New York Stories: Hua Hsu

A Cali transplant becomes a New Yorker with help from a Williamsburg groove merchant.

Marco Cibola

Like many people not actually from New York, I learned the geography of the city from records. At first, it was just from listening to and studying them – all those anthems dedicated to obscure street corners, all the exotic-sounding addresses and studios listed on record sleeves, pictures of people standing in front of massive complexes of brick and glass.

What was Chung King? Why were so many things along Broadway? Where did everyone park their cars? Was Hoyt-Schermerhorn a real place? Anything that wasn’t the California suburbs was strange and thrilling to me, and drinking in the minutiae of everyday life in New York only had the effect of making the city seem more mysterious than ever.

It wasn’t until I moved to the East Coast in the early aughts that I began to appreciate these places as real and oftentimes modest, but it was no easier figuring out my place among them. I’m not blessed with a great sense of direction, and it was a challenge just trying to get from one record store to the next. It was while pacing back and forth on a quiet stretch of what I presumed to be Sixth Avenue, searching for Fat Beats, that I discovered there was also a 6th Street. It’s how I nurtured my disinterest in the Upper West Side, the reason it took me so long to appreciate Queens.

Long-defunct record shops are still the landmarks that guide my wanderings through the East Village. One day, a college friend who had moved to Brooklyn told me about a guy in her building who ran a small record shop out of his living room. I was dubious. I mentioned it to my friend Dave, who had moved to New York a couple years prior and was therefore Magellan in my eyes. He had no idea what I was talking about. It seemed improbable to me that this store could be any good. It took me a while to find my way over. If Manhattan didn’t seem intimidating enough, then Brooklyn, which seemed to take up nearly a third of the subway map, was like an entirely different planet.

I didn’t always understand what Makoto was saying. He would often sell me something simply by dancing along to it.

Weekend Records was on the second floor of an old warehouse right off Kent Street, near Williamsburg’s then-condo-free waterfront. The building was worn with age and the interior was sparse and unruly, unlike the elbow-to-elbow congestion I was used to in Manhattan. As I arrived at the top of the stairs, the open door of Weekend seemed to burst with life. This guy Makoto had put up walls in the front of his loft, and on the left and right-hand side of the room were rows of record browsers. There were shelves on the walls showcasing pricier items, only one of which I recognized (Black Sheep’s “The Choice Is Yours”). There were boxes of records on the ground, some of them covered with bed sheets. There was a small desk against the far wall with a turntable, a speaker mounted on the wall, a stack of records waiting to be priced. And there was Dave, flipping through some ’80s rap records. He told me it was his first time there too.

It had all the trappings of a proper store. The records were classified by genre. Anything that wasn’t in great shape had a tiny "as is" sticker. Makoto had made business cards with himself as the Tommy Boy logo. There was even a bathroom. Weekend was full of records I didn’t know or understand. I was interested in pretty generic things – ’90s hip hop records and the records sampled by ’90s hip hop records, mostly. But the borderlessness of Weekend was thrilling, confusing.

Makoto would play spaced-out disco, weird folk records, twee pop, lots of samba. He would be dancing along to Saint Etienne one moment, rapping along to random late ’80s rap records from Boston the next. He would take a jazz record out of your hand, slide it out of its sleeve, inspect its grooves, slap it on the turntable and drop the needle on its most luminous passage. I didn’t always understand what Makoto was saying. He would often sell me something simply by dancing along to it (Blvd. Mosse’s cheery, Wings-sampling “U Can’t Escape the Hypeness”) or playing it on his turntable and pointing at a riff in the air.

Blvd Mosse - U Can't Escape The Hypeness (Produced by Tony D, 1990)

Most record shops seem to thrive on indifference, if not outright intimidation. But if you were interested in whatever Makoto was playing, he would gladly dig up a dozen more records you might also like. It was always revelatory to hear the records he was keeping for himself – the wispy-warm, lo-fi soul of Larry T and the Family’s “I’m Movin’ On,” rare Miami bass records, Stargaze’s “You Can’t Have It,” Phase N’ Rhythm’s “Brainfood,” which he said he found from a “trash man.” “You mean someone selling things on the sidewalk?” I asked. “No,” he explained flatly, “a homeless man pushing a shopping cart full of trash.” He had seen some records and asked if he could look at them. I was obsessed with finding records, and this was as close as Makoto ever came to revealing where he procured his stock. Soon I was patrolling the sidewalks of the Lower East Side, hoping to come up with something. The closest I came was a “Rump Shaker” 12-inch I saw sticking out of a wet suitcase next to a trash heap along Avenue C. I grabbed it anyway.

I don’t think I ever improved as a DJ, but it was a wonderful excuse to keep buying more records.

At the time I would DJ around the city, often at a weeknight party some friends threw at Plant Bar in the East Village. We never got paid and I don’t think I ever improved as a DJ, but it was a wonderful excuse to keep buying more records. The cabaret laws, long-dormant 1920s-era codes which were being enforced again to improve the city’s image, were still in effect, so the guy at the door would flip a switch and a bulb in the DJ booth would light up if for some reason the police decided to descend upon a dozen people dancing.

By virtue of being allowed to DJ there, I didn’t presume that Plant Bar was some venue of world-historical importance. Years later, I realized that the bartender was actually in The Rapture, that the people who would start the DFA and Acute record labels were always around, that there was a reason someone would play “House of Jealous Lovers” every single night I was there. At the time, it was just friends playing records and hanging out in a small room to which we could, for a few hours on a slow night, lay claim.

The Rapture - House of Jealous Lovers

Nobody cared about what I was playing and the mixtapes I made never circulated past three or four others, and yet I thought of Weekend and Makoto’s dizzying trove as a kind of secret weapon. Our friends Betty and June had made flyers for his shop featuring a full-color comic strip of Makoto – identifiable by his bucket hat, glasses and pet cat – adventuring through caves, mazy underwater passages and mountainside cliffs in search of a stash of rare records. Some of us Weekend regulars thought that it would be better to destroy the stack, lest anyone else discover the shop. Then again, I think I only gave those flyers to friends who lived in California. A business needs customers, and maybe this is why Weekend Records never really succeeded by any recognizable metric of profit and loss.

Makoto said he didn’t want to sell his records to just anyone. It was more like he was assigning his things new homes.

Weekend wasn’t a business so much as it was a community, a fantasy world Makoto sought to populate with model customers and neighborhood regulars, sort of like one of his wondrously eclectic mixtapes. He even had a rack of clothes and vintage bags for bored girlfriends. Record collecting can make people incredibly petty hoarders, but that kind of thing didn’t fly at Weekend. If you tried to bargain his prices down too much or if you dared peek underneath the bedspread covering the unpriced boxes, Makoto’s English would magically get worse and he would make the transaction near impossible. He said he didn’t want to sell his records to just anyone. It was more like he was assigning his things new homes – a portable record player from Japan for Betty, a Miami bass license plate for Dave, a vintage cardigan for my then-girlfriend.

Late one night, I was flipping through records and sipping a beer. Makoto was sitting at his desk smoking a cigarette. It was quiet, which was unusual. He said there was something about me that reminded him of his father – maybe it was my glasses or posture or just the lateness of the hour; I couldn’t quite follow what he was saying. He dug through a box at his feet and handed me a copy of Schoolly D’s “C.I.A.” It was still in its shrink-wrap and its green sleeve still had its original price sticker. “Have this,” he said. When I asked him how much he wanted, he waved both of his hands and shook his head. He said he just wanted me to have it. I began to try and explain my gratitude, not just for the record, but for his shop and camaraderie as well. He just offered this wide, unresponsive smile.

Schoolly D - C.I.A.

There was always a steady enough stream of regulars coming through Weekend, and occasionally you would run into people like Kenny Dope or DJ Shadow or the guys who would go on to form The Rub. But it never seemed to grow past its status as a loosely guarded secret. Makoto moved back to Japan a few years ago, though he would always seem to materialize in New York at record shows or barbecues, always with a heavy bag of new acquisitions. He is finally ready to reopen Weekend Records, he told me, as a proper store in Tokyo.

New York will never have another place like Weekend Records, or at least I like to think that.

New York will never have another place like Weekend Records, or at least I like to think that (as someone with some vague investment in the uniqueness of my own experiences). It’s more likely that there already is and I simply don’t know about it, because it’s no longer mine. After a while on those nights, the combination of Makoto’s secondhand smoke, his cat’s dander and the dust from all those records made it impossible to breathe, but it never occurred to me to leave. I would usually make my way to the nearest subway at two or three in the morning, and I remember thinking I was somehow defying death on those ten-minute walks. I would clutch my records to my chest and look at all the quiet warehouses and sleeping cargo trucks, and the city would again seem unknowably vast, but at least a small part of it made sense to me.

A version of this article appeared in The Daily Note, a free daily newspaper distributed in New York during the 2013 Red Bull Music Academy.

By Hua Hsu on May 13, 2013

On a different note