Music is Joe Long’s life. As the owner of Birdel’s Record Shop in Bed-Stuy Brooklyn for more than 50 years, Long has witnessed the evolution of music from the Motown-era in the 1960s to the oversexed R&B currently on heavy rotation. He closed his shop earlier this month after keeping its doors open for more than 50 years. He took a moment to talk to me and say his final goodbye to the vinyl shop that has become legendary from the streets of Brooklyn to the bright lights of Tokyo.
How did you end up owning Birdel’s?
I came into the record business in 1957 and I worked for a Jewish fella named Benjamin who owned Birdel’s. I told him that I would work with him for 10 years and if he didn’t sell me the store at the end of those 10 years, I would go out on my own. I knew I had enough knowledge about this business and that I could succeed. He sold it to me, earlier than he planned. What pursued him to sell it quicker were the riots in predominately minority communities after Martin Luther King got killed. The whole town, not just here in New York, but Chicago and Detroit and Los Angeles…it all went up in smoke. They burned up a lot of businesses in those communities and he decided to get out and he sold it to me.
So Birdel’s is kind of legendary here in Brooklyn…
We’re nationwide, baby. The store’s in Brooklyn, but we’re known around the world. I have customers come here from England, Germany, Africa, Japan. All of these people have been through this store to buy vinyl because vinyl is a big business in other countries. Vinyl has always been a big business, but here in the States, they downsized vinyl and went from 8-tracks to cassettes from cassettes to CDs. Vinyl was a big business for independent retail…that’s what kept us going. But now everything is digital…
Do you blame technology for killing vinyl record stores?
Not just independent retailers, but a lot of the majors too. Towers went out, HMV, Music Factory. A lot of big stores went out of business because they couldn’t compete with technology. We lost that high school and college generation because they were all downloading. When we lost them, I knew we were doomed. They [record companies] couldn’t control it. It was like letting a horse out the barn and trying to get it back in after you let it out. You could take an inventory throughout the United States and you could find out of all the record shops in the 70’s and 80’s, you probably have one percent of independent record stores left…that’s all
Besides technology, what else to you think contributed to the decline in record shops?
I’ll sum it up in one word: Radio. In the 50’s and 60’s radio was very instrumental in breaking an artist’s record and you had personalities and disc jockeys that went to school and learned the business of radio. But over the years, they got rid of real disc jockeys and went to personalities like Steve Harvey who didn’t know anything about the record business. All they could do was sit in front of a computer and punch in a record.
How does the community feel about you closing?
I’ve gotten phone calls as far as Africa, calls from Seattle, Washington, Portland…all over the United States. They know that with Birdel’s it was just one. This is the second time I tried to close the store. The first time was back in 2007, but the community was so upset about it that I kept it open. But now it’s time to go.