A chat with John Lefsky

John Lefsky at Jack’s Rhythms in New Paltz. (photo by Dion Ogust)

About month ago, long-time New Paltz resident and Hudson Valley music scenester John Lefsky announced online that he would be closing Jack’s Rhythms, the cool, small record on Main Street that had been in continuous operation since 1990.

For a bit, John could not be reached for comment. Then, John could be reached for comment. He has done a lot for local music, even more for local taste, where in his non-contentious way he has expanded the comfort zones of his customers, including me. It was through John, whom I have known since 1984, that I first heard favorites like Guided by Voices and Lilys, and through John that I learned about a lot of stuff more outré and challenging than that.

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Hey, John. I’m listening to The Troggs right now.
I’m listening to WFMU.

How does WFMU stay alive? Grants and donations?
Yep. In fact, some mysterious donor gave them money and equipment so many of the DJs can broadcast from home. They have a skeleton crew that operates in the studio

Did you feel it was not worth your time to try to stay afloat with state aid and crowdsourcing and such? I know you had said the needle was already pointing pretty decisively downward even before Covid 19.
I did know that. The only way for a record store to make a profit is through used LPs. In the last five or so years, new stores have opened in Kingston, Beacon, Newburgh (I think), and Catskill, and one opened in Woodstock in January or February, or was about to open.

And there’s one in Poughkeespie and one in Wappingers.
There is very little markup for new stuff. I was having more and more trouble finding good used vinyl. We were all competing for the same stuff and they were simply better at finding it than I was. People would often come in with really bad record collections, the usual cliché items, like Broadway showtunes and Barbra Streisand, Time-Life Opera box sets, stuff like that. I took in a lot of used CDs, but the market for CDs in general was dying. People want good used vinyl.

Would a healthy, tourist-filled New Paltz spring have been worth sticking around for?
Maybe, but the coronavirus kinda put a nail in it. I can’t say for sure I would have closed if it didn’t happen. But, again, no used vinyl, no profit. I could already tell I couldn’t pay rent, even half the rent, on what was basically a storage unit for three months or more, plus utilities, and also pay my personal bills.

What are you hearing from the other small business owners in the village? Do you think we’re in for a lot of loss, change, big transitions?
Most of the business owners I know are in the food business and they all seem to be okay with the curbside service thing. I could have done some special orders for people and done curbside service for them, but again, new LPs and reissues don’t pay the bills

It almost sounds like used vinyl can be sold more efficiently without brick and mortar, which is unfortunate.
I dunno. People like to look at the record. It’s a tactile thing. Check the condition and even test-play it in the store

New recorded music doesn’t make much money for anybody, as far as I can tell. Almost wholly demonetized. Remember when we mocked established acts for licensing songs for ads? Now, licensing is the Holy Grail, and no one’s apologizing for it.
The smaller labels managed to keep prices down. I don’t know how much Matador pays its artists, but a lot of them seem to stay on the label and its subsidiaries, 4 AD, Rough Trade, Beggars. And if you order from an indie, it’s usually three to five bucks cheaper than from a national one-stop
But it’s still classic rock that seems to sell at a regular clip — every week, new copies of Dark Side, Rumours, Hendrix, Beatles. And, oddly, Neutral Milk Hotel. But just the second album, of course.

Can we delve into a little history?
Sure. First there were 78s. They used shellac.

What year did you arrive in New Paltz?
Ah, about me. ’81, to go to school at SUNY.

English department?
First education, then journalism. I wasn’t suited for either, so I entered the creative writing program because that was the one I had the most credits for, and I was a lazy student.

It was going around at NP back then.
Yep. And I took a lot of theater classes.

Were you always adventurous with music? Did you always have a curatorial mindset?
When I was living on Long island, there was a record store in Ronkonkoma called Record Stop. That’s where I would go after class, or, sometimes, during class. I was already a big music fan, though — Columbia Record Club and obsessive listening to WNEW, which was probably as free form as a commercial station could get. We are talking early to mid Seventies.
Hanging out at the Record Stop opened me to more kinds of music, making friends with the other obsessives. We’d hang out there for hours. First time I ever heard the Residents was there. I also DJ’d at the high-school radio station. They broadcast over FM. Bad, shortish range, of course.
As I got older my tastes got weirder. I think that’s the opposite of most adults, though when I was still in high school I started to hear things like Robert Wyatt, Kevin Ayers, Bonzo Dog Band, early Gong, and that shifted me away from the mainstream a little.
David Allen [Soft Machine, Gong] even played the record store I hung out in. I’m in the picture. I’m wearing a black Patti Smith shirt, on the left. Glasses. Hair!

Yeah, I had already found you.
It was a Devo party. Maybe ‘78 or ‘79, for the first or second album. Not sure.

As you mentioned, your tastes can get pretty far out on the fringe of anything you’d call popular music.
Yeah, but I also listen to a lot of classic pop.

And in the record-store environment, you are constantly dealing with neophytes, the clueless, and “normies,” an experience you gently lampooned in little anonymized vignettes you would post on social media over the years.
Sure. The whole High Fidelity cliché, and that Onion article about a balcony accident at a Yo la Tengo concert, dozens of record store clerks injured. But one thing I avoided was putting down customers or ragging on a band or record in front of a fan.
If I didn’t like a record and it was a customer I didn’t know, I would say, “People seem to like it/it’s selling well/the reviews are good.” If pressed I might say, “It’s not my thing.” I’ve had a few people really press me. Then I would give my honest opinion. I also would say, “Hey, listen to this. If I saw what a customer was looking at, I might try and play something along those lines.”

Yeah, I mean you played that role for me a number of times.
I’m also not going to play Naked City and Suicide if someone comes in asking for Aimee Mann.

You also worked at the original Rhino Records, when it was really hopping, in the early Nineties
I worked at the video store, Rhino and Convenient Deli [all in the same midtown New Paltz plaza] all at the same time.

There was still a thriving music industry at the time and record stores were right at the heart of it.
We would have midnight release parties on Mondays since new stuff couldn’t be sold until Tuesday. Rhino had live bands. Yo la Tengo played there two or three times, Also Versus, Poster Children, maybe Sebedoh, but not sure.
I think Jack’s and Rhino opened the same year, 1990, but Jack already had a store in Woodstock just called Rhythms.

When did you take over the store?
2009, After Jack was diagnosed. He was thinking of retiring soon before he got sick. Maybe that fall. The store had a 30-year run. That’s a pretty good stretch

Indeed. Are you in New Paltz now? What are you doing?
Yes, New Paltz. I am selling some stock on Amazon. Yes, the dreaded Amazon. It’s mostly leftover CDs and personal stuff. But I have sold a few whacky titles for more money than expected, things that have gone out of print, like an Emmit Rhodes CD for 70 bucks, a Mott The Hoople for 40. Those are not the norm, but it may be enough to keep me afloat for the summer. I have boxes of stuff in my apartment, plus my own stuff that I will part with if the price is right. If I can, I will have a yard sale when things get safer. What else am I gonna do with these used Mellencamp and Bon Jovi CDs?

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Not sure.
Landfill, or four for a buck. This whole thing has forced me to get WiFi at home. I always avoided that. I liked to be cut off when I got home.

Any desire to try a new store?
There may be a space in another existing store, but who knows when that could happen.

That’s an interesting prospect, like a Jack’s module in another store
I may not run it — just me selling stuff on consignment and maybe still ordering new stuff for special orders. It wouldn’t be Jack’s, and I may not even be in charge. Which might be a relief.