“Fuhggedaboudit.” Charlie Grappone’s Vinylmania was just another downtown record shop until the Paradise Garage opened a couple of blocks away. Then, with the weekend a constant crush of customers asking for “that record Larry played,” the Carmine Street store became the club’s unofficial wax works.
Open from 1978 until its sad closure in 2007, Vinylmania was where two generations of New York DJs honed their knowledge and built their collections. This 1998 interview, presented as part of RBMA’s partnership with DJ History, sees Charlie walk through the ups and downs of a career spent selling records.
How did you get into the record business?
I got very into records when I was seven or eight years old. Collecting 45s. Then in ‘64 [came] the British Invasion, and I bought my first album: England’s Newest Hitmakers, The Rolling Stones. I still have it. It’s all taped together. I was a big collector. I was an extreme collector. If somebody from a group did a solo album, I had it. If a guy appeared on one track on somebody else’s album, I had it. Then I moved up to Woodstock and didn’t know what I wanted to do. I had graduated college. And there was a record store for sale up there.
’74 or ’75. I was 23 at the time. I almost bought the store in Woodstock and then realized that I had no records for the store. So I moved to Manhattan.
Read our oral history of Vinylmania here
Where did you grow up?
In Brooklyn. Sort of where Todd Terry grew up, around Coney Island. Moved to Manhattan. I met a guy. A guy who should be sitting in this chair right now. When I moved to Manhattan I was totally broke, so I sent a resumé in with my college stuff for this ad. It said: “College graduate wanted to manage Greenwich Village brownstone.” I sent it in. It was a superintendent. I took the job.
I was renting apartments, and I rented an apartment to a guy named John Pitta. And John Pitta at that time in 1976, was already collecting 12-inch singles, which were promo only. I had never seen them before. That’s the first thing he taught me; that these were promo only. I was a big record collector of rock and whatever. And he started introducing me to people and he worked for a record store in the Village. And then it just took place. I was collecting, I had a big collection. I found a store in Carmine Street for $300. And, like I said, it was just freaky. It was in the right place. I mean, it was around the corner from the Paradise Garage.
Every Saturday morning there’d be people streaming to the subway, like at nine, ten in the morning. They’d come in: “Do you have any records by Larry?” Who the hell is this Larry? I mean, I thought I knew everything about the music business, you know?
What year did you move in?
October 18th, 1978. It’ll be twenty years in nine days. So it was almost the same time when it opened as well. When I moved in the store? Yeah. I took in my Beatles and Stones records that I had extras of. A lot of promo stuff. A lot of posters. It was a very sparse store. Then I opened up. Business started to go pretty well, even with the rock.
But every Saturday, man, people would come and talk about this guy named Larry. This was maybe in 1980. Every Saturday morning there’d be people streaming to the subway, like at nine, ten in the morning. Where the hell are they coming from? They’d come in: “Do you have any records by Larry? Got anything by Larry?” Who the hell is this Larry? I mean, I thought I knew everything about the music business, you know?
They were talking about Larry Levan of the Paradise Garage. And that was it. I went and saw Downstairs Records and said I’m going to change. I’m going to go a little bit dance. So I took the youngest store, which was right next door, and I opened up a dance store. And all that business that was going to Downstairs came my way. They didn’t have to go to 42nd Street and Times Square. It was really unbelievable.
And then, finally, we met Larry. And me being a rock person, I’ll never forget the first thing I said to him. It was, “You’re black!” He says, “What’s wrong with that?” I said, “Nothing. I just figured, I don’t know, but I thought Larry Levan would be white. I mean, no offense.” And all the people that were coming in were mainly black. That immediately made us hit it off. He got such a kick out of that. He really did. And then, Bill, fuggeddaboudit. The money started rolling in. Between 1980 and 1985. Jesus Christ. I was making so much money there it was unbelievable. [laughter] It’ll never happen like that again. Never. You see, not every one was a DJ. They wanted records to party with at home, or whatever. Now it seems like every person is a DJ. Every person. I mean, whoever comes in is DJing somewhere. It’s ridiculous.
There were basically only three companies putting out 12-inches. As time went on, there were few more. The store consisted of Canadian imports from Unidisc, Prelude, West End and Salsoul. That was basically it. Of course, there was Beckett and Sutra and those little offshoot labels. In those days you could really focus on a record. Then there were people like Sleeping Bag and Profile started, but that was more mid-’80s. You could really focus on a record. A record had shelf life. With something like “Heartbeat,” I probably sold 5,000 copies in one little store. It was unbelievable. Over a weekend you’d sell 200 of this, 180 of that. Sometimes now, you only sell 180 total. It’s insane. It’s out of control. Over-saturated.
Too many labels, too many producers, too many DJs...
Yeah. In those days, there was no such thing as tracks. There were people making records like Randy Muller and Kenton Nix. These guys were writing songs. It wasn’t like 15 minutes of fame; it was like years of fame. They just kept making records for these labels. So when we went into dance music, we carried Canadian imports and there really wasn’t any UK imports at that time. Very few.
What kind of labels are you talking about?
Unidisc, Mantra. Groups that were very big in the store were Lime, things that would be considered NRG. But that’s what was called for at that time. So even though we had this Larry crowd, I do it just the way I do it now. I carry the whole scope of what was available. That’s what I do now. That’s why a lot of people will frown on it, “Oh, that’s too commercial.” If it’s “Barbie Girl” and it’s a dance record and there’s a mix on it, we carry it. I’m not Dance Tracks. I’m not carrying what I like. If they don’t wanna sell somebody’s records, I don’t knock them for it. I think they’re insane. I see what they’re trying to do; they’re trying to say this is what we are. But I’m a retailer. In the ’80s we carried everything, as well as the stuff Larry was playing. I carried Carol Jiani, I carried all of these oddball things, that really appealed to the gay crowd in the Village, and that really doesn’t exist any more. Once the AIDS crisis started.
Are you talking more about the Saint crowd, than the Garage crowd?
Yes. This was even before the Saint. This was 12 West. We had all those guys. The one thing I can tell you about the gay community. Whether you’re straight or gay doesn’t matter, if you have what they want, you will get 150% support from that community. And we had what they wanted. And they didn’t have to get on a subway to go get it. So business went through the fuckin’ roof. I am talking about, fuggedaboudit. Me and my wife, we couldn’t believe it. Business was booming. And we became part of that scene. We went to 12 West. We went to all of those clubs. We knew all of those guys.
Where you going to check out they were playing?
Not only that, but people were so friendly and so into the scenario that we got into it. We liked what we were selling. Even though I have a fear of flying, I got on a plane alone and I went and met those guys in Berwick Street, London when I started my label. I wanted to start the label with Earlene Bentley’s “I’m Living My Own Life.” I thought it was a statement. I’m living my own life. I had such a crowd coming with that.
What happened in actuality, when I hired Manny [Lehman] and Judy [Russell], who were real Garage people, I hired them because of Bobby Shaw, they started bringing the Garage crowd over, which was predominantly black. And the music was different. They were into what would be perceived as the classics now. I mean gay people weren’t really into that. They were more into that NRG scene; that Ian Levine shit, he was top-notch. Is he still alive that guy?
Yes, and he’s very big. And getting bigger...
I saw him six or seven years ago and I don’t know if he would’ve been able to sit in this booth (in Jones Diner), that’s how big he was. But the Garage crowd actually caused a problem, because when these guys would come in to hear their records, they were like, “You’re not playing our stuff.” “Yes we are, we’re mixing it up.” So this guy opened up Decadance, you know that store? And the gay community went over there and dropped me like a hot potater. I told you, “If they’re into you, they’re into you 150%.” There’s no 50/50 with that crowd.
When did Decadance open?
About ten years ago. He opened up on Christopher Street, one of the last bastions of gaydom. It’s not even there any more, it’s on 8th Ave. We lost every one of those customers. But I understood it in a way. I give the guy credit for opening up a store three blocks from me. And going into what I used to be. Very smart.
So then we were totally Garage. That was ‘87. And then I started the label and did the record with Larry. “Love Heartache.” We went totally Garage. That first record was like a Larry record. But I would say it’s very rare that if you were a DJ in any city in the US you came to Vinylmania. It’s not like that any more. Then it was me, Rock & Soul, Downtown, Downstairs, something on Bleecker St called Hi Tech, it was run by a DJ named Leroy Washington, who worked at Studio 54. That was it. It’s not like that now. I’ve never met Jonathan Peters. These people have never been in my store. They don’t know it historically like that. And they found little offshoots where I guess they think they’re getting everything, but I can absolutely guarantee you that they are not.
So when did you start going to some of these clubs?
Just before we had the children, 1980. Up to about ’85. We were rollin’ in the dough. I mean, really. People predicted me to be the next music business millionaire.
Oh yeah. Bill, you wouldn’t have believed the store. You would look in the store and think there was something wrong. There was guys crushed, crushed. Ask any of those people that were around then. Okay, so we switched from gay to Garage, you should’ve seen Saturday morning. 35, 40, 50 people waiting for me to get there. I’d come walking up the street, “Holy shit, hello everybody, hang on a minute, we’re gonna open up.” I’d open up the door and Manny would put something on, because Manny was there the night before. “Shit! That’s what he played last night.” We’d sell 60 copies, between 10 and 11 in the morning. 60 copies? Gimme one, gimme two, gimme one. It was unbelievable.
How did you get Manny and Judy?
Okay. Remember I told you this guy John Pitta, who owned a store called Record World on Sheldon Street. John taught me that the records don’t come out, which I couldn’t understand as a record buyer. Whaddya mean this record “Victim” is promo only? “Why did they make it?” “They made it for the DJ.” “Don’t they wanna sell it?” I really couldn’t get the idea. So I says, “Alright, if it’s promo only, it means it’s collectible, you can’t buy it from a regular store.”
So I hung up wires and I hung them on these wires. And I had a General Johnson record up there for $20, “Can’t Nobody Love Me Like You Do.” And Judy walked in and said, “I wanna buy that General Johnson.” And she bought it for Manny. The next day Manny walks in and says, “This is unbelievable what you’re doing, ‘cause I’ve never seen this before where someone’s selling these things for a high price, like they’re worth something. Because they are.” Because most of the time you had to be lucky when you walked into a record store and the guy’s got them in there for a $1. Nobody had them at that time. There was only four places that would have had interest in carrying them.
I hung up all these things and a guy named Nelson George, he did an article about how I made disco collectible. You wouldn’t have believed it. Besides people coming in, I started getting calls from all over the country. “You buy that shit? I got a whole warehouse full of that over here.” You wouldn’t have believed the stuff I was buying. It wasn’t only promotional stuff. Albums that were deleted. I made a trip to England that was absolutely incredible. I went to a place called SPNS. It was a British cut-out house. Ooooh! Kool & The Gang Summer Madness 12-inch. 200 of them I bought. And this was for 25 pence. I brought them back here and sold them for six bucks. LPs and stuff you couldn’t get here any more. Gil Scott Heron The Bottle 12-inches. This was early, early British 12-inches. Mid-’80s.
Did you go scouring for records around the US, too?
Fortunately, being in New York I rarely had to. I remember these gay people, these DJs that were coming in, who were in record pools, like David Mancuso and Judy Weinstein. They didn’t want those records. They didn’t want that Garage stuff, they wanted the imports that I had. And they’d gladly trade them in to you. I’m talking about the regular R&B. That’s what all that stuff is in that warehouse in Brooklyn. All of that early R&B stuff, early ’80s RCA 12-inches, obscure R&B groups that don’t exist now. After Nelson’s article, it became known that this stuff was worth something, so people started copying me. All the stores started making collectors items, but I was definitely the first one to do that. It was fun. Then everyone came to my store. Now it’s not like that. That’s progress. That’s what I tell all these DJs: enjoy your 15 minutes because you make the wrong move, you’re out of the game.
Were all of the early DJs hanging out there too?
What do you remember about the Loft?
Very druggy. Very druggy. Very psychedelic. A lot of acid. I guess what they call this ecstasy now is similar. I never took it. People really stoned. But really, really into the music. I mean, I was always a record listener. This place? David wouldn’t mix. A certain turntable. A certain stylus. Speaker system set up. All these balloons.
I’ll never forget the first time I went, there was a whole bunch of people, all these people holding on to each other. All these guys and girls stoned on reefer. It’s not like I found it strange. They loved it. They lived for that place. Same with the Paradise Garage. It was membership only. You shoulda seen the fuckin’ queue. It used to go all the way up King Street, back down Varick. Crazy. There’s no club like that now. Dedication. Some people would go every Friday and Saturday. Sunday was for sleeping. Got to bed at noon and just sleep until Monday when you had to go to work. It wasn’t my lifestyle at all. I’m like this, up at eight, nine, now that I have kids. You never went?
No, Shelter was the first one for me in New York.
When did they close the Garage?
What a drag that was. When that happened, it was like somebody had died in my family. My business got hit. It was like they closed Yankee Stadium or something. Just picture that. What would happen to those businesses selling Yankee memorabilia? They’re gone. It was very similar with me. It really took a nosedive in the late ’80s. I was in the right place at the right time.
If Larry played the record, the record was going to sell at Vinylmania.
What relationship did you have with West End, Prelude and all those labels. They must have been keen on the store?
Just like anything else in business. Some good, some bad. But they all came and saw it. Every single one of them had to come down and see it. Because here was this kid, Italian kid from Brooklyn coming out of the woodwork. He’s not gay, he’s not black, where did he come from? And I was selling their records like they couldn’t believe. Mel came to the store. Whatisname came from Prelude.
Yeah. When they came to the store, it was a tiny place. It wasn’t impressive. It was tiny, but it was mobbed. Some of them came very often, like Mel, who was always at the Garage. Marv wasn’t one of those. He came from Scepter. He made £1m when he left Scepter. He was living in Sutton Place. He wasn’t a club guy, he was a well-to-do, well-dressed man in his middle ages. Everybody knew me: every promotion person, every label head, every DJ. That can’t be done today. And that will never happen again in this existence on earth. It can’t be. You gotta remember that the business was so focused on New York. There was no places in the middle of the country that sold this music.
But there were DJs in other parts of the country. How did they get their records?
We did a little bit of mail order. Manny and Judy started it. Then again, I call it the second British Invasion. Imports started to come out of the UK like crazy. They jumped into the game. And they’re into it now more so than here. The DJ seems more revered there. Held in a higher regard than here.
What’s the most copies of a record that you’ve ever sold?
“Heartbeat.” But then there was a lot of kids jumping into the store, who really supported us like Will Socolov at Sleeping Bag. He loved the store. Corey Robbins at Profile. They would be there every Saturday to see what people were buying. Learn from it, and things like Chocolette’s “It’s That East Street Beat,” Larry played it… Jesus, I must’ve sold hundreds of copies of that.
We’d have boxes of 20 or 30 piled on top of one another and they would be going down until there was none by Saturday afternoon. The main thing was, Larry had to play it. If Larry played it, you were in. Larry was the king. If Larry played the record, the record was going to sell at Vinylmania. Nu Shooz “I Can’t Wait,” there’s an odd one for ya. Larry loved it. He loved it. It was an import he bought in the store. It was a Dutch import. He just loved it. Atlantic signed it because of that. If Larry loved it, no matter what it was, Mick Jagger’s “Lucky In Love,” Nu Shooz “I Can’t Wait.” Larry was weird.
I mean, some of those nights at the Garage were great, but some of them were so crazy... Larry would play one record almost for the whole night. He’d switch to another record he’d play two more and then he’d put the same record back on again. I remember when I went to sign “Love Heartache.” He must’ve played it 25 times for me to hear. “Oh you wanna hear it on the sound system. You wanna hear this part again.” He played it all night. They loved it. If you got the right night with Larry, it could be incredible. It was fun.
I’ve had a nice life in the dance music business. I really have. I’ve had a wonderful life. I’m not really supposed to be doing this. I went to school to become a teacher and administrator. If you’d have told me in 1970 that I was going to open a disco store I would’ve said, “Listen, you’re outta your fuckin’ mind.” I grew up in a lily-white neighborhood. No blacks, no Jews, no gays, just like the song says. I fell into a world that I loved. I loved it.
What effect did AIDS have?
Unbelievable. Devastating. Seeing them was the hardest part. Because, in the ’90s, we haven’t seen HIV like it was in the early stages. There was the British kid that used to come in. His name was Sean Buchanan. He was a haircutter on 6th and Washington Place. And he became a DJ. And he built up a following at the Saint like you wouldn’t believe. He was great friends with Ian Levine. He got AIDS, and his hair fell out, he had blotches all over his skin. It was scary. He was one of the worst cases I ever saw.
Now if you see people who are HIV positive, they don’t look bad. But the early earliest victims, if they didn’t pass away very quickly, they looked like... I can’t describe how they looked. We used to have a black DJ named Henry, a long, thin, muscular handsome guy. He was literally a cripple. Blotches, shriveled. It had a devastating effect on the dance music business. In the gay world, when I would go to these clubs, it was very, very sexual atmosphere.
Lewis Feldman did all the sound systems at the Vinylmanias. We had six going at one point. Lewis died in, must’ve been 60 days. I was calling him and there was no answer, his answering machine was on. Finally, I spoke to him. “What’s wrong?” “I’m sick.” “You haven’t answered the phone in a month.” “No, I mean, I’m really sick.” “You have it?” “I have it.” “What you gonna do?” “I’m not gonna do anything, because it’s not gonna work.” He died two weeks later.
But, I used to speak to him about it and he says, “Charlie, you know I’d go to some of these clubs like the Cockring, and have sex with 15, 20 guys and I didn’t even know them.” They led a very wild lifestyle. I don’t know if it’s like that now, I think people are more frightened. It was crazy in the Village back then.
But times have changed and dance music, too. Now everybody’s a DJ. I feel that the advent of the computer changed the whole goddam business. People can do things at home. Fool around on a machine. None of these things were around. You had to have talent to be a producer back then. Not saying that people aren’t talented now, because I love the music, I think there’s a lot of great music out there. In the days of being a producer, each label would have their own stable. Kenton Nix was West End, Randy Muller was Salsoul.
But I’ll be here for the rest of my life. I’m not going to close the store. Unless I lose the lease or it’s not feasible to keep it open. We’ve been open 20 years, we have longevity. People from the Garage days come back to the store after years and they love that it is still the same. They’re a little heavier, and grey. And I get stopped on the subway. Really! “Oh man, I loved that store!”
This interview was conducted in October 1998 in New York. © DJhistory.com