"Brooklyn's like a petri dish, it allows us to experiment." Sitting atop a reclaimed shipping container, the smell of fresh paint lingering in the air and a mural of the Velvet Underground gazing down upon us, it's hard to refute Stephen Godfroy's claim. Godfroy is the manager of Rough Trade NYC, the iconic shop's new US outpost and a spot unlike any other in this music-obsessed borough.
In a world of digital downloads and streaming services, Brooklyn, and in particular the neighbourhoods of Williamsburg and Greenpoint, has become a go-to destination for traditional record stores. Hardcore vinyl fanatics mix with hip tourists searching out new tunes and affordable vintage classics. It's in sharp contrast to the other side of the East River in Manhattan: stores such as Bleecker Bob's Records in Greenwich Village, where Bob Dylan once shopped, are falling off the map as rocketing rents push them out of business.
Rough Trade NYC opened its doors on Monday. It was four years in the planning and stalled by Superstorm Sandy, which swept through New York a year ago. It occupies a former HBO prop warehouse. Co-owner Godfroy hopes the vast space will become as much of a destination as Rough Trade East, the Brick Lane institution that opened in London in 2007.
"I hope this store will achieve a lot on a local level and become a neighbourhood favourite," he says, scanning the 15,000sq ft room as punters flick through crates of fresh new vinyl. "We're humbled to be here. There are some fantastic record stores nearby. It's a vibrant community and hopefully we can provide a leg up for other shops."
After spending an hour scanning the racks and nattering with the staff about buying too much vinyl, I leave the imposing, post-industrial confines of Rough Trade and head out on to the streets of Williamsburg. Bracing myself against a bitter wind blowing in from the East River, I go in search of the vibrant record shops that Godfroy is so enthused about.
Striding deeper into Williamsburg, I drop into Earwax Records, just a few blocks east of Rough Trade. It sits on a pretty side street, having just moved around the corner from its former, long-standing location on ultra-trendy Bedford Avenue. Metal blares out from hidden speakers while committed vinyl fans, togged up against the cold, browse through crates of new and used LPs. Pricey, limited-edition box sets line the walls.
It's intimate and very different from the bold, brutalist designs of Rough Trade. Earwax has been in Brooklyn for 22 years, long before the borough became the epicentre of hipsterdom and a focal point for the world's best new indie music. The staff are equally enthusiastic here about the community aspect of the area's record shops.
The mood is similarly ebullient a 10-minute walk north, in the increasingly hip 'hood of Greenpoint. Permanent Records is a tidy little store with an incredible selection of jazz and soul vinyl, plus seemingly endless racks of second-hand CDs. I get chatting with the manager, Matthew "Milli" Milligan. "There's definitely not competition between any of the record stores around here," he tells me as he prices up a huge pile of vintage LPs. "In the last year or so, a couple of other shops have opened up in the immediate vicinity and now it's starting to feel like more of a scene. We're always referring people to other shops. People are asking 'where can I go?' and we say 'check out Academy, check out Co-Op'. That's how it is around here."
After Hoovering up a few vinyl reissues that I've not been able to track down back in London, I follow Milli's tips and press on, first to Academy Annex. This high-ceilinged cathedral to used records has recently made the move to Greenpoint after years in Williamsburg. But it retains its hard-earned reputation as a crate-diggers' hotspot. Row after row of carefully sourced vinyl is quietly rifled through by dedicated shoppers. Each box is broken down into specific genres that only fanatical music fans could dream up: chillwave, Japanese psych and French pop are all catered for.
It's Milli's final tip though, that leads me to record-buying nirvana. Co-Op 87, tucked down a quiet residential street, stands out immediately. Plastic boxes, stuffed tight with battered 12-inches, are stacked up outside, loose leaves whipping between them as I ease open the heavy door and adjust my eyes to the gloom inside.
The place is chock full of vinyl, so much that it's hard to know where to start looking. I make a beeline for the used rock and pop section. Everything from original Led Zeppelin pressings to reissued EPs by local favourites Real Estate are up for grabs.
I wander back to Permanent to thank Milli for the tip off. "That's what makes the scene here so great," he says. "We all have our own kind of thing and that makes it worth trying out lots of different places."
Joe Minihane travelled as a guest of Virgin Atlantic (0844 209 7777; virgin-atlantic.com) which flies four times a day from Heathrow to JFK and twice a day to Newark.
Rough Trade NYC, 64 North 9th Street, Williamsburg (roughtrade.com).
Earwax Records, 167 North 9th Street, Williamsburg (001 718 486 3771).
Permanent Records, 181 Franklin Street, Greenpoint (001 718 383 4083; permanentrecords.info).
Academy Records Annex, 83 Oak Street, Greenpoint (001 718 218 8200).
Co-op 87, 87 Guernsey Street, Greenpoint (001 347 463 9997).
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