Robert Plotnik, a lapsed lawyer better known as the namesake of Bleecker Bob’s Records, a Greenwich Village vinyl mecca that survived the dawning of cassettes, CDs and downloading and the death of CBGB, the nearby club where punk rock was cradled, died on Thursday in Manhattan. He was 75.
The cause was kidney failure, his partner, Jennifer Kitzer, said. He had been incapacitated since having a stroke in 2001.
Bleecker Bob’s was immortalized in a 1993 episode of “Seinfeld” (when Kramer and Newman fail to make a windfall selling used records there), in the opening credits of “Saturday Night Live,” and in Colson Whitehead’s 2009 novel, “Sag Harbor.” It was also where a customer named Patti Smith met a record salesman named Lenny Kaye more than 40 years ago and invited him to accompany her on guitar at a poetry reading. He’s been accompanying her ever since.
“Bleecker Bob’s is a perfect example of the funky, idiosyncratic little Greenwich Village institutions that had enormous impacts on culture in the 1960s and ’70s,” John Strausbaugh, the author of “The Village: 400 Years of Beats and Bohemians, Radicals and Rogues” (2013), said in an email. “The dank basement clubs where Dylan and Hendrix were discovered, the tiny storefront theaters that nurtured Off and off-off-Broadway theater, and in this case the used record store where punk rock was born.”
For nearly 50 years, until it closed in 2013, the business that Plotnik began with a fellow record collector, Al Trommers, drew rock fans and performers to its quirky selection. And although it originally specialized in oldies, it soon switched its focus to the cutting edge, helping to popularize emerging musicians by sales and by word-of-mouth.
“Without him it’s unlikely there would be the Ramones, Elvis Costello, Talking Heads, New York Dolls, so many acts now so well established in the music firmament but 40 years ago just whispers,” the critic Roger Friedman wrote on the website Showbiz411. “CBGB’s and the Mudd Club were where you heard the music, but Bleecker Bob’s was where you held, felt it, saw it, listened to it, bought it.”
Customers emerged from local clubs and coffeehouses and lingered in the store until 3 a.m., or as long as the mercurial Plotnik would indulge them.
“I used to cut school and hang out in his store until he threw me out and banned me,” Harley Flanagan, a founder of the band the Cro-Mags, wrote on Facebook. “I remember being mad at him for a long time because of it, but the truth is he just felt that I should be in school and not cutting school. As I got older I realized he was actually a really good guy when he wasn’t screaming at people and kicking them out of his store.”
Robert Edward Plotnik was born on Aug. 28, 1943, in Baltimore and raised in New Jersey. His father, Jack, was a cabdriver. His mother, Elsie (Robbinson) Plotnik, was a homemaker. In addition to Kitzer, he is survived by a daughter, Alexandra Plotnik.
After earning a degree from New York University, Plotnik fulfilled a promise to his parents and graduated from Fordham University School of Law, worked as an assistant prosecutor and practiced law for awhile. But in 1967 he ventured into the record business with Trommers, a fellow customer at Times Square Records. Trommers was known as Broadway Al, and he suggested that his new partner adopt a nickname of his own when they opened Village Oldies at 149 Bleecker St.
“Robert Plotnik does not sound like a hip name for a hip record store,” Trommers recalled in “For the Records,” a 2012 documentary about the store directed by Hazel Sheffield and Emily Judem.
What became Bleecker Bob’s Golden Oldies later moved to Macdougal Street and then in 1981, after Trommers left the business, to 118 W. Third St., the former home of the popular 1960s nightclub the Night Owl Cafe.
Sandwiched between a pizzeria and a walk-in psychic, the store had an inventory that included thousands of albums and singles jammed into countertop compartments, as well as posters and other memorabilia and a collection of clocks. It also had creaky wooden floors and an antediluvian cash register, suggesting that the merchandise was not the only thing stuck in the 1960s. Not Plotnik, though.
“The prices are ridiculous,” Joey Ramone of the Ramones said in 1994, “but Bleecker Bob’s has everything.”
Flanagan said that Plotnik “always knew what was new and current before the other stores did,” and that he “always supported local bands by buying our records and merchandise directly from us.”
Plotnik befriended stars like David Bowie, Bob Dylan and Frank Zappa, as well as rising stars like Madonna, Prince and members of the Clash, who gravitated to the store when they were starting out.
“Bob,” Kitzer said in the documentary, “was a little more famous than they were.”
Kaye, who pieced together “Nuggets,” his acclaimed 1972 compilation of garage-rock singles, while he worked at Bleecker Bob’s, said in an email: “Bob’s was more than a record store. It was an important gathering place to introduce and hear the new and progressive as well as honoring the past, how music lives on to influence and discover its new forms.”
In the mid-1980s, Plotnik opened a branch of the store on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles, which is where he was when he suffered his stroke in 2001. (He also frequently flew to London in search of new releases.) Chris Weidner, John DeSalvo, Kitzer and others kept the New York store alive for a dozen years, supplementing dwindling revenue by subletting a backroom to a tattoo parlor and later to a comic-book salesman.
Bleecker Bob’s was ultimately a victim of declining sales and rising rents. It was replaced by a frozen yogurt franchise. The site is now occupied by a sushi restaurant.
Shortly before it closed, when Kitzer was interviewing Plotnik in a Manhattan nursing home, a moment captured in the film, she couldn’t quite bring herself to tell him that the business he had opened in 1967 was playing itself out.
“I’m not going to close, don’t worry about it,” he assured her.
But people don’t buy records anymore, Kitzer said.
“They will,” Plotnik replied. “They’ll get the records that I tell them they need.”