Charles Petzold

When J&R Contracts, Classical Music Suffers

November 30, 2013
New York, N.Y.

J&R Music World has long been New Yorkers' first choice for computers, for televisions and audio equipment, for DVDs and CDs. Family owned and staffed with informative and helpful employees, J&R is the epitome of a local retail store large enough to maintain a good inventory and showroom, but not too large to lose focus. It has survived the rise and fall of competitive chain stores — remember The Wiz? remember Circuit City? — and in its location almost due east from the World Trade Center, it managed to survive the 9/11 attacks despite millions of dollars of damage from dust.

With the demise of Tower Records and the Virgin Megastores, J&R also became the store with the largest inventory of classical CDs in New York City. Not coincidentally, starting about five years ago J&R also became an integral part of my exercise program. Three, four, five times a week, I would strap a portable CD player to my belt, put in a disk, plug in the noise cancelling headphones, and walk the four-mile round trip to the J&R classical CD store, often buying a new CD in the process and popping that into the CD player in City Hall Park for the walk home. Eventually I abandoned the CD player for a Zune and then a Windows Phone (but then I couldn't listen to my new purchase on the way home) and substituted ear uds for the headphones. But noise-cancelling earbuds were still required: The straightest walk between my apartment and J&R involves either Lafayette or Broadway.

In recent years, however, that classical CD department has been undergoing some changes. It was first split in half, and then moved. A few months ago, J&R began it's most radical reorganization yet. It began closing its multiple stores along Park Row and moving mostly into one store on the corner. "We've Gone Vertical" they said, but it was clear that J&R was undergoing a severe contraction. (See this New York Times article for the store owners' contention that the change is merely about efficiency and customer convenience.)

The inventory of classical CDs has shrunk again in the process, and now occupies a spot on the 4th Floor that is literally the furthest distance in the store from the ground-floor entrances. Supporting a 400-year-old music tradition requires lots of inventory, and what J&R stocks now is no longer adequate. The trip to the 4th Floor also involves a cruel insult: On the 3rd Floor right along the path required for using the elevators is an astonishly large selection of vinyl pop LPs that occupies more space than the classical CDs! And just today — two days after Thanksgiving — I discovered that the bins allocated for classical CDs had been reduced by 25% to accomodate bargain pop CDs and "holiday music."

For classical CDs in New York City, there are no real alternatives left. The Juilliard Store has some CDs that often warrent some browsing, but not that many. The Metropolitan Opera Stop has a good selection if it's opera you're interested in. Academy Records sells used classical CDs but they're not arranged very well. After those options, there's only the anemic selection at a Barnes & Noble.

At this point, without I would surely go mad. But I much prefer to browse in a brick-and-mortar store and I will certainly reward the store for being there by leaving behind some money.

I very much want to buy my CDs at J&R, but it's becoming increasingly difficult. The shrinking inventory is bad enough, but the whole experience is now so damn depressing that I dread going. J&R is not just some random retail store. It's a part of my life that seems to be wasting away.