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The Bop Shop bop

Twenty swingin' years at Tom Kohn's Bop Shop


Recently, a woman strolled into the Bop Shop in search of some jumpblues. Owner Tom Kohn and his staff were on the case with the speed and enthusiasm of a NASCAR pit crew.

          "We were like, 'Jump blues? You need Tiny Bradshaw, Louis Jordan. You need Gene Phillips, Todd Rhodes,'" Kohn recalls. The individual members of the store's staff (most of whom are musicians themselves) have their own areas of expertise, but between them, they know virtually everything.

          "Your talent lies in who you surround yourself with," Kohn says of his staff. "You could ask for jump blues at FYE, and the kid'sjust gonna look at you."

          The Bop Shop has a strong, loyal customer base, but new customers often venture in with only vague ideas of what they want. Kohn is jazzed when he makes such sales.

          "I love the challenge of their questions, the thrill of the hunt," he says. "We have the ability to make sure the customer leaves the store --- preferably broke --- but happy, pleased, and thrilled."

          "Good music makes you feel good," he says. "It gets me excited."

May marks The Bop Shop's 20th anniversary. "Twenty years of this stupidity," Kohn says, laughing. That's not bad for a business that started as "a flea market operation in a wire cage" on the second floor of Village Gate Square on North Goodman Street. (The shop soon moved into the space it currently occupies, on the first floor).

          The Bop Shop sells music in all formats: CD, vinyl, cassette, and eight-track. Kohn also operates a "vinyl clearing house" out of Autumn Leaves Books in Ithaca; hosts highly successful, biannual record shows at the Village Gate; and does "a small, but significant, portion of business online, from South Korea to Iowa."

          "There is definitely a strong, renewed interest in vinyl," Kohn says. "Though it's a limited market, it's the only area in the music business that is gaining momentum." Some buy vinyl "for fidelity," he says, "some for the nostalgia, some for the charm, some for the hip-hop guys that need to sample. It's [often] an easier format for DJs, and sometimes it's cheaper than CDs."

          Kohn got primed to record collecting when he was 16. "I was a stock boy for a drugstore, and the driver moved out of town and gave me his record collection," he says. "I got the first Pretty Things record, the first six Stones records, thefirstBeatles records, all The Kinks' first records, Manfred Mann. It was a verycomprehensive British Invasion collection."

          Kohn spun these records, dugthese records, and never looked back.

          "I started voraciously listening to everything I could get my hands on," he says, "from the New York Dolls to Ornette Coleman."

          Kohn was curious back then, and still is. It's a trait he wishes more people had. "People should open their minds," he says. "In the '60s, people were curious. It's too expensive to becurious now. It costs 16 to 18 bucks a pop to be curious now. In1968, it was $3.98 for a record. I know money was different back then, butyou could go to the cut-out bin and buy 10 for a dollar."

          Before long, hearing music wasn't enough for Kohn --- he had to see it live. "I was going to all the shows at The War Memorial," he recalls. "I was sneaking into The Red Creek. I used to go see NRBQ out there all the time, John Lee Hooker, Captain Beefheart. I'd go to the UR Palestra to see things. I'd go anywhere to see shows."

          And as his record collection grew, so did his taste. "By the mid-'70s, it was time to listen to the Sex Pistols," he says. "I saw The Ramones warming up for Iggy Pop, then, later the same week, I'd go see Anthony Braxton with Dave Holland and Barry Altschul.

          "There was the samelevel of energy, the same level of excitement going on at those shows as watching Iggy hang from the rafters or sitting on some girl's head singing 'Now I Wanna Be Your Dog.'"

          Kohn saw the big picture, the common denominator Iggy and Ornette share: a willingness to push boundaries, even to the brink of oblivion. "People are drawing those parallels now," he says. "But they weren't thinking of them back then. I was.... There's no such thing as a trend for me. It all counts."

          "I listen to new groups everyday," Kohn says. "I look at my new release books, and I'm like, 'Jeez, there's 500 pieces a week!'''

           "You can't like everything, you can't listen to everything," he continues, a note of frustration in his voice.

Kohn isn't a musician himself --- "I wanted to play saxophone once," hesays --- but he feels a musician's need to share. "I participate in the music business by being a vehicle," he says. "I'm very much a part of the band as a presenter."

          Forthe past 13 years, he's presented shows in the atrium outside his store (a space with "mind-boggling acoustics," he says) and booked acts at various venues in the city. Part of his motivation is to help shed some light, at least locally, on artists languishing in obscurity.

          "We were approached about 13 years ago by a guitarist from Denmark named Pierre Dorge," Kohn says. "He was touring with a quartet and looking for a place to play, so we put him up and put him in the store."

          Promoting these shows has been "one of the most creative ways I know to lose money," he says with a chuckle. Shows at the atrium are always free, with a passed hat to cover the overhead. "Money is the grease that makes the wheels work, but money is not the issue. I'd rather lose 300 bucks and have 600 people here, as opposed to making 300 bucks and having 30 people here."

          The musicians Kohn brings to town range from those playing out-jazz to those clearly out of theirminds. They include blues dame Ann Rabson of Sapphire, former Lost Planet Airman Billy C.Farlow, folk giant Michael Hurley, and folk freak Eugene Chadbourne.

          "Live music just gets into your soul a little deeper, you know?" Kohn says. "It's a moment in time, especially with the jazz."

          Kohn also has a lot of respect for locally produced music. He calls roots rockers The Hi-Risers "one of my most favorite bands in the world," and refers to locally based jazz trumpeter Paul Smoker as "truly one of the greatest living trumpet players."

As Kohn faces the next 20 years, he's set to branch out yet again --- this time, with his own record label. He plans to release live albums of atrium shows, recorded by renowned engineer Matt Guarneri, on the soon-to-be-formed Bop Shop Records.

          And, of course, he'll continue to push vinyl.

          "We're the alternative record store for anyone who has discerning interests, or curiosity in things that are left- and right-of-center," Kohn says.

          "And center, as well," he adds. "I mean, we carry The Beatles, too."

A full schedule of Bop Shop atrium shows can be found at