Should you ever find yourself driving west on Spring Street in Hastings-on-Hudson, perhaps making your way to the library or down to the train station, look left. The alley you pass is home to Clockwork Records, which sells new and used records. The store, which opened last June, might escape you on first glance—it blends, hides unassumingly—but it’s there. Inside, the owner, Mike James, is quietly pioneering Westchester’s foray into a global revival of vinyl records.
I, like many, have wrongly (we’ll get to this) been operating under the assumption that record stores, at least in suburban areas, and their owners, had gone the way of village shoemakers, delivery milk, and months-long covered-wagon rides out West, an ad for the Homestead Act tucked in Pa’s back pocket. And yet Clockwork, tucked away as it is, drums up a respectable business, attracting people from across the County and the New York metro area to browse its inventory and talk music with James.
Walk inside and James’ perfunctory greeting belies the convivial atmosphere he’s constructed there. The first thing you’ll notice is the size—250 square feet in all with t-shirt- and poster-lined walls, glaring orange paint, and an overflow of records. A visit is everything and nothing you’d expect it to be: everything because it’s the stuff of movie scenes and Baby Boomer lore; nothing because, well, see covered wagon reference.
Only someone like James, 48, a self-proclaimed “born contrarian” who grew up in stores not unlike his own, would set out to reverse the fortunes of music’s physical complements in Westchester. Analog signals occupy a special place in James’ personal history. “It’s a warmer sound,” he says. Opening a record store was a natural progression from 20 years of selling records at shows and sidewalk sales in Manhattan. You might call him a collector, but he’s not one in the traditional sense. “I’m not a hoarder,” he says. “There’s not a record I wouldn’t sell. If it was meant for me to get that record again, I will, and, if not, so be it.”
James’ musical identity began to form in the ’70s. His musical knowledge spans not only decades and generations, but also genres, styles, and artists. “My mother had Irish music playing in the house,” he says. “My sister played piano, my dad was a kid of the ’50s—kind of a greaser type—so we had that music around, too.” As for the most direct early influence, James credits his cousins, with whom he’d spin the likes of The Kinks, The Beatles, Cat Stevens, Elton John, Kiss, Black Sabbath, and everything in between.
Spin sessions happened in Yonkers, where James was raised. “We used to go to Music Man in Getty Square,” says James, along with Mad Platters and Rockin’ Rex! on Central Avenue. “As we got older,” he says, “we’d venture into Manhattan and shop at places like Bleecker Bob’s in the West Village, Free Being Records, The Rat Cage, Second Coming.”
He wields the typical record-store-rat qualities in spades—edgy, nonconformist, and counter-culture enthusiast. “I like what other people don’t like, or what they think is weird,” he says. “That appeals to me. I love Mad magazine, National Lampoon. I’ve always been drawn to the quirkier things in life.”
The genres and bands under James’ umbrella of approval are vast, but he leans “toward underground music: punk, rock, and hardcore punk from CBGB in the ’80s.” Clockwork’s website says it specializes in “’60s-current underground hardcore, punk, and metal,” but he’s not particular about what he’ll carry. “I try to carry everything,” he says. “I don’t want to alienate. I cater to everybody because I think the bottom line is we’re all into music; it doesn’t matter what type.”
And it’s not just about the music. “Black Sabbath, an important band for me, I was turned onto them initially from their dark imagery; the art drew me in.” Lyrics, too: Printed on the back of the jacket, James says their accessibility facilitates delivery of the subtleties—the politics, pop culture, and moods hidden in their lines. “In reading [Black Sabbath’s] lyrics, they were talking about the futility and hypocrisy of politicians, war machines, and senseless killing,” he recalls. “I would tell my friends these guys are singing about real [stuff], not about traveling through the green grass with the unicorns and fairies.”
James’ experience with Black Sabbath’s Paranoid typifies what he believes is driving a rebound in demand: lured by the look, hooked by the sound, and educated by the lyrics. “I’ve always thought music, although low-brow compared with philosophers, presents knowledge, but in layman’s terms,” he says. “It’s the same message, but at the street level.”
Clockwork is the County’s piece of a vinyl resurgence that is happening around the world. According to the New York Times and Nielsen SoundScan, which tracks music sales in the United States, when Daft Punk released its newest album, Random Access Memories, in May of 2013, an impressive 6 percent of first-week sales were vinyl. In 2012, a not-so-measly 4.6 million vinyl albums were sold. Last year, sales hit six million, roughly 2 percent of total sales. And it’s not always an either/or scenario: New LPs are now often sold with a digital download included.
James’ store bridges the gap between the digital age, which has effectively siloed music onto virtual stores, personal computers, smartphones, cloud storage systems, etc., and music as a social, interactive, and universally appealing commodity, something that begs to be talked about and shared. The digital age has made music more accessible and prolific than ever, which makes Clockwork, a meeting place to discuss, exchange, and buy music, potentially more relevant than ever. “Like-minded people are meeting here from different communities, and that’s good,” says James. “It’s a place where everything gets checked at the door: race, religion, social status—we’re all just kind of into music.”
“It’s a niche business,” he says. “I don’t have aspirations to be the next Tower Records. It’s a way of doing retail, but also a clubhouse. People come in here and we have great conversations; I learn from them, they learn from me. The young kids, too, they’re on their journey. I have kids from all over Westchester who come here for old stuff, like Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, bands that haven’t been in the spotlight.”
James lives just five minutes from Clockwork in Hastings; he and his wife of 20 years moved there from Yonkers in 2008. His children are 23, 19, and 16, and all three work at the store, which he opened after a 20-year career in law enforcement. When asked why his store is able to survive in Hastings, James says that Westchester has “people who want to support mom and pop stores and who want something different.”
“Any retail store will take up to a year to find its customer base, but we’ve had a very good response,” he says. He’s doing everything he can to drum up publicity, such as in-store signings with the Misfits and Agnostic Front—old pals from the City. Clockwork Records is co-presenting a series of music-themed movies at the Alamo Drafthouse, and he even lured Natalie Jacobson, author of Outlaw Efforts, to the store for a book signing.
It’s unclear whether his store will gain enough traction to remain open long-term, but his love for music isn’t going anywhere. “I’m always learning and finding out about new music. If you’re a bibliophile, there’s never a point in your life where you’ve read every book and it’s over. Once you’re into what you’re into, you’re always on a quest for knowledge.”