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Rough Trade Is Bringing Counter-Culture to Midtown

By Aleksa BrownJun 9 2021

“When you step into a Rough Trade store, you’re leaving the world behind you,” says Stephen Godfroy, co-owner of the renowned independent record store chain founded in London in 1976. “There’s a sense of refuge, of being somewhere where you can just enjoy and celebrate music.”

And now, with the opening of the new Rockefeller Center store, which is just steps away from Radio City Music Hall, visitors can relish that intimate, immersive energy from the moment they walk in, with a vinyl inventory as vast and impressive as the one at the previous Williamsburg location—despite a smaller footprint—and special details like an enveloping night-sky-black ceiling, signage that evokes analog train station message boards, and an original mural by Los Angeles–based artist Robbie Simon, whose résumé includes collaborations with record labels and musicians alike.

“There’s a clarity and purity to the space,” Godfroy says of the new Manhattan home, which is the chain’s fifth store and the only shop outside the United Kingdom. With a mostly monochromatic color palette and displays built to invite browsing, the store’s pared-back design puts the spotlight on expressive album art and great records themselves—the chain’s main offering for the 45 years they’ve been in business.

“A Rough Trade store is foremost a place of music, discovery, and celebration,” Godfroy says. ”You may go in with one thing in mind—one record—but it’s the two, three, four, five other things you find when you’re in the store that really bring joy and keep you coming back.”

For the Rough Trade staff, helping their customers discover new artists and albums means going beyond labels like genre to explore all the sounds and beats that spark—even if it’s something seemingly out of left field.

“A lot of joy we get, particularly when we’re behind the counter at the store, is when we’re able to recommend music to someone that they wouldn’t have previously thought they’d like,” Godfroy says. “For example, when they discover a country record that they never would have imagined listening to. If you look at the classification of the genre, it’s country, and maybe that would have stopped them in their tracks in the past, whereas helping them discover it can break down those barriers.”

This approach of moving past preconceived notions also played a part in Rough Trade’s decision earlier this year to relocate from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, to Rockefeller Center, a change that Godfroy says is right in line with their ethos.

“Rough Trade is fiercely independent, and we have a self-determined trajectory,” he says. “There’s a degree of rebelliousness about it, in that we don’t really feel comfortable being classified. If we get the opportunity to defy convention, then that appeals to us; this move certainly has that.”

In addition to defying convention, the move also enables Rough Trade to put down roots in a part of town primed to reach more people and introduce new artists to a wider audience of new listeners—and vice versa—whether visitors are making a trip to the destination store from across town or across the world.

“Manhattan has a history of great record stores, and the fact that it doesn’t really have one at the moment called out to us to say, ‘Look, there really needs to be a record store in this global, iconic location,’” Godfroy says. “We definitely felt we could rise to that challenge. We aren’t moving to a neighborhood where there’s a proliferation of record stores or counter-culture representation by any stretch, so we feel that we can bring that, and hopefully others will follow suit.”

With its classic Manhattan backdrop and storied surroundings, the Rockefeller Center location opens a new chapter for music lovers making the trek to Midtown to flip through record crates—as Godfroy did in his early years.

“I have great memories of Midtown myself,” he says. “On a personal level, when I was a teenager, I did a crate-digging tour of the U.S., and I managed to coincide the dates when I was in New York City with Beastie Boys playing at Roseland Ballroom, which was just around the corner from Rockefeller [Center] at the time.”

Fans of live events will be pleased to hear that Rough Trade and Rockefeller Center will co-present performances at the famed Rainbow Room and outside on the Plaza—in addition to artist signings in the store itself, like last weekend’s event with Japanese Breakfast’s Michelle Zauner. The new outpost also brings the opportunity for emerging artists and established acts alike to reach a wider audience of would-be vinyl shoppers at a time when old-school record sales are at an all-time high.

“We’ve had a presence in New York since 2013, and from that date, the demand for vinyl has continued to rise and shows no signs of abating,” Godfroy says, noting that the rise in streaming has only added to the appeal for fans to own music they truly cherish, and to do so via vinyl.

And while it’s hard to pin down the precise reason for the rise in LPs’ popularity, it may have something to do with slowing down and being fully present while the record spins, whether you’re sitting solo in your living room or appreciating the playlist at Rough Trade at Rockefeller Center. Above all, the store—and its new prominent location—seeks to bring people together through a shared love of music, and to make the simple pleasure of fully present listening to great records (regardless of genre) accessible for more people to discover and enjoy.

“The Rough Trade customer, they are all ages, all tastes,” Godfroy says. “One characteristic that unites them all is that they are curious of mind, and I think that’s the common thread. It enables us to connect with the majority of people, irrespective of background and what have you. It’s a really exciting step for us, and we look forward to reaching the broader, more diverse audience that we hope to reach through the new store.”

Rough Trade is open daily from 10am–8pm at 30 Rockefeller Plaza on 6th Avenue.

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