If you thought you weren’t into records, or if you’ve ever felt intimidated by the too-cool brinksmanship of vinyl collection (think High Fidelity), you haven’t been to the new record shop at 360 Van Brunt Street.
When you first enter, you rather feel like you’re in a friend’s living room — if your friend happens to have a widely eclectic, 4,000-strong record collection. The atmosphere is informal. You’re free to browse as long and hard as you want. You’re free to test the goods on the store turntables. You’re also free to chat with Red Hook resident Bene (pronounced “benny”) Coopersmith, the store’s earthy and knowledgeable owner who seems to love to talk about records just as much as he loves to sell them.
“Nobody should feel intimidated here,” he said during an interview in the store. “I just want to open up the door and see what kind of conversation happens.”
Coopersmith hasn’t placed any advertisements. The store doesn’t even have an official name yet, though he says Swoopy’s Groove Palace — inspired by his nickname, Swoopy — is a working title. Yet, since he opened his doors in July, Coopersmith has already generated moderate buzz, an ethos of inclusivity, and a vision for expansion that includes music lessons and events.
The records at Swoopy’s Groove Palace (again, working title) come from Coopersmith’s personal collection, and from customers who sold their records to the store. It would be futile to pigeonhole the collection since it ranges so much: from gospel to reggae to modern rock, from well-known artists like Aretha Franklin to Armenian folk artists to exercise gurus from the 80s (I couldn’t help but purchase one of the latter). You can get lost and giddy flipping through the racks, discovering beautiful or bizarre album art, great music, or kitschy surprises from all over the world.
One customer named Darryl looked so comfortable chatting with Coopersmith and playing records in the store I actually thought he worked there. He clarified, and told me he drives to Swoopy’s Groove Palace from Brighton Beach every week to buy and sell records.
“It’s open and free here. Nobody’s hounding you to purchase anything,” said Darryl. “It’s a small collection but there’s a very wide variety, and they offer fair market value for my records. I’ll definitely keep coming back.”
Prices at Swoopy’s range from $2 to a few hundred for the odd rare record (a rare Milton Wright record recently sold for $700, Coopersmith said), but most of them hover in an affordable range. There are also a handful of cassettes and VHS tapes on sale, as well as sound components like receivers, speakers, and turntables.
Though it seems like a dying industry, vinyl sales are actually up by 260 percent since 2009 according to Nielsen, and more mainstream artists are releasing vinyl LPs in spite of the digital tide. Yet, record shops are irrefutably difficult to sustain in New York. Stores with decades of legacy are being priced out of their homes, while juggernauts like Amazon and Urban Outfitters remain the top vinyl sellers.
Coopersmith hopes that diversifying the space will help him combat the odds. He plans to build a studio in the store’s back room, for example, where instructors can give music lessons. He also mentioned that the back area of the store can be converted into a stage for events.
“It’s not just a record store,” he said. “We want this to be a center for education and events. We want to be part of the community. I just think that’s smart business.”
Raised in Newtown, Connecticut, by a very musical family (his father is a singer/songwriter), Coopersmith moved to New York at age 18. He started going to Sunny’s in 2002, where he sometimes plays bass in the band Nymph. Won over by the neighborhood, he moved to Verona Street in 2009. For years, he worked every Sunday at the 5th Avenue Record & Tape Center in Park Slope, where he developed his name within the community of collectors. Unfortunately, after 42 years of business, 5th Avenue Record & Tape Center will lose its lease in December due to financial issues.
Coopersmith was inspired to open up his own shop based largely on his experiences in Park Slope, where he really fell in love with records.
“Records are beautiful objects. Sometimes just holding a record and imagining what it contains is even better than listening to it,” he said. “I want this to be a shop where you can do that.”
There are high hopes for Coopersmith’s shop, and not just from Coopersmith and superfans like Darryl. The building’s owner Scott Pfaffman — who has seen a half a dozen businesses come and go from 360 Van Brunt since the 1990s — said that he hasn’t heard so much buzz about a business in the space since the acclaimed restaurant 360 opened there in 2002.
“Bene [Coopersmith] is the real deal,” Pfaffman said in a phone interview. “He has lots of contacts and he’s already established in the subculture. Frankly, he doesn’t even need the publicity from newspapers. That record store is going to be famous.”
The storefront space at 360 Van Brunt Street has undergone so many evolutions it could fill a book. Through the decades, Pfaffman, a sculptor, has rented it to eclectic entrepreneurs for bargain prices while he’s lived in a residence behind the store. Most recently, the traveling Spanish-language library Libreria Donceles occupied the space before leaving in June. Once the library left, Pfaffman said he considered renting the space to a beekeeper, a skateboard designer, and a shoe store owner — but ultimately, he chose the enterprising Coopersmith, who also happens to be an independent renovations contractor. Coopersmith set to work re-doing the floors and incorporating old elements of 360 Van Brunt Street into new ones. Old mirrors remain, for example, from its brief days as a spin class venue.
The storefront has housed everything from a saxophone repair shop to a home base for Occupy Wall Street’s Red Hook volunteer arm. With the exception of the traveling library (which had already planned to leave the space), most businesses failed in the space before they got off the ground.
The French restaurant 360 was the glaring exception, offering a novel dining experience back when Red Hook was totally off the mainstream radar. 360’s owner Arnaud Erhart said in a phone interview, however, that while the restaurant was a success, it was never financially — or for him, psychologically — sustainable, so he closed up shop in 2007.
Of course, Coopersmith is operating in an entirely different Red Hook than Erhart was. The neighborhood is decidedly more gentrified and famous than it was in the early 2000s, and he should benefit from the massive music-loving crowd drawn by Pioneer Works. Time will tell whether or not Swoopy’s Groove Palace becomes the second successful business to grace 360 Van Brunt Street in the past two decades, but Coopersmith said he’s hoping to make a lasting impact.
To be a total buzzkill, I asked him if he thought the space might be cursed.
“I do believe in magic. But, 360 [the restaurant] was a huge success, so no way,” he said. “I don’t think this space is cursed. I think I just needed to help make it smile again.”