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Monday, August 25, 2008

Briggs & Briggs

I sold vinyl.

For a period in the mid-1980's after the music department at Brandeis kicked me out for loitering, I had to find gainful employment. I ended up in retail sales selling phonograph records in Harvard Square.

A few of my more talented colleagues at Brandeis had been more fortunate. They landed professorships at Princeton, MIT, UC Davis, and Harvard. But for those of us who had to find alternatives, the family-run music store Briggs & Briggs readily accepted a steady stream of aspiring musicians and starving composers with open arms. We were classical music refugees looking for a home and a modest income. Briggs & Briggs offered us a community to live in, and minimum wage.

The Briggs & Briggs Music Store (Established 1890) was at the heart of Harvard Sq. Although it was said that Briggs never existed, the shop was owned and operated by the Humphreys family since 1927. The "old man" (or Mr. B) paced around pretending to be useful, while his sons would run the operation. Fred handled the sheet music and scores at street-level. His brother would manage the audio department downstairs in the basement. Given that the owners did not have any formal knowledge about music, it was up to the employees to run the show...and we did. But the Humprhreys were decent people, and what they lacked in musical knowledge was made up by their personal integrity and commitment.

Briggs & Briggs at 1270 Mass Ave in Cambridge in 1999

For me, the dusty and worn music shop looked like something out of the 1950's or earlier. Tucked away high on a shelf was an antique plaster statue of Nipper, RCA's iconic dog listening to his trademark Victrola ("His Master's Voice").

We also used an antique cash register, and had to calculate the total amount, plus sales tax on each purchase while simultaneously advising another customer on the pros-and-cons of available recordings of the complete Beethoven Sonatas.

The staff was comprised of an amazing collection of characters. There was Ruth - the soon to retire manager of the Record Department - who was functionally already in retirement. She would sit behind the desk with a scowl and flip through tattered and worn index cards - which served as the sole inventory system and product database. I never saw her smile.

Ruth's successor-elect and de facto heir to the Record Department Manager position was John. John was (and is) a modernist poet. A transplant to Boston from Texas, he had gone to university for law but some how ended up as a Bohemian artist, writing poetry and listening to classical music. His wife Anne, a musician and music researcher in the making would often drop by and join in on the excitement. John had an obsession with military history and terminology, and was apt to make analogies and comparisons as such. He thought strategically, but usually acted with benevolence and charm. However on occasion, when a customer got out of line or became obnoxious or unreasonable, John would put on his uniform and flex his military prowess.

One such episode occurred when a Harvard undergraduate returned an expensive multi-record set of an opera. He said that there was surface noise on the vinyl. As manager, John accepted the record back and allowed him to take a fresh shrink-wrapped copy of the set. The next day the student returned again complaining that the new set had the same problem. John politely explained that he would probably find the same issue with any phonograph record, but the student became obnoxious and persisted with his demand to exchange his "defective" records. Finally John exploded in anger and in non-compromising terms informed the student that he was no longer allowed to shop at Briggs & Briggs. He had been banned from the store. The student, having lost his battle, retreated in disgrace.

Many who worked at Briggs & Briggs, such as Ruth, had been there for decades. The Humphreys had grown up working in the shop and been there all of their lives. My short tenure began when Tom Ryan, a violinist, resigned to study early music in Europe with Kuijken. (Tom is the elder brother cellist Dan Ryan of Musician's of the Old Post Road).

Briggs & Briggs never advertised, never had sales, and never played music in the shop. It was considered too much of a distraction for the hardcore music aficionados who worked there or frequented as clients. It was a way of avoiding fist-fights over which recording to play. Silence is golden. But word-of-mouth advertising and random street traffic kept the store afloat. I do remember that Richard Dyer once wrote a nice article about the store for the Boston Globe.

For professional musicians, Briggs & Briggs was a consistent and dependable source of artistic nourishment. At some point every musician in town would be obliged to visit the store to purchase sheet music and/or recordings. There weren't very many alternative music outlets in the Boston/Cambridge area at that time. In an era before the Tower Records and HMV superstores came to Boston, Briggs & Briggs offered a solid selection and personal service.

I remember some of the notable musicians would stop by to acquire a new recording or just to chat. The late Patricia Zander, a pianist who accompanied the young up-and-coming cellist from Harvard named Yo-Yo. Conductor Ben Zander would drop in too, and he would usually create a stir. I remember that he was very forceful in his request to put a large poster for his forthcoming concert prominently in the window. John held his ground against it, although Zander exerted the force of a tornado.

Another time, after helping a customer find some Renaissance choral music, I took his credit card. It read "Nelson Goodman." I looked up and inquired "are you the Nelson Goodman - the philosopher?" He looked surprised, but replied "yes." When I told him that I had just finished reading his book Languages of Art and was very impressed with it, he came back and replied "that makes two of you - you and my wife."

I remember other "visitors" such as composer/conductor "Olie" Knussen, British musicologist Arnold Whittall, and Dutch pianist/accompanist Tan Crone (who studied at NEC).

Apparently, in the 1930's Duke Ellington had dropped into the store and played a few numbers on the piano.

Celebs would drop in as well. I remember chatting about leftist politics with Abby Rockefeller as she picked up some folk recordings prior to her visit to Cuba. One night Joan Kennedy (Ted's Ex) and her boyfriend walked in just seconds before the 6 PM closing time. Joan is an amateur pianist and classical music advocate. She autographed my coffee-stained napkin from Au Bon Pain before leaving, and to this day I still have it.

John stayed ahead of the curve by reading Gramophone cover-to-cover every month, and ordering all of the new releases as soon as they were available. This gave us a slight edge over our main competitor - the Harvard Coop - which was larger but less efficient and not as personal. The Coop did have a dynamite expert in vocal music - mezzo soprano Pamela Dellal - who trumped our expertise in operatic music quite decisively. But, Briggs & Briggs had a penchant for recordings of the more esoteric and obscure forms of expression: avant garde contemporary music, early music, world music, and anything off-beat and bizarre.

Often customers would come into the store looking for the most obscure and unobtainable items. John prided himself on going the extra mile to obtain these recordings on special order. But customers would often listen to WGBH's Robert J., who had a habit of playing and specifically recommending selections from CDs that were out-of-print, not distributed to stores (i.e. Musical Heritage Society), or just not available in America. For this reason Robert J. was the "bane of our existence."

Everyone had their own personal clientele. I remember a blind man who would come and consult with exclusively with John about recordings of classical piano music. He would listen exclusively to Haydn, Mozart, and perhaps SOME Beethoven. That was about it. John tried to get him to broaden his scope of listening, but ultimately the customer couldn't escape the comfort zone of that particular period of music. (I guess that if you are going to be limited to one stylistic period, that is not a terrible place to be stuck in).

My "clients" included Boston-area composers. I remember selling a truck-load of modern music records to a then emerging composer Susan Blaustein, including the complete Alban Berg set on DG.

Sales people from the record distributors would drop by periodically, or call in for their orders. I remember visits from Dennis Miller - composer, organizer of Boston ISCM, and presently a media artist and music professor at Northeastern University.

John would skillfully negotiate our purchases in such as way as to maximize the number of "promos" we would receive. In lieu of a decent salary, we would be fed a constant stream of new releases as demos, and my formative record collection of today was built largely with this perk. But even with this fringe benefit, we would often spend a sizable chunk of our meager weekly salary on additional records or scores, which the Humphreys would kindly provide to employees at cost.

For for lunch hour I would often step out the door and head over to the Yenching Chinese restaurant nearby for the bargain MSG lunch special. It's still there today. In nice weather I'd sit outdoors at Au Bon Pain, and watch activity around the Chess Master. Surprisingly, after all these years and changes in Harvard Square, the Yenching restaurant and the Chess Master (Mr. Murray Turnbull) are still around.

Turnbull has been sitting there since 1982, rain or shine, hot or cold. He keeps a "super-soaker" water gun by his side to ward off pigeons that aim for him or his chess board. The hat he wears is functional.

Sometimes for lunch I'd go just next door to Bartley's for a burger and fries. While the prices have gone up over the decades, the atmosphere and great taste remain. My favorite item was a burger on their menu with lettuce, tomato, onion, and Russian dressing.

Working at Briggs & Briggs was convenient too. I was essentially homeless, but fortunately for the duration I could sublet the rent-controlled apartment of composer Ezra Sims a few doors down the street at 1168 Mass Ave while he was out to the country on a fellowship. It was only a 2 minute walk to work. Alternatively I would house sit for wealthy people in Cambridge who needed a caretaker.

Sometimes it was hard to tell where the world of Harvard Square street performers ended and the sanctuary of the music store began (although there was a subway-like turnstyle that marked the boundary into and out of the record department). I recall that one regular customer, Mark DeVoto (now Professor of Music emeritus at Tufts University), grabbed a portable electronic keyboard and began banging out a vigorous blues. Everyone in the store, staff and customers alike, were greatly entertained.

Change is inevitable. A new technology was on the horizon. A thin silvery disk arrived one day, and mystified us all. It was called the Compact Disk or "CD" for short. Everyone looked at it with awe, and a degree of scepticism. How could this new media ever catch on? For one thing, it was so expensive, and so little music was available on it. It was also hard to display in the store with its awkward packaging, and the liner notes were so small that you needed a magnifying glass to read them. Yet the LP had replaced 78's. Perhaps the CD would eventually replace the LP. The sound quality was reported to be superior, and listeners wouldn't have to deal with annoying pops, scratches, and skips inherent with vinyl records. Another big selling point was that CDs don't need to be flipped over or changed as frequently as records. Our future as vinyl salesmen was about to change - forever.

John, who was ultimately promoted to Manager, was an early adapter of the CD, and for a time successfully rode the wave of new product releases in the digital format. After Christmas I left my position at the store to pursue other things, and was replaced in the record department by yet another Brandeis composer (Stephen Clarke?) with a penchant for Expressionism (he later set some of John's poems to music). Stephen had an artistic flair, and made beautiful custom signs for the record and CD bins. Eventually John left the store when his wife Anne got a teaching job in Chicago and transitioned the Record Department Manager role over to Steve (who is now at Barnes and Noble at the The Harvard Coop).

Briggs & Briggs was forced to leave the Mass. Ave. location across the street from Harvard in 1999. The landlord raised the rent beyond reason. It is now an Adidas sports store. The Humphreys downsized and relocated for a time into a storefront up the road in Porter Square. But this didn't last for long, and Fred Humphreys was forced close the store for good in the year 2000. All that remains is the memory.

You can read more about the demise of Briggs & Briggs, in the Harvard Crimson...