Inspired by the mushy reminiscence that permeates so much of the internet, and acknowledging that such recollections are something that us bipeds can never seem to get enough of, I am pleased to offer what seems to be the first online photo of The Greatest Record Store That Ever Was: Hoboken New Jersey's Pier Platters. That an institution which is so frequently cited as "legendary" to summon such meager returns on Google is quite baffling, so I like to think this post will apply some much-needed spackle to a shamefully vacant corner of the internet. The photograph was taken by former Pier Platters employee Mr. Otis Ball -- former Bar/None recording artist, former leader of Otis Ball & the Chains, current leader of the Super Karaoke Fun Time Band, and all around splendid human being and proven friend to furry creatures of the greater metro area.
I really enjoyed the record shop recollections that Tracy Wilson had put together over on Lightnings Girl, but when queried via email, she was sad to report that no quality images of Pier Platters were in her stable, either. She suggested I check with Otis, and upon opening the attached jpeg his reply included, my heart skipped a beat just seeing that grimey old window again. Apparently, there is an active Pier Platters remembrance page on Facebook, but after some careful consideration, I decided I'd rather air my laundry in a forum where I can gush without the distractions of irritating thumbnail ads or virtual barfights. So be it.
I honestly can't remember much about the first time I visited Pier Platters, but I'm sure that it was the 80s, I'm sure that I was in high school, and by extension, I'm therefore sure that I had a stupid haircut. I hung out a lot with older friends who went to art school in the city, so by the time I could lie my way out of the house for a night and catch a train to Penn Station, I was able to visit a few of the city's now-mythologized music and alt-culture venues and bars like CBGBs, Mona's, the old See Hear shop, ABC no RIO, and so on. However, as a kid who was obsessed with music and who had a pretty broad-reaching definition of punk rock, my absolute favorite urban destination wasn't in Manhattan, but across the river in Hoboken.
Based on my hazy recollections, Hoboken had exactly two things going for it by the time I was old enough to have more adult experiences there, and those two things were Pier Platters and Maxwell's. During the pinnacle of my many years at WPRB, I would frequently join a carload of my fellow DJs for periodic jaunts to Pier Platters to engage in a holy act we called "Re-Rocking". The purpose of re-rocking was implied by the name: "re-" was short for "replacement", as in, we'd arrive with money that was ostensibly to be used to "replace" crucial station vinyl that had been lost, stolen, or which had been deemed too scratchy from repeated sessions beneath the studio's tonearms. (CDs had only really just begun taking hold at WPRB when I arrived in the early 90s.) Of course, none of us really minded playing PRB's battered copies of records like Double Nickels on the Dime or Swarthy Songs for Swabs, so instead we just used the designated cash to buy things that were too obscure for us to get serviced directly.
Our primary target was always the 7" bin. And when I say "bin", what I really mean is "wall". The end of the 20th century was, of course, the last golden era for that format, with singles acting as cheap calling cards for the miniscule bands my friends and I read about in fanzines like Jersey Beat, Slug & Lettuce, This Zine Sucks, Factsheet Five, etc. (And then later on, we all wrote about the next generation of those same kinds of bands in mags like Green Means Go!, Number Two, Sound Views, and Inward Monitor.) If you were into checking out singles (and everybody was), Pier Platters was like waking up in record store nirvana. Their offerings and prices far outshined those of the shops across the river like Venus or Midnite Records, and were much less likely to adhere to just a few of the more popular underground genres. Bearing in mind that I was too young and too distracted to bother distinguishing the DC harcore of Soulside from either the breezy pop of Flying Saucer, or the wild art-noise of Vertical Slit, I was more than happy to leap into the fray with just about anything that seemed cool and weird. And joyously, pretty much everything seems cool and weird when you're in your early 20s.
Another detail that set Pier Platters a universe away from any modern comparison is the fact that you could smoke there. While shopping. I remember once accidentally losing the cherry from my Parliament (yecch!!) while perusing the used LPs, and worrying that I would A) burn the place down, and B) be hunted down and killed by the notoriously cranky owner, Bill Ryan (whom I got to know in later years and is in truth a sweetheart among men.) Nevertheless, a thin film of nicotine seemed to cover everything in the shop, and the smell of smoke lingered with those of shrink wrap, greasy Chinese takeout, a faint whiff of patchouli, and that particular musty scent that is exclusive to rooms that are filled with old records.
The store had a great run until the mid-90s, when the escalating rents and ongoing gentrification of Hoboken really started squeezing out the quirky businesses that didn't cater to the town's yuppie droves. Maxwell's went through a disastrous period under different owners, and the Live Tonight and Lovesexy music venues both shut down for good. Worsening matters was the chain record store that opened up across the street from Pier Platters. I remember it appearing quite suddenly, and that it remained there defiantly like some erect middle finger of corporate culture. I distinctly recall being in Pier Platters on one particular night, and anxiously wondering why my friend Dorian, who worked there, was sitting behind the counter and crying softly into the receiver of the store's telephone. She sat on a stool, her body framed in the background by a wall of collector-priced 45s. They were mostly Sub Pop or Amphetamine Reptile singles, and unlike the store's everyday stock, these were wrapped daintily in plastic sleeves and could only be had for double-digit prices. As I pretended to flip through cheaper records on labels like Estrus, Homestead, and Kill Rock Stars, Dorian quietly placed the receiver back in its cradle, wiped the runny mascara from her eyes, and attempted to regain her composure.
"Are you OK?", I asked. "Is everything alright?"
"I just found out that Bill's closing the store", she sobbed, and the trembling words made my heart sink like a barrel of toxic waste in the nearby Hudson River.
The store did close a few weeks later, and the process leading up to it was worse than an Irish wake. The "20% off all vinyl" sign that's visible in the above picture leads me to believe the photo was snapped shortly after the inevitable was made public, but as the final day of business grew closer, the discount got bigger and bigger. It hurt so badly to do it, but we (and by "we" I mean "everybody") had such a bad record jones, we couldn't help but show up every day after work to turn more of our paychecks into steeply discounted vinyl. I think by the point that the sign read "80% off", I'd grown so disgusted with myself that I just stopped going until I knew the place had been closed down for good. I felt like I'd been picking loose change from the pocket of an injured friend, and only then calling for an ambulance. I was disgusting.
I was worse than disgusting. I was a record collector. Thank god the shuttering of Pier Platters coincided with my developing a taste for Maker's Mark, or else who knows what I might have started spending my money on.
But I digress. I can't say that Pier Platters itself was too much of an anomaly, since up until the mid-90s, most urban areas probably had at least one great record store that was similarly loose and inviting to the freaks and weirdos who inhabit the fringes of any good art scene. I don't buy records anymore, partly because money is too scarce, but also because the existing venues for the hunt just don't measure up to Pier Platters. Besides, I'm no good for the high-end collector's realm, as most of the music I really like tends to fall towards the grotty and unfashionable end of the spectrum anyway. Not to turn this into any more of an old man diatribe than it's already become, but as it has been widely observed by people who use far more maudlin language than I, MP3s just aren't as much fun. Believe me, I've got thousands of 'em, and it's not their lack of physical substance that leaves me cold, but the lack of any social element in acquiring them. In some sick way, I think of my voyages to Pier Platters with the same kind of mental vocabulary I use when remembering live shows I attended, parties with strangers at the SVA dorms, or the irrational roadtrips my friends and I would frequently embark upon. In one sense, buying records was just mere shopping, but in another, it was a social component of my teens and 20s that nothing in later life has ever really stepped up to replace. I'd be lying if I said I didn't really, really miss it, and I guess that's why I still like talking about it once in a while.