This legendary New York thrift store is a record digger's heaven or hell, depending when you show up and how much time you have. Max Pearl descends into The Thing.
"I am not going to scrap it," said the man. He pulled a magnifying glass out of his pocket and took a close look at the cup. "I'm going to polish it and drink coffee out of it." He spoke with an Eastern European accent, and his tone wasn't so much combative as tricksy, like he enjoyed this kind of thing and did it all the time.
"Come on, man," Burnett said. "Look at that diamond on your pinky, I know you can afford this. It's 25 and I'll throw in this bag of soap." He pulled a gift bag of festively-shaped bars of soap from behind the counter. The man said nothing, so Burnett produced a Duran Duran record and put it on the counter with the soap and the small silver cup. "And you can have the record," he said, breaking into a grin.
"These are cheap diamonds," the man grinned back. "Look, I am first customer here and last customer out. So you give me or no?" Burnett shook his head and they stared at each other for a few seconds before the man threw up his arms in protest, stomped out of the door and took a right on Manhattan Avenue. A nice, long beat passed before he shuffled back into the shop, wallet open, and put $25 on the glass counter, still smirking. "Fine," he said.
This sort of thing has happened countless times to countless employees since The Thing opened 17 years ago. The two-floor thrift shop sits at 1001 Manhattan Avenue, on the main artery of Greenpoint, a historically Polish neighborhood where the top of Brooklyn meets the bottom of Queens. Many of the people who pass by every day simply know it as that overcrowded junk store with the green awning and the piles of used furniture out front. Maybe they've stopped to try on something from the rolling rack on the sidewalk. What many don't know is that, spread out across the back room and a sprawling basement warehouse, there are also hundreds of thousands of used vinyl records.
The records are stacked in leaning towers and stuffed into crates or shelves that would likely span football fields if you placed them in a straight line. The dust is overwhelming—it stains your fingers when you're digging through records; you can feel it coating the front of your top teeth. Kim Ann Foxman, a Brooklyn DJ and former member of Hercules And Love Affair, told me she's emerged from the basement with brown boogers after a long day of digging, just from all the gunk in the air. As if that's not daunting enough, there's another warehouse in the suburbs where the owner keeps his overflow inventory—a stockpile that tips the grand total to over a million records.
Nothing is organized by genre. There is no alphabetization. There are definitely no staff picks with nice little notes about how this album will change your life. Many of the sleeves are so soiled that the titles on the spines are illegible. "You have to have a trained eye and a lot of patience," said Frankie Bones, arguably Brooklyn's first techno star, now The Thing's number-one customer. When I walked into the basement on a Wednesday night in December, Bones already had a five-inch stack sitting on a milk crate. To his left a rotating floor fan was spitting out little clumps of dust and lint. He'd been digging for two hours and would likely keep digging until one of the employees came down to shut off the lights.
"I like to leave with 100 records," he said, talking as fast as he flipped through vinyl. "That way I can keep 33, sell 33 online and throw the other 33 in the trash. And believe me I'm doing people a favor when I throw those out, 'cuz nobody wants those records." These sessions can easily go six hours, either here or at his other favorite spot, Amoeba Records in Hollywood. Watching his gaze dart from one crate to the next, it's clear he loves the search-and-rescue as much as he loves coming home with a suitcase full of 12-inches. "I can't bring people here with me," he said with a short laugh, "'cuz they don't last."
To the average person these shelves are an indecipherable mess of labels and artists, all jumbled up and spread out across five decades. But Bones' knowledge runs so deep that the stacks speak to him, like an archeologist who can read runes. Even blank white-labels and test pressings, which tend to leave no visual clue as to what's inside, can be decoded. "If you know how to read basic etchings in the vinyl," he said, referring to the tiny letters and numbers that pressing plants leave just outside the center of the record, "then you can tell what label it's from. But a lot of people don't get that far into it."
In five minutes I watched him pull a dozen classic dance records off the shelves—records that were ubiquitous for a brief moment in another decade and are now more or less relegated to obscurity. He sells them online for five dollars each, in 25-pack boxes that are organized into genres like "breakbeat hardcore" or "New York house." I flipped through the highlights: Feel The Drive, by the short-lived Italo disco duo Doctor's Cat; Anasthasia from the late '80s Belgian rave outfit T99; a compilation of Florida breaks compiled by DJ Icey. By his count he sold 340 of these boxes in 2016, which puts him at about one a day.
There's always a chance of stumbling on some ultra-rare disco record that makes collectors drool. But in general, this isn't the place to dig for holy grails. "On Discogs there are people who only sell records for hundreds of dollars," Bones said. "But those days here are over. You used to be able to find that stuff here, before 2005 or 2006. Once I even found some Carl Craig records that were, like, the rarest of the rare techno. In this stack"—he pointed to the take-home pile—"I found an Underground Resistance record, but, you know, it's a common one."
He turned and held up a plain white label with small Helvetica text. "Take this record," he said. "This is a label that I worked for, Apexton, back in '87. They had a pressing plant right here in Long Island City. Now this right here is a really half-assed disco record, but on the flip side it has these tracks—'Surprise No. 1,' 'Surprise No. 2' and 'Surprise No. 3.' The first one is just the sound of a train going by, but it's a famous sample, 'cuz it's been used a lot. The second is a toilet bowl flushing and the third is just a whoosh, like wind blowing. And a friend of mine said, 'If you ever find that train record I really want a copy of it.'" It's not that "Surprise No. 1" is hard to find—it's on sale for 99 cents on Discogs—but there's something beyond the economic exchange that Bones and his friends get out of the interaction. "Giving the gift of music, to me, that's all I ever wanted in my life," he laughed.
Bones loves the challenge of sifting through it all, of trying to make sense of the unfiltered torrent of information. "People ask me," he said, moving a milk crate to get at the one underneath it, "is anything here in order? And I'm like, yeah, good luck with that. If it was in order you might get more money for the records but then it wouldn't be digging, would it?"
Then there's the element of unpredictability that keeps even repeat visitors on their toes. "None of the stuff stays the same here," Bones said. "Like sometimes when they clean up they'll move a row over and open up a whole other area. Like this wall right here, I'll finish it up, but then I come back a month later and all new ones are in there. It's like, oh my god, I thought I got that part of the store done, but it's not. And I've been doing this for 15 years!"
Will Burnett has also been visiting The Thing for about 15 years. It only took five or six more before they hired him. "I was coming here when I had any time off," he told me, leaning over the register next to a glass case full of tchotchkes and trinkets. "I'd spend all day looking through records, and then they gave me the job because I was here so much." Burnett's been DJing around New York City for about as long as he's been visiting The Thing, and he makes offbeat house and techno (as Willie Burns) for labels like L.I.E.S. and Unknown To The Unknown, while running his own W.T. Records. He's now the elder statesman in a ragtag group of four or five employees, most of whom are working DJs and incorrigible music nerds. The Thing is his favorite record store in the world.
"It's because I'm cheap," Burnett laughed. He had on the button-up denim shirt he always wears and his trademark big plastic glasses. He's got a low tolerance for bullshit, and the abrupt air of a New Yorker who's been around the block a couple times. "At a lot of the other junk stores," he told me, "they just have regular Barbra Streisand and Johnny Mathis. But this is New York, where everyone's a DJ, so there's more of a focus on 12-inches. And the price is good—two dollars each, no matter what it is."
For that reason, The Thing is known within an international community of dedicated record diggers. "Most of them these days come from South America," he said. "They come and buy clean copies of pop stuff like Whitney Houston—only clean copies—so they can resell it at their shops in Colombia or Brazil. There's not as many Japanese people as there used to be, but you get 'em every once in a while. There's one older British guy who always comes just before Movement in Detroit, then stays for a week before heading to the festival." Ten years ago, he tells me, when hip-hop was more about flipping obscure samples, they'd get rap producers digging around for their J Dilla or DJ Shadow moment, but that's slowed down now.
Regulars like Frankie Bones are good, reliable customers. They know proper digging etiquette, meaning they don't crowd the narrow walkways with record crates, and they put the rejects back where they found them. Others are not as easy to deal with. "The general thing in life—and this is pretty much a life lesson—is you should leave it better than you found it," Burnett told me. It's also customary to acknowledge those around you, he added. "Say hello when you walk up to somebody. Be aware of others and where they're looking. It's just part of being a general normal person." On rare occasions they get a customer who goes beyond pain-in-the-ass and into a special hellish category of their own.
"There's this one really terrible guy," Burnett said, cringing. "He comes down from Montreal every year. Last time he came he wore one of those white spacesuit dust things, with a full respirator mask, the one that covers your whole face, and he had these boots that he taped his suit into. He'd be here all day for a week and he scared everybody 'cuz they were like, 'What is this guy, is it quarantined in here?' So nobody would buy records." To make matters worse, the man in the hazmat suit tried to negotiate over the price. "I had already given him a good deal," he continued, "but in the end he wanted to pay 300 dollars for 400 bucks worth of records. And he sat there looking like he was gonna cry, so I started taking his records and putting them back. Then all of a sudden he had the 400 dollars."
Most people don't come for the two-dollar records. They come for home appliances, books, kitschy landscape paintings, weirdo knick-knacks and other assorted junk. "There's the regular neighborhood people," Burnett explained. "Then there's the antique dealers and the flea market people, the resellers, parents of the kids that just moved here, people from Long Island coming back to visit their old neighborhood, truck drivers—all kinds of people, really."
The neighborhood people he's referring to are a mix of first- and second-generation Polish immigrants—mostly elderly—as well as Latino families and, increasingly, affluent college-educated transplants with jobs in Manhattan. One recent NYU study identified the Williamsburg-Greenpoint area as the fastest gentrifying part of New York City, with a 79% rise in average rent since 1990 (Astoria, Queens is at 28%). As the cost of rent soars, the travel agencies and butcher shops on Manhattan Avenue close and reopen with design-conscious window displays. The Polish restaurants are replaced by gastro-pubs. But The Thing is the same as it was in 1999.
"One of the best things about working here is that it's educational," said Jon Beall, standing in the back of the store by the books section. "It's constantly broadening your realm of knowledge—and not just in terms of music. I mean, you're just surrounded by culture." Beall works Mondays and Thursdays at The Thing, and when he's not at the shop he produces, DJs and performs live under the name Entro Senestre. Since there are no price tags on anything, one of the skills he's had to master is the art of negotiation. "Everything is bargaining," he said. "And that's something I had no experience in before working here. Along the way I've learned how different cultures bargain, or what they usually bargain for."
The Thing's cast of customers ranges widely. "We have nicknames for all of them," Beall laughed. There are little old ladies who shoplift wigs, television producers in search of costumes, neighborhood drunks looking for a quiet corner to pee in, art students who like to dig through the photo collections they keep up front. "This girl just came in here yesterday." Beall said, "She's putting together an art project made from porn, and she specifically wanted gay porn. That might sound odd to some people, but to me I just started digging like, 'I think there's one over here.'" At some point, he said, all the quirky requests and the run-ins with local loonies just started to feel like part of a day's work.
Beall's responsibilities also include hauling boxes off a truck and then deciding where to put them. After that he goes through it all to decide what stays and what ends up in the dumpster out front. The records, like everything else, come from a mix of private collections, estate sales and storage units that go up for auction when their tenant stops paying rent. The Thing's owner, a book collector and flea-market vendor named Isaac Kosman, also owns the iconic East Village shop A1 Records, where price points are way higher than two dollars. A1 staff almost always get first dibs, grabbing records that are obviously collectible to sell at their place before sending them across the East River to The Thing. What ends up coming off the truck in Greenpoint, then, is a mix of major label albums pressed by the millions, and a universe of less commercial records spanning every genre of the last half century.
The sorting process has been like a crash course in what New Yorkers have listened to for the last 50 years. "While I'm cleaning up and going through boxes, if something catches my eye—especially if it's a label I've never heard of—I'll put it on," Beall said. In the process he's begun to scratch the surface on entire worlds of music he otherwise would have skipped. "I never thought I'd be flipping through records and getting interested in Jamaican dancehall," he explained, "or soca records, even salsa. Now if I come across a stack of Latin records that somebody was clearly digging through, I'll check all of those out. A lot of times I'll find good records that were intentionally pulled out, but they probably already had one or two copies, so they left it."
Many of the records once belonged to working DJs. That means the shop ends up with a ton of promotional 12-inches, bootlegs, demos and anonymous edits made strictly for club and radio use. Usually they have little-to-no value on a site like Discogs, but many are extraordinary enigmas that offer a window into one moment in New York music history. "I've found a few strange edits," Beall told me, "like some jackin' white label that I can't even identify. Or it'll just be a drum track, maybe a demo, or a private press record that someone only pressed for themselves back in the '80s or '90s. One time I found a RZA white label with nothing etched into the dead wax, and I was just like, 'What the fuck is this, man?'"
Kosman, the owner, doesn't come around often. He's usually out in a truck somewhere, shuttling records and junk from storage units and apartments to his warehouse in the suburbs, then on to one of his shops. He's also got a daughter in high school, and is apparently so busy between work and home that it took two months of emailing—using one of the shop employees as a middleman—to get him to sit down with me. A few people had mentioned that he was shy and a little reclusive, and after weeks of deflected emails and canceled meet-ups I had come to imagine him as some kind of mad scientist hoarder with wild hair, tiptoeing around towers of junk just to get to across his own kitchen.
What I found out when we finally met one Sunday afternoon at The Thing is that he's perfectly approachable and totally lucid—if a little bit quiet. He's around 50 years old, with kind eyes and a layer of salt-and-pepper stubble, and he sometimes trails off at the end of his sentences. Born in Philadelphia, Kosman moved to New York City in the 1980s after studying painting in art school, and while he was looking for a job he began selling his stuff on the street to pay rent. After that he moved on to buying and selling at flea markets, and in 1993 opened his first shop—Chelsea Books And Records on 12th Street on the west side of Manhattan. Three years later he opened A1 Records, and in 1999 he took his Greenpoint warehouse, where he was keeping overflow inventory from his two shops, and turned it into a storefront of its own, calling it The Thing.
"In the world of junk dealers," he explained, "I'm known as somebody who would buy a whole collection of records. Usually I'll get a phone call, like, so-and-so has a collection, and then I'll go look at it. It mostly comes from connections I've made over the years—people who buy big estates, flea market people, stuff like that."
One time, he told me, he even bought—and then sold—a few thousand records from the collection of Paradise Garage resident Larry Levan. This was in the mid-'90s and at the time Kosman didn't know who Levan was. "I didn't really know about dance music back then," he explained. "It was just a bunch of records that looked like they might be interesting. But it became quickly apparent to me that I had hit an important collection because everybody was talking about it at the flea market. If I had known I would have been a lot more careful, but back then I was just getting things out and trying to move on."
20 years ago he'd buy any lot that "might be interesting," then try to move it as fast as possible. "Back then there was a lot of interesting stuff," he said. "Places were turning over, buildings were being emptied out, and there was a lot more flux in terms of the merchandise. But the game's changed since then." In those days a lot of his inventory came from estate sales—open houses where family members of the recently deceased sell off their belongings one room at a time. The problem with estate sales, and with storage auctions too, is that when you buy the lot, you buy the whole lot, which means it's your job to truck out the worthless crap that came with it. So these days Kosman waits for tips to roll in on potentially valuable collections, rather than gambling on a lot that might have a couple gold nuggets in it.
But he can't be too picky, because the business is based on a delicate equilibrium wherein goods are circulating out at the same rate they come in. "There's no such thing as overbuying for me," he said. "I can't say, 'Well I already have enough records, I don't really need this.' Which is kind of the problem, too, because you can never stop working."
In New York City, space is "of the essence," as Kosman put it, and he's always on the verge of running out. "If you have too much stuff piled up in one place, then that's the other battle—how do you make it accessible and shoppable so people can actually get in there? In this business the biggest challenge is how to curate it, how to move it along, keep it fresh." The specter of clutter is always creeping from the corners of the shop, and it must be controlled, fought back like wild jungle growth. I asked if he'd heard the story of Charles-Valentin Alkan, the French book collector who was found dead in his home, crushed under the landslide of his own book shelves.
"That's kind of a perverse fantasy," he laughed, "because I have actually bought estates from people who have almost been done in by their own hoarding impulses. Thankfully I'm not really a hoarder, in the sense that I do have a lot of stuff but I'm in a race to divest of it." On any given day his staff wheels hundreds of books and records out to the curb to keep disorder from swallowing the shop. That side of the business is back-breaking work, and days spent moving boxes up and down the stairs can leave them sore for the rest of the week. "At some point I'm going to get tired of carrying these records around," he told me, when I asked about his retirement plans. "But I've got so many of them saved up, that it's not like I could just close down tomorrow. I'd need to come up with a plan to wind this all down."
On Tajh Morris's first day as an employee, the basement flooded with rain water and human shit. "That was the worst," he recounted when he stopped by the RA office. "We had to take every single record crate on the bottom shelf and throw it into the dumpster. It took a day and a half, and we had to form, like, a human conveyer belt to pass crates from the basement stairs to the hatch in the sidewalk. I was so sore that I couldn't get out of bed the next day." Morris has worked at The Thing one or two days a week for four years now, and he also DJs locally, spinning disco and house under the name Turtle Bugg.
"I'd say 70 to 80% of the records that I play are from The Thing," he told me. "A1 Records deals with such a high volume that good stuff definitely falls through the cracks." One of his tricks for digging is to pull any record with a quirky low-budget look, since the stuff pressed on tiny labels and private presses tends to be the most interesting. "You know, I look for shitty font, or some basic label design," he explained. "If you see a house record that looks like that, there's a chance that there's something good on there and not a lot of people are playing it."
There's one record that became a staple in his DJ sets just because it's so wacky. "I call it the worst house record ever made," he laughed. "It's not on Discogs or anything like that, and it's just so badly made, but it's hilarious, and there's something great about it because nobody's ever heard it before. I show it to people and they're like, 'What the fuck is this?'" The production quality is abysmal, and the singing is comically out-of-tune, but whoever the guy was, he had chutzpah, and Morris gets a kick out of seeing people's faces when it comes on.
Finding the needle in the haystack isn't as easy as it used to be. "When Will started working there," Morris said, "the place was covered in disco classics and Trax records, plenty of Chicago and Detroit shit, Italo disco, but then a previous generation of DJs bought that shit out." Still, he explained, The Thing has begun to attract a younger crew of Brooklyn DJs who occasionally emerge from the basement with some pretty unbelievable finds. The new generation includes Anthony Naples and his roommate Will DiMaggio, as well as Huerco S.
"As long as you've got an open ear, you can pick up so much dope shit," said Frantz Barosy over the phone from his apartment in Mexico City. "You can find minimal synth records, post-punk records, and of course, house and disco—the classics." Barosy, a New York native and longtime DJ who moved out of town last year, worked at The Thing for a few years beginning in 2006, and he described it as being like a school—"because you meet other people digging and you trade knowledge a little bit." It's also like a living archive, albeit one that's covered in mold and constantly in flux. "If you want a snapshot of what Midtown sounded like in '98 or '99, all those records are there," he told me. "All the tracks that were big at clubs like Sound Factory, Twilo or even The Tunnel—with the hip-hop and reggae records—they were all a part of those scenes."
Kim Ann Foxman was one of Barosy's best customers. When I tracked her down for a brief comment, she wrote back in almost six effusive paragraphs. "I remember a few times going down into the basement to start searching just after lunch," she wrote, "and when I came up it was totally dark outside. It's like a time warp." She started going in 2002, at a time when rock music still reigned in New York City, and thousands of legendary dance records languished, unnoticed, in the stacks at The Thing. She's bagged two-dollar copies of everything from Cabaret Voltaire to Kate Bush, Marshall Jefferson, Kevin Saunderson and Neneh Cherry. "If you invest enough time you can find so much great stuff for your collection," she said. "You might get lucky and find a real gem, or even hit a jackpot by finding a whole crate that clearly once belonged to a DJ with great taste."
"You can also bring a record back from the dead yourself," Will Burnett said, leafing through a newly arrived crate—and that's exactly what he did. One afternoon in 2008, while cleaning out the basement, he happened upon a curious private-pressed record with the letters WOZ written on the cover. The 1981 album turned out be nine tracks of early synth madness, somewhere between minimal wave and psychedelic jazz-funk fusion. It was written by a multi-instrumentalist from Delaware named Paul Woznicki who Burnett later tracked down on Myspace, and the two struck up a correspondence. After a few years of writing back and forth, followed by a couple of jam sessions together in Brooklyn, Woznicki gave Burnett the green light to reissue the album on his label.
"Sometimes you find something that people didn't care about for a long time, then you bring it back and all of the sudden it's cool again. That Dream 2 Science record for instance," he said, referring to the New York house outfit that put out one 12-inch in 1990, "used to be in here everywhere. Nobody ever picked it up. Then it got reissued by Rush Hour and now it's like a 40-dollar record."
The way he sees it, one of the best things about the shop is that it's not tied to the judgements of the collector community. "There's a lot of good music here," he said. "It doesn't have to be rare. It can be Whitney Houston or Patti LaBelle, you know? Something that sold a million copies. That's still good music." In fact, the more time he's spent here, the more he's untethered himself from the world of online commentators and their opinions about who's in and who's out. I asked him what his favorite find of the week was, and he told me he found a scuffed-up copy of The Best Of The Mamas And The Papas. He leaned against a shelf and said, "I'd rather have 50 one-dollar records than one 50-dollar record, you know?"
Tajh Morris, AKA Turtle Bugg, dips into The Thing's sprawling collection in this special mix for RA. In his own words: "I picked out sum random rekkids, gave em a run thru n then we proceeded to blaze ourselves stoopid. Sumwhere inbetween that I scratched one of the records (had to be taken out) and found the Melvin Sparks (RIP) skit. This is the end result, skips, warped media and all."