Here’s part two of our conversation with Joe Long, proprietor of the late Birdel’s Record Store, a pillar of the Central Brooklyn community from its Nostrand Avenue perch. Unfortunately earlier this year Birdel’s went the way of the great majority of record stores, stripping the Brooklyn community of yet another great traditional business and a real outpost for the music. We recently caught up with Joe Long, who is quite the character and a bit of a throwback to the days when you could browse your local record store and the man or woman behind the counter truly knew the music and could readily recommend essential new items for your budding collection.
I understand Birdel’s once did a decent business selling concert tickets.
We sold tickets for events all over the metropolitan area – New York, New Jersey… we were like a ticket outlet. Before Ticketron first started this is what we were doing. When Ticketron came I wanted to be a Ticketron outlet. I bought a building on Nostrand Avenue – the old Chase Manhattan building and I got an architect to come in and do a layout for me; I wanted to do three levels, something like Tower Records was on Broadway, a 3-level [record store] with Ticketron. When he laid out the plan for me it would cost close to a million dollars to do the construction and everything. I went to Freedom Bank, I went to Carver’s Bank, Citi Bank… and all of these banks refused to loan me money. It really deterred me about elevating my game because now I can’t get no backing.
They would always say to me ‘what is your equity’ and all of that. I said ‘hell, if I had something I wouldn’t be here! If I’ve got $300,000 I don’t need you! I’m here to borrow money and if I fail you’ve got whatever it is…’ but they couldn’t see it. It was the same thing in 1978; I could have bought that corner on Fulton Street where I was with [Birdel’s] and I couldn’t get no money. When you talk about politics, political people and how they help the independent, grassroots people… it ain’t there. They might talk about it but believe me its not there. I should have been bigger than J&R; I knew those people, Jimmy & Rachel, those are the people that own J&R, I knew those two little people when they were nobody. Nobody came to bat for us, and that is the saddest part. Now that corner on Nostrand Avenue & Fulton Street you can’t buy that for $3M, guy is asking for $10M for that corner now.
Did you have former Birdel’s employees, people you mentored, who went on to run their own record stores?
Yep, a couple of them. Not only record stores, I’ve had others come in and learn the record business who went on to be [record] producers. As a matter of fact, I started Biggie [Smalls], he used to come to my store on Nostrand Avenue and go downstairs… When he first started coming around he used to say ‘Birdel, I hear you got a lotta old 45s and stuff in the basement. Me and my man wanna go down and listen’ – I never knew his man’s name. I said ‘oh man, come on down.’ He used to tell me ‘one day I’m gonna be big and when I’m big I ain’t gonna forget you.’ I said ‘OK Biggie, you ain’t gotta do nothin’ but what you’re doing now… smokin’ reefer out there on the block shootin’ craps, hanging out there at the pool room up at Cambridge Place… that’s all you gonna be…’
He’d say ‘naw, I’m gonna be better…’ I said OK. And when he got big he came back and said ‘whenever you want me to do an autograph session [in-store] I’ll do it, let me know.’ At that time the West coast and the East coast had that fightin’ thing goin’ on. He came and did that autograph session about two weeks before they were going out to Los Angeles. He and Puffy wasn’t the best [of friends], it was like a front thing… I told him ‘Biggie if I were you I’d stay home…’ He said ‘naw Birdel, I gotta go out there…’ I said ‘let Puffy, he’s the owner of the company, let him go out there and see what’s happening.’ But he went out there and never came back, until he came back in a box.
Did you have any other young people like that who hung out at Birdel’s?
Jay-Z used to come through there, all these guys… Reverend Run, Russell Simmons and all of those young guys used to come through there. Jay-Z or one of those guys off of Morris Avenue came through one time and he was in the store and we wanted to do an autograph session and every minute he’s looking behind his back. I used to tell him ‘what’s wrong man, I don’t have people in here to be scared of, if there’s something you’ve done you better go around there and clean it up, ‘cause you’re out here in the limelight.’ What’s that other boy’s name… Rob Base… These are the kind of guys that I would help. I’ve always been a person that regardless of who you are or what you were doing, I would always try to set you straight.
What kind of help would you give these young guys in the rap game?
I’d help them financially, mostly with the knowledge and understanding; I fed their hunger, and I talked to them… I used to have little sessions [in Birdel’s], bring the drug guys off the street, and set ‘em down in there on Nostrand Avenue… I’ve had a lot of them come back later in life and say to me, say to the children, ‘you see Birdel’s over there, if it wasn’t for him you wouldn’t be here, he straightened my life out.’ These are the things that I really enjoy because I’ve given so much and I guess that’s why I’ve been blessed like this.
When I said I was going to close that store after 50 years I knew I had done a job. I got support all over the world, not just New York and the States… I got a call from Ghana – and I was in Ghana, sent ‘em product… we took on a family there, me and my sisters. We had a Long Foundation that we helped to support the needy over [in Ghana], we helped put computers in a school over there… So these are the things that I’ve done, but when I do something I don’t need my name in the spotlight because I do it from my heart.
Do you recall having jazz guys come into your store?
Oh yeah… Cecil Payne, baritone player, Wilbur Ware, bass player, Randy Weston, piano player, Paul Chambers, Miles Davis…
And what were they looking for when they came in?
To ask me about music, ask me did I have certain music. The jazz musicians always bought each other’s music during those days so that they could keep up with what was going on. The Blue Coronet was the jazz club down the street before Brownie’s Hideaway around the corner… These were places that the jazz musicians hung out in and played. They had a big place on Franklin Avenue near St. John’s that had played jazz… Randy Weston and all of them guys used to come through and they could play. During those days when they were appearing at the Blue Coronet they would walk up to the store because during those days we were open until 12:00 midnight.
Did you broadcast records out into the street like other urban record stores?
Yes, that was a big help; I had speakers set up on the street.
Brownie’s Hideaway is a Brooklyn joint that hasn’t come up in our Weeksville oral history interviews; talk about that place.
Brownie’s Hideaway was a little nightclub spot on St. Marks right off of Nostrand, right where Key Food is now.
What happened there?
It was like a little spot that the entertainers came in and sang, local talent would come in and sing. Across the street they had The Cove at 704 Nostrand Avenue, then you could go down to Town Hill on Eastern Parkway.
I suppose you knew Dickie Habersham-Bey, owner of the Blue Coronet? [See the Independent Ear archives for our interview with Habersham-Bey on the Blue Coronet heyday]
Yeah, Dickie I knew for years.
Did your ticket business at Birdel’s include jazz events?
Any event we sold tickets for – jazz, gospel, R&B, oldies but goodies… all of those things we sold.
The jazz guys would come in and buy each other’s records?
Yeah, they listened and if they liked it they would buy it… They supported each other.
Back in the day the classic record stores would always enable the consumer to come in and listen to something they were interested in. What kind of set-up did you have at Birdel’s for customer listening?
I would play it for them. Most of the time I could look at you and see if you REALLY wanted to buy it, or you just want to hear it. Most of the time the [record] companies would give us a promotional copy [of new releases] so we would have a copy, but not all of the companies. But what I would let you know up front is I’m gonna open this for you, but if you really want to buy it I don’t mind playing it for you. If you don’t want to buy it then I’ll have to seal it back up – I had a sealer – and then I’ll sell it to the next customer.
Most of the time during those days you would always have a 45 or something that came from that album, so we would play the 45 and you didn’t have to worry about the album. During those days, when an artist made a good record they made a good album, it wasn’t about one good tune and you thought about the rest of it being garbage. Ninety percent of all of those records were good albums during that day.
Did you have a regular policy of artists making personal appearances in your store?
Uh huh, if they were someone in the vicinity I would have them come in there. Jazz artists were funny they didn’t stay like the blues artists or the R&B artists. They would come through there and people would walk in the store and I might say ‘here’s Wilbur Ware over here, a bass player, he played with Miles Davis, or he played with Randy Weston or somebody…’ And they’d say ‘oh yeah…’, and then Wilbur would say [quietly] ‘…I play music, I don’t want to be out there…’ that’s the way they would talk. I’d say ‘man, you’re an artist, let the people know who you are!’
So you thought jazz artists were too modest?
Yeah they were too modest. But a guy like Miles Davis would come in there and [the customers] knew Miles right away. He would come in there and stay for awhile and say ‘….hey what’s goin’ on, I’m down at the Blue Coronet for awhile, come on down and listen to me – I’ll play something you want to hear…’ I’ve always been a jazz lover.
Why did you decide to close Birdel’s?
In 1968 when I took over the store I said I would do 25-30 years because I was looking for a change, and I wasn’t gonna look to work the rest of my life, I wanted to be behind a desk calling the shots. When 2007 came I said ‘wow, this is my 50th year in the business and I’ll be 70 years old…’ Maybe we’ll do a 50/70 [anniversary celebration]. So I called up the record companies and I told them I wanted to do a 50/70. They said ‘what do you mean by that Joe?’ I said I want to get a boat and travel around Manhattan and I want all my friends from all these years that I’ve known, not only in the music business – my church family… I want everybody under the same roof and I want to give a 50/70 gala.’
They said ‘we can help you, but we don’t know how much.’ I said, well I’ll get a price for a boat and we’ll go from there. So I got a price for the boat – now they have downsized these record companies so you only have four big ones – Universal, BMG, EMI and another… it’s only four big boys now – and they all came together and said they would give me a piece of money and that’s what I did.
That was the year, 2007, that I was gonna retire. The reason I wanted to retire then is because I could see the vision of the record industry shrinking as far as music is concerned, and especially with the downloads; I fought them too for 10-15 years when they started selling [downloads] and you could put it on your iPod or whatever. I saw then the decline of people coming into your store. If I wanted to stay in this business I would have changed this whole business around.
I brought my nephew into the business to carry on Birdel’s when he finished school at North Carolina Central because he was majoring in business administration. And he learned the business and he worked with me ten years. After that I was ready to move out. But then he met a young lady and she didn’t want him in the record business no more because of the climate you’re surrounded by in the record business – all the entertainers, all the parties… She saw if she didn’t get him out of the business she might have lost him and she really wanted to get married. So she told him she would like to marry him but he would have to come out of the business.
He really didn’t tell me at the time that he wanted to get out of the business. Later on he said that he wanted to get married and Tonya wanted to move to North Carolina and wanted me to go back to teaching. So my son is a playwright, my daughter is a doctor – OBGYN – so I said to myself ‘why am I gonna continue to work? I’m set, I have my health and strength, so I wanted to do a few things before I leave this earth – I want to do some traveling, go back to West Africa, and I want to do some other things that I have in mind, so I said maybe with the record business declining like it is now it’s a good time for me to get out.
My customer base didn’t want me to leave, so I hung on for another 3 years and I saw that I wasn’t making no money, all I was doing was paying rent, buying music, and there wasn’t any sense in putting good money to bad money, so I said no use in me keeping my money in here just to satisfy a few devoted customers, because the [customer] age from 16-40 nobody was buying, they were all online. So if you don’t have that customer base there’s no use in continuing. If I had stayed I would have turned the store around to electronics and just had the music for an offset.
I would have kept the gospel and the oldies because that’s what I was noted for; my specialty was oldies. They really didn’t think I was gonna close. I used to say ‘ya’ll gonna miss me when I’m gone…’ They would say ‘… you ain’t going nowhere…’ I’d say ‘watch me…’ One of the guys came in crying, he said ‘Birdel, you told me 3 years ago… I’m gonna miss you when you’re gone…’ They came to the realization that I’m going to close these doors.
What did you do with all your remaining record stock?
I’ve got stock in storage… the vinyl. I’ve got maybe 50-60,000 pieces of vinyl. I want to sell the whole thing, I don’t want to sell it piecemeal. I had a guy from Ireland that wanted it all but he ran into a problem with the freight and how he would get it back, he didn’t want to spend a lot of money to get it back [to Ireland]. I had another guy from Germany who told me if I took this stock over there I’d be a millionaire overnight with this vinyl. He said they were hungry, the needed this because nobody else has it. I told him ‘man, I’ve been doing this 53 years and I’m tired, let me do what I want to do…’