Jesse Moskowitz was happy to just go for a walk in the sunshine on his days off. After all, he spent more than half a century underground in the Times Square subway station presiding over one of the city’s cultural landmarks, the Record Mart.
David Gonzalez reports from corners of the city in words and pictures.
The streets above may be called the Crossroads of the World, but the Record Mart’s music-mad customers knew Jesse’s store was where the cultures really came together. In a city of dizzying diversity, he spotted trends ahead of the pack. He even started his own label – Montuno – which featured groundbreaking albums by the likes of Totico, Yambu, and Manny Oquendo and Libre. Whether it was New York salsa, Cuban son, Haitian compas or Mexican mariachi, the Record Mart had it – as well as a staff whose knowledge could stump the most learned musicologist.
The store is still there. Jesse is not. He died in New York City on May 7. He was 79.
“He created an institution that was in the center of everything, in the pulsing heartbeat of the city,” said Pablo Yglesias, an author and D.J. who produced the recent compilation “Subway Salsa,” in honor of Mr. Moskowitz’s label. “What he did was make this music available to everybody. You heard it, you saw it and you could talk to people if you didn’t know anything.”
Mr. Moskowitz had briefly started out selling clothes in the Union Square subway station when a family friend persuaded him to take over a record store there in 1958. By 1961, he trekked uptown to open the Times Square outpost. Both locations had plenty of potential customers streaming past daily, including many Puerto Ricans who were working in factories and might be looking to let loose on the weekend with the latest tunes.
“He didn’t start out as a Latin record store; he sold jazz and show tunes,” said his son Lou, 44, who now runs the store. “But when the Beatles and Elvis hit, it was a good time to get into the record business. He noticed his customers were Puerto Rican, and he started taking requests – and it turned into this.”
Along the way, he cultivated a loyal staff and gave them the freedom to put together a deep selection of music. When one of his employees noticed Mexican groups on television in the 1980s, he persuaded Mr. Moskowitz to stock the music, which sold briskly among the city’s growing Mexican community.
Just as important, he pushed his employees in their pursuits outside the store.
“Whenever somebody came here to work and they were young, he would tell them they had to go to school,” Lou said. “If the kid was decent, he’d tell him he’d always have a job here. Right now, we have a kid from Africa, Mamadou, who’s going to school because we adjusted his schedule.”
Even as record stores popped up all over the place on the streets above, Mr. Moskowitz kept it simple, even closing the Union Square location.
“All those other stores – Disc-o-Mat, King Karol, Crazy Eddie – they all went out of business,” said Harry Sepulveda, the store’s buyer, who has been there since the early 1970s. “We were small, but specialized. And we survived. Jesse laid the groundwork for that.”
Granted, the store – which was closed for several years while the station was renovated – has had to adapt. It sells a lot of headphones and small electronics, while much of the floor space has been given over to DVDs of everything from boxing and Jesus to blockbuster movies and music videos. But lest anyone forget, a display case and bin featuring the essentials of any Latin music collection occupy a place of honor at the entrance.
“This will remain a Latin music store,” Lou said. “It’s our identity.”
As for the man who created this haven known among connoisseurs from Jersey to Japan? The measure of the man went beyond the music. He cared for his children. He cared for his workers. They called him honest and fair – traits that were rare in the rough and tumble world of Latin music.
He helped define the music of a generation, but it did not define him. Lou recalls his father savoring simple things, like going to the 92nd Street Y, the gym or the movies. And even though he lived in Manhattan, he was proud of his Brooklyn roots.
“He used to cut out articles about people from Brooklyn who were successful or contributed in a positive way,” Lou said. “He even cut out some negative ones, too. He said everybody’s from Brooklyn if you go back far enough.”
Lou stopped talking, his clear eyes rimmed with tears. He gave a half-smile that needed no explanation. In the silence, the music drifted from the sales floor. It was “Pueblo Latino,” a 1970s classic about Latino unity and progress.
The sound was brassy and proud.
Source: New York Times