A visit to Turntable Lab on 10th Street
Text and photos by Stacie Joy
The older I get the less new music I am exposed to, which is why I am always particularly interested in EV Grieve’s Fridays at Five and curated musical selections. It’s turned me on to local rocker Liza Colby, Princess Nokia’s “Tomboy” and THICK’s “Green Eyes,” among others.
In this A Visit To … I get the opportunity to explore new-to-me music at Turntable Lab with owner Pete Hahn and his Turntable staff.
Pete arrives — on skateboard — from his nearby East Village home to meet me at the Lab’s storefront at 84 E. 10th St. between Third Avenue and Fourth Avenue, and walks me though the store pointing out both beginner record players (now made with USB port) and advanced DJ setups. I even get a mini lesson on the ones and twos on the in-house DJ booth from sales associate Paul Bennett!
Aside from a tour and DJ lesson, Hahn talked about the evolution of Turntable Lab, which had its humble beginnings as an NYU side hustle, to its first shop on Seventh Street between Avenue A and First Avenue. Turntable is now in its 20th year of business.
Turntable Lab got its start while you were at NYU. What experiences led to this launch?
My decision to go to NYU had a lot to do with the city’s DJ/record shop scene. There were lots of record shops, but if I wanted to get equipment, I had to go to a Canal Street electronics stores. I would walk in knowing the market price of an item, get into an intense haggling session, and still walk away paying above market price.
This gave us the idea to create a website that would sell DJ equipment with more transparency — no “call for price,” which was the norm back then. We started in my apartment on 12th Street with a Macintosh G3, a 56K modem, and a fax machine to take orders.
At what point did you realize that this was going to be a full-time business and not a side hustle?
In the first year of the business I was working during the day for a Soho advertising agency. I specialized in internet boom sites (1999) and was assigned to an early beauty ecommerce site. They were paying the agency hundreds of thousands of dollars to build a site that was barely functional. During a meeting I found out that my archaic hand-coded HTML site was grossing more than the beauty site — that’s when I decided to go full time.
After being on Seventh Street for 15-plus years, the store needed a major renovation. It was cramped. The basement always flooded. The fixtures were wearing down. Rather than renovate the old space, we decided to start fresh. We never looked at any other areas — we knew we were staying in the East Village.
On that note: Why have you continued to base the TTL storefront in the East Village?
Personally, I think the East Village is still one of the top three record-shopping neighborhoods in the world. You can walk around, eat delicious things, check out Tompkins, find a stoop sale, people watch, and visit other quality record shops.
The East Village — along with many other neighborhoods — have suffered the loss of record/music shops in recent years. What has helped you survive? Twenty years in any business, especially one related to trends in music and music consumption, is impressive.
I could go deep into this, but here’s a quick version:
1) Don’t get stuck in old ways.
2) Respect each other’s tastes in music.
3) Be kind to customers.
4) Make it interesting for customers to visit often.
5) Keep it organized.
6) Know your margins.
The TTL website is robust. Why is a physical storefront still important to you?
Online commerce is inherently soulless. The store helps us maintain our soul by linking us in a different way to our customers, the DJ community, and the neighborhood. Plus, if you can successfully run a storefront these days, you know you are doing something right (and maybe even universally correct).
There’s three people in the company that buy most of the vinyl; but we also get input from everyone who works here. Nearly everyone in the company is a collector. For example, one person is our go-to for decisions on Japanese vinyl and anime soundtracks. If it’s emo, I’ll ask someone else in the company. Distributors also know that we’re super-selective, so they’ll only recommend the top titles to us. I still have that broke college-kid mentality when I’m picking records: they have to be worth it.
Looking back to 1999, did you envision that you might be doing this in 20 years?
Hell no! I still can’t believe it. My business partner and I always joke that we can pass it along to our kids, but I think in our minds, we’re mostly serious about the idea. People have tried to buy the Lab a couple times, but in retrospect, I’m glad those deals never went through.
What’s next for TTL?
We’re very focused on continuing to expand our range of exclusives. We’ve been teaming up with audio-equipment manufacturers, brands and labels to create special items. I’m especially excited about this boxset with Stones Throw Records. It will be available at the end of the year and it features our favorite releases from their catalog in a box we designed. Lastly, we’ll continue to develop our in-house audio furniture line: Line Phono.