Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Main Street: The dowdy world goes shopping

[Postcard from the collection of Maggie Land Blanck. Used by permission.]

That's Main Street in Hackensack, New Jersey, pictured on a postcard postmarked 1971. That's Main Street as I knew it, circa 1969 and 1970, when it was my introduction to bookstores and record stores, via a short bus ride from my town of Ridgefield. I was in middle school then, not old enough to drive.

When I think about Main Street, I can reconstruct it only as isolated points of interest amid long stretches of commercial something-or-other. There was the Relic Rack, my first record store (my friend Chris Sippel, with whom I first made these bus trips, was listening to oldies). I bought my first blues records at the Relic Rack, the Columbia double-album The Story of the Blues. Across the street a little further up, there was Woolworth's, where I found Canned Heat's Living the Blues in the $1.99 section, back when every Woolworth's, Kreskge, and W.T. Grant had one or more bins of bargain LPs. Then there was Prozy's Army-Navy, where I once bought a blue web belt. Further up the street and back across was Hackensack Record King (such modesty in that name). I can remember buying John Lee Hooker and Canned Heat's Hooker 'n Heat there. Then the Hackensack Library, where I borrowed Art Tatum records and books on T.S. Eliot. And up another block or so, Womrath's, the first great bookstore I ever knew.

Imagine: a large independent bookstore on a downtown street in a modest-sized city. I remember many books from Womrath's: James Joyce's Ulysses (a Modern Library hardcover), Dashiell Hammett's novels, Jorge Luis Borges' Labyrinths, and Frederick Copleston's multi-volume History of Philosophy, small paperbacks whose bindings tended to crack when the books were opened. I can also remember standing in Womrath's and puzzling over Wisconsin Death Trip, which seemed too scary to bring home.

Near the end of the shopping territory was a corner shoe store where I bought Adidas and Converse All-Stars and Pumas. The Pumas were Clydes, named for the Knicks' Walt Frazier ("Clyde," apparently in honor of a hat like one that Warren Beatty worn in Bonnie and Clyde). Yes, that's the Walt Frazier who now does commercials for Just for Men hair coloring.

The strangest store on Main Street, so strange that I can't place it in relation to the others, was Wehman Brothers, which seemed to be partly a book warehouse and partly a used-book store. The storefront windows were always filled with tools, plumbing fixtures, and pieces of machinery. The attraction of this place for me was an enormous inventory of Dover paperbacks -- not as cheap as Dover's Thrift editions, but still modestly priced.

There were two Wehman brothers, old guys who might be described as heavy-set Collyer brothers. One smoked cigars and sat behind a counter piled with papers and books. He claimed to have known Andy Razaf, the lyricist for "Ain't Misbehavin'," "Black and Blue," and "Honeysuckle Rose." I remember the other brother once showing me a picture of a bodybuilder, minus clothing, and asking if I wanted to buy it. All I could think of saying was "No." After that, I didn't go back. Further strangeness: I have now discovered, via Google, that the Wehmans were apparently also publishers, reprinting books on Freemasonry, hypnosis, magic, sexuality, and UFOs.

My teenaged shopping habits mirrored those of the general population: though I visited Womrath's all through college (supplemented by the Gotham Book Mart and the Strand Book Store in Manhattan), I forsook the rest of Main Street as soon as I could drive to Garden State Plaza in Paramus, the home of Sam Goody's, a then-great record store. Life in malltime had begun.

I still have every record and book I've mentioned in this post. Of the stores I've mentioned, only Hackensack Record King, now simply The Record King, remains.


July 2021: The Record King is closing because of Main Street redevelopment. And as I now know, the “Wehman brothers” were Joe and Murray Winters. The Winters bought the Wehman business in 1936 and moved from Manhattan to Hackensack in 1953 — or was it 1962? The store closed in 1979. Two articles from the New Jersey newspaper The Record1, 2 — tell the story, with two dates for the move. Thanks, librarian.

Hackensack, New Jersey (Postcards from the collection of Maggie Land Blanck)

Related posts
The dowdy world goes to a party
The dowdy world on film
The dowdy world on radio
Record stores

comments: 2

John Nyman said...

Let me dust off this old memory! I once worked at Wehman Brothers' Hackensack store in the early '60s. They took pity on the kid who was only getting by on his paper route money, so they allowed me to help out on Summer weekends: cleaning, moving stuff around, erasing pencil marks on used books, even painting their for-storage outbuilding across the street on Moore Street. The basement was stuffed with their line of adult cartoon joke books, piles of old National Geographic and Playboy magazines and every other old book imaginable. There was plenty more on the second floor too. I took my salary in money and comic books. The two brothers chewed on cigars and pipes all day and I inhaled more than a fair share on second hand smoke and book dust. Good times.

Michael Leddy said...

John, thanks for sharing that here. I didn’t know that there was a basement or a second floor. I wonder if they could have been at a different address in the early ’60s.