I speak, of course, of the massive Cutler's Records sign. The Cutler's sign was not only literally huge, but it was metaphorically huge in the mind of anyone who lived in New Haven. It was the most important physical marker on Broadway. Seeing the Cutler's sign -- which was neon, and in my childhood, I could swear, had a record moving on the turntable, though maybe I'm making that up -- you knew you were here. You couldn't possibly be anywhere else. Cutler's wasn't a chain. It was of New Haven and for New Haven. You could buy recordings of every Yale singing group you never wanted to hear, and all the local bands who maybe you wanted to hear, or maybe you didn't, because the bass player never called you even though he said he would, that asshole. People who knew Cutler's as the small storefront it's been in recent years have absolutely no way of understanding how phenomenal it once was. It's not merely that it used to be bigger. It's that it used to be bigger and what they had was music. Just music. There was a huge classical side, where your longhair types could find whatever it was they wanted (don't ask me, I don't know a thing about it), and there was a room full of 45s, where you could find every pop hit you'd ever hummed to yourself absent-mindedly and then couldn't get out of your head even though you couldn't remember the title. I know this because I used to be the girl in the 45s room and a large part of my job was to deal with customers who came in and asked me to sell them the song they couldn't remember. "It went like this: 'ooooh, baby, I said, yeah, yeah, yeah....'" these people would sing. If I didn't know the song, I'd go get someone else to help. Sam, there was a guy named Sam who knew every disco tune ever (this was not the same man who ran the classical side, Sam Carmack). There was Bob, who knew pretty much everything in every genre, probably because he'd been working at Cutler's since I was around four years old. The staff was incredible. It shifted a lot -- people tend to come and go in record stores, though there's always a core staff that stays forever -- but you knew that if someone was working there, they knew their shit in at least one category. And we had reference works to help us out if we were stumped, though I can't remember us using them more than once or twice in the few months I worked at Cutler's. The staff just knew the material. And we were good at helping people find that song, and we'd sell them the 45, and they'd leave the store with their little paper bags and head home, happy as clams.
My tenure at Cutler's was very short. It was the first job from which I got fired. I never knew why. After practically begging for a job -- Al Lotto hired me, finally, and I don't really know why -- I spent maybe four months working for Phil Cutler. It was 1988. I don't think I'd graduated from high school yet when I started, though perhaps I had, just barely. I was living in a mouse-infested apartment on Elm Street which I was subletting from three Yale students, and had the shortest walk to work imaginable. I was paid very little money, but it was all right: my rent was $250 a month and I basically had no substantial expenses beyond that. Then one day I went to clock in and there was no time card for me. I went to Al to ask where my card was. He said, "It's not there? Hang on, let me see if it's still in the desk." And when he came back to me, he looked unhappy. "Phil says you can go home," he told me. Ever cool, I said, "What?" and burst into tears. Poor Al. He gave me a hug and said, "Don't worry, you'll be fine." He didn't seem to understand what had happened any more than I did. I walked back to my disgusting apartment, cried a little more, and then hit the streets to find another job. Around lunchtime, Atticus offered me a job, and I became a bookman.
But Cutler's remained the best record store around, even if I was angry at the owner for canning me. Other new record stores came and went. I remember Amperes, and Strawberries, and Sam Goody's. I remember the used record stores downtown, which often seemed to be staffed by refugees from Cutler's -- you saw the same people flitting in and out all the time.
It is because of the time I spent in the record stores on Broadway -- Cutler's and Rhymes -- that when Nick Hornby's High Fidelity came out, I was able to smack myself on the head over and over again and say, "oh my god, this is the best book I've ever read." It's because of the time I spent in those stores that, when I first read Laurie Colwin's Goodbye Without Leaving, I was able to see so, so clearly, Fred's Out of Print Records, the store where Geraldine hangs out.
In a few days, Cutler's will close. I've gone and finally done something I never thought I would do: I bought Cutler's t-shirts. I now ardently wish I had one of the shirts that had the classic drawing of Cutler's*. But I was too proud to buy one when they were still making them. I gave a t-shirt to my brother this past weekend. He was visiting us -- an unusual occurrence -- and when I told him Cutler's was closing his jaw dropped and he said, "Ok, I gotta go tomorrow and buy --" "Don't worry, I've got it. I already got you one." If I could have, I'd've bought the neon sign, too.
*The drawing can be seen in the Hendricks/Goetzmann book About Town, and don't even get me started on that right now. But if you want to buy a copy you can: contact the William Reese Company http://www.williamreesecompany.com/shop/reeseco/contact.html