Closing The Colony: A Visit To Times Square's Shuttering Sheet Music Outpost

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In some ways, the Friday before last looked like business as usual at Colony Records, the venerable Theater District music-and-sheet-music retailer that recently announced its impending closing after 64 years of operation. At the counter, Warren Tesoro, an employee for 25 years, asked a middle-aged woman if she knew that the CD of Porgy and Bess she's buying is the karaoke version. (She did.) In the sheet music section, the largest in the country, a young Brooklyn-looking couple sight-sang a few lines of "The Ballad of John Henry"—the 19th century work-song about the humanity's futile struggle against technology—from a folk song collection before adding it to their stack. A few aisles away, Damian Wille, a musical theater student visiting from Appleton, Wisconsin, stocked up on vocal scores from recent Broadway shows: Shrek, Catch Me If You Can, Billy Elliot. At home, this music is "not easily" available: "I even looked for Shrek online, and I couldn't find it ... It sucks that it's closing."

Wille isn't the only one who thinks so. The day before, an employee of Academy Records—a vinyl-and-CD survivor with Manhattan and Brooklyn branches—had tipped the bad news to the blog Jeremiah's Vanishing New York, which confirmed it with the store's owners. Within 24 hours, the The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and the Post had printed or posted news items about the closure. By afternoon, the word was literally on the street: even a woman collecting for homeless families on the sidewalk outside the store interrupted her spiel to say, "It's closing in three weeks." (Reports of the actual last day have varied.) Inside, co-proprietor Richard Turk fielded questions from a video crew and condolences from visitors like fellow retail vet Leon Geary, a dapper septuagenarian who worked at the Sam Goody chain's long-shuttered flagship store on 49th Street "from 1957 to 1981." Ken Jacowitz, a former Strand employee who comes in regularly to check out the store's collection of Beatles memorabilia, said, "I never really thought about leaving New York until I read about this today."

They were mourning more than an individual store: Colony—officially "Colony Record and Radio Center"—is one of the last and most visible links to midtown Manhattan's decade-spanning dominance of the American popular music industry. Originally located at 52nd and Broadway, the store was founded by Sidney Turk and Harold "Nappy" Grossbardt, the fathers of the current owners, in 1948. In John Broven's Record Makers and Breakers, interviewee Modern Recordings co-founder Joe Bihari says, "There were a lot of records sold on Broadway. In the Times Square area, it seemed like there were record stores, one right after another: Colony Records and the jazz stores." The surrounding blocks were also home to numerous labels, agents, and promoters. According to Ken Emerson's Magic All the Time, the Brill Building already housed ninety music publishers in 1958, several years before its name became associated with the girl-group hits penned or produced by Phil Spector, Jerry Goffin and Carole King, and Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich. (Actually, many of the younger crew worked out of the nearby but less iconic 1650 Broadway.)

Even before moving to its current location in the Brill Building in the early 1970s, Colony's location made it an insider hangout, an industry player, and a testing ground for new releases. Benny Goodman was an early customer, and when his brothers Gene and Harry went into publishing as Regent Music, they would make direct sales of songs like Lionel Hampton's "Flying Home" to Colony—and Sam Ash and Manny's—and by walking them over from their Brill Building office, according to Broven. The editors of Cash Box, a rock-and-roll era challenger to Billboard, traded the store a subscription for a weekly conversation about what and wasn't selling. At the newer location, says Richard Turk, the store had "a counter of open turntables... and we'd have 45s and albums blasting away. People would come in and ask for whatever song, and we'd play them that and then we'd try to play them 10 other songs we think they'd like."

A more established Broadway crowd also frequented the store, thanks in part to its 2 a.m. closing time. "When Golden Boy [a 1964 musical starring Sammy Davis Jr.] was at the Winter Garden, Sammy would be in every night, bringing somebody in to listen to something he was working on," says Turk. "He was a staple at Colony. The Rat Pack all were, because they were at Gilly's, which was at 52nd and 8th." This may explain the prominent placement of the store's oddest showbiz collectable: a never-opened seasoning envelope for "Sammy's 'Just Right' Chili."

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