A cheery holiday card from Tati and Gerry at Ansonia Records rests on the counter of Manny Rivera’s Brooklyn music store, hidden behind a pile of compact discs, domino sets and assorted tropical knick-knacks. It’s a nice, personal touch in a business that has long since lost it.
David Gonzalez reports from corners of the city in words and pictures.
Forty two years ago – when Manny was born into the retail record business – companies like Ansonia could barely keep up with the demand for Latin music, from classic trios, romantic duos and swinging mambo bands. Then Willie, Hector, Johnny and Jerry led the Fania invasion, taking no prisoners and turning New York City into the spiritual home of salsa.
And for the true believers, these would be the high holidays. From Bushwick to the Bronx, New Year’s Eve would be jumping with house parties, with nonstop food from grandma, drinks from Puerto Rico and music from the corner record store. But with all the changes that swept over the neighborhood and the industry, Manny now wonders what the New Year will bring.
“People started selling bootlegs on the street and that hurt us,” he said. “Then the Internet came up and did to the bootleggers what the bootleggers did to us. Now you want some music, you get it online.”
Once, lines of customers snaked down the block from his store, Johnny Albino Music Center, which was founded by its namesake, the angel-voiced crooner of El Trio San Juan (who lived in Queens). Manny’s father, Papo, had a series of record stores on the block, which is tucked between Woodhull Hospital and La Marqueta de Williamsburg.
Manny grew up watching the record bins on the sidewalk and making sure nobody stole the goods. When he got older and learned to drive, he made regular runs to the record distributors that lined 10th Avenue in Hell’s Kitchen. The business was built on personal relationships, and when he opened his first store in 1990, the distributors fronted him cases of records on credit.
“A new release would come out and I used to have to carry 300 of the same record,” he said.
Nowadays, the distributors have abandoned 10th Avenue. Manny now orders a lot of his music from Miami, though he complains that South Florida’s Cuban tastemakers can’ t quite peg the Brooklyn Latin market, which is big on Dominican bachata and Puerto Rican roots music.
A few days ago, a deliveryman came by with a shopping cart, which was three–quarters full with assorted discs. Outside, two tables flanked the entrance, selling $5 discs. Music blared from the speakers, while a few customers poked through the aisles.
Manny stood at the counter, in front of a mixing board and autographed glossies of Marc Anthony, La India and other singers. He leaned in as a customer approached.
“Do you have the Zacarias album I asked you about?” said one customer, looking for a popular Dominican singer.
“No,” said Manny. “But I have the other one.”
“I’ll take it,” said the customer. “If I can’t have pie, I’ll eat crackers.”
A woman walked in asking for an album.
“They don’t make albums,” Manny said.
He’s not sure how long CDs will still be made. Just in case, he has already started diversifying. When he bought the building that houses his store, he was able to expand his shop’s inventory with various musical instruments. Guitars hang from the walls, conga drums rest on shelves, while saxophones and accordions sit in display cases. He sells strings and instructional books, too, all of which helps to keep the business going.
A group of teenagers walked into the store and went straight to the back, admiring the guitars. Next year, Manny said, he may turn part of the space into a music school. It’s all part of his New Year’s resolution.
“I’m learning how to play, too,” he said. “I have to. If I know, it’ll help me sell guitars. My resolution is to perfect my guitar playing.”