John Chrambanis learned to harness his financial resources working with his father at the family’s Trenton restaurants, including the New Presto and Old Tavern.
Along with his wife, Sue, whose family owned the Fruit Bowl and Copper Kitchen, the two know a few things about dealing with the public, running a business, and managing growth.
And it all has come in handy while they’ve been running the Record Collector on Farnsworth Avenue in Bordentown.
And for older “kids” in their 40s, 50s and 60s — people we can recall a time as kids when records were sold in places like Two Guys, Woolworth’s, and other five and dime stores — the Record Collector is a place that not only sells recordings but provides live shows and serves as a gathering place for like-minded music fans.
Born and raised in Trenton, Chrambanis says he has always had an interest in music.
“As a youngster, I took trumpet and piano lessons, and I always wanted to play percussion and drums. Later on I did play in a few bands, but my life-long love of music played a big role in what I ultimately chose to do for a living, running the record store,” he says from his home in Yardley, Pennsylvania.
But that choice came after attending Rider College and West Virginia University and taking a job at McGraw Hill in Hightstown in the mid-1970s.
The opportunity came from his friend Tom Giraldi. He had a small record store on South Broad Street in Trenton but was also working in his father’s upholstery business. In a move that helped both of them, Chrambanis bought the shop for $10,000.
“My business was good on South Broad Street,” says Chrambanis. “I just needed a larger space, and it didn’t make sense to me to be paying such high rent for such a small space, so first we ended up going across the river to Morrisville, right on the corner past the ‘Trenton Makes’ bridge, and then we had to leave that place because the landlord didn’t keep up the building. We looked around for a building we could buy, but at that time everything was so expensive.”
Finally in 2006 he saw the For Rent sign for a building at 358 Farnsworth Avenue in Bordentown, and he asked the owner if he could buy the building outright.
The owner said yes, but, says Chrambanis, “the building was in such bad shape it was unusable. The first day I started working on the building and all of a sudden somebody from town says ‘What are you doing, you got a permit?’ You can’t just start tearing everything out without a permit!’ ”
Bordentown officials needed architectural and engineering records, and drawings, so “we ended up gutting the place and adding a roof, adding the floor and tearing out and putting in new walls, and that’s why the price for the building was so cheap.”
The Chrambanises — who met in 1995 and fell in love while talking about food over dinner — say their first live store event was a 2007 book and CD signing by Sally Starr, known for her Philadelphia-area kids television show and her recordings with early rocker Bill Haley.
“Trying to promote our new location, we were thinking music and celebrities, so she was the first person we had. She drew 500 people for a book signing and CD sale.”
Then they got some help from another Bordentown resident. “Randy Now was a big help in getting us launched because he had the contacts from his years at City Gardens. Without a doubt, he helped put us on the map,” he adds.
Now owns and operates a place down the street from the Record Collector, Randy Now’s Man Cave.
Since that first venture, the Record Collector has held hundreds of successful in-store concerts with strong regional and national acts ranging from the nationally known to the regionally known — including Trenton-raised jazz and urban contemporary musicians Richie Cole and the late trombonist Clifford Adams.
“The first big shows we had back then were Pete Best (the Beatles’ first drummer) and Peter Tork. Randy and I were booking almost two shows a week with opening acts, so you’re looking at four bands a week times 50-some weeks. We did that for a couple of years, and then Randy left, and now he’s doing his own thing.”
A record release party in May by Trenton-area musician Joe “Zook” Zuccarello and his band, Blues Deluxe, provides a good example of how things work. While Zook packed the house, John and Sue used their restaurant talents to serve patrons candy bars, water, soda, diner-style strong coffee and tea, and hot dogs — creating an atmosphere conducive to letting the music takes center stage.
The couple says since the former owner had plans for a dollar store in front and apartments around back, the Record Collector has a large back room that could eventually become a much larger performance space, holding even more than the 50-odd people the store currently does.
“We have plans for an expansion, and they’re been approved, but they’re on hold for a very simple reason,” Chrambanis says.
“To renovate that back room would cost another several hundred thousand dollars. Now, I’m pushing 70 and almost all my bills are paid off.”
Chrambanis’ daughter, Mary, and son-in-law, Evan, are in the restaurant and music business, but they’re thousands of miles off in Seattle. His son-in-law, Evan, plays and tours with the Boss Martians and the Sonics, a well-known Seattle-area surf band. He said he has no plans to expand unless his daughter and son-in-law are interested in relocating back to New Jersey to help with operations.
“I’m at a point in my life now where, I have to ask myself, do I want to take on that kind of challenge?”
“If my kids want to continue to run the store, they can. We still have all the approvals in place for it as a cafe, record store, and performance space. That would eventually be my hope.”
But for now, the shows go on — as shown by the schedule of upcoming live performances:
Friday, November 29: Black Friday Record Store Day, with giveaways, sales, and a performance by The Success Failures from 1:30 to 3 p.m.
Saturday, December 7: British songwriter, veteran guitarist and performer, recording, and former Strawbs, Monks, and other folk progress bands member John Ford and his own band, $20 to $25. 8 p.m.
Saturday, December 14: Alexis P. Suter Band, 8 p.m.
Thursday, December 26: the annual Uncle Floyd Day After Christmas Comedy Show, $22 to $26. 8 p.m.
The Record Collector, 358 Farnsworth Avenue, Bordentown, open Sundays, noon to 4 p.m.; Mondays and Thursdays, noon to 5 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays, noon to 6 p.m. www.the-record-collector.com.