, I saw this guy. What records do you have of him?” Or sounds that he played, or who he is affiliated with. You know, they want to come and do research.
Halcyon also has a website — tell me a little about that.
Well, it’s really important to do reviews and Q&As and other write-ups about parties happening. So it’s kind of like an involved community to go hand-in-hand with the records. You have to educate people who don’t know, and also, if a big artist is coming through, people want to read about the person. It’s good to see it coming from our home turf here in New York City, from Brooklyn. So I really think it’s a vital element that should always be done for any store.
Tell me a little bit about the old space.
The old space was cool, it was another one of the influential stores for me. It was very interesting: it was everything in one. You had the record store in the back, there would be old antique furniture, which is kind of like the lounge setup, but you could purchase it, and they had a bar, which would sell vegetarian, vegan food. You could get juices or beers. They would have paintings on the walls that you could purchase, and they had a little garden in the back. But every day of the week they had a show, and there would be a proper DJ booth with lighting, visuals, and you would get to hear everything from, you know, left-field acid jazz to downtempo house. So you would walk in, didn’t know what to expect, but you could sit down there, have a coffee or a beer, read a magazine, and just enjoy the vibe. I kind of miss that, to be honest, because I didn’t feel there was any community like that, and Shawn did it with his friends: they felt an urge to have that close to their house when they lived on Smith and 9th Street. I wish we had that for this store, but, you know, never say never. Because it’s been on our minds.
What do you think the role is of the record store today? What does it offer than mail order websites don’t?
With the Internet today, it’s like people just want to be alone and just go on the Internet and order. For me, the experience has always been coming in and finding those records that you would not normally find on a website. Because most of the website stuff would be certain picks, whereas you go to the store, and they probably have another section of titles that they don’t list, or records that are in discount bins. I just feel it’s really important for someone who is buying music to come and have that experience. I feel Beatport — you know, for people who don’t have record stores in their countries and the only access is digital media — I think that’s fine. But people who do have access to record stores, if I were them, I don’t see why they wouldn’t step foot or take a look and see what there is, especially if they’re buying vinyl. We have some people who live in Manhattan here who order mail-order because they can’t come into Brooklyn, which I find kind of ridiculous. But I think if you’re a DJ or a collector, you should come to the store every once in a while and get the experience.
What are some things that irk you as a record store clerk?
Well, my peeves are that when people come to the store I kind of tell them once they’re done listening to please put the records on the table so we can put them back, because every Monday when I come to the store, I have a certain method of putting the records back. I put all the artists and labels together in the new sections, and when you come to the store, and everything’s upside down and sleeves are crumpled — yeah, it makes you cringe. But you see people come in and don’t know how to use a turntable; they put the needle on the slipmat and hit play. I mean it comes down to educating the crowd. Some people come to a record store for the first time, and you really want to make them feel welcome, especially when they have a knowledge of music. We get these young kids that come in and they buy rock and indie rock all the time, but they know really quite a lot about the music. From the first day they didn’t really know much, and now it’s been a year or so and their minds have expanded, as well as their tastes.
How many people do you see coming in just by chance?
When we do the radio shows, there’s — well, there used to be three radio shows: there used to be Bless Up, which was the reggae, dubstep, drum and bass, but that’s not happening anymore. I do Bandwagon, which is more of the house and techno stuff. When I usually do shows, I’ve got anywhere from 20 people to, like, 50 people in the store. People come hang out, listen to music, buy records, books. Then there’s Slow Disco on the weekends. So with those, you have more people come into the store on those days. When you have an art show, a lot of people come. On the weekends it’s pretty busy because people are off from work and they have time to spend.
But my customers come in usually Wednesdays and Fridays, when the newer stuff comes in. I call them and say, “Hey, all the new arrivals are in,” and then just spend an hour or so with them, giving them the latest stuff. So I kind of have my own clientele, as well, just from friends and people who come to see me. They know what days I work so they’ll come on those specific days. So in terms of how many people are coming each day, it varies. The shop’s been pretty busy, I’d say, in the last year and a half, two years. I’ve seen a big change in vinyl purchases. Because when we first moved here, it was really tough — nobody would really come down here, and once people started figuring it out, now we’re getting quite a lot of people coming in. I don’t know why people wouldn’t come down. It’s a really beautiful neighborhood. You ever walk down over here? It’s really nice.
Yeah, it’s great. It’s easily accessible.
Yeah, it’s right off the F train too, so it’s close. I’m happy where Halcyon is. I really don’t see any other record store in New York that is pushing what we’re doing or has the contacts that we’ve made. I respect all the other store in New York as well, but I feel like what we’re doing is really pushing the boundaries in all sorts of departments; be it writing, vinyls, or books and stuff. We’ve established a trust from a lot of buyers, worldwide and locally, so it feels good to have that.
Recordkeepers 001: Taimur Agha (84:16)