For 52 years, musical legends and their followers have walked the hallowed, litter-strewn grey sidewalks of Broadway. Their Doc Martens and Converse shoes tread where so many have tread before, making the pilgrimage to a cultural landmark and musical mainstay of New Haven’s downtown neighborhood. Anyone who is, was, or will be anyone has bought a record here. At least, that is the story scene once would have told. Today, a quieter crew populates Cutler’s aisles, flipping through the hand-written CD dividers. Bob Briar, a Cutler’s employee for 35 1/2 years, admits that what he calls the ‘halcyon days’ of records are gone, but Cutler himself has hope.
Phil Cutler, the hero of this saga, has worked at the store, which his grandfather founded, since he was thirteen years old. Today, he tends to be a ghostly presence, if a spirited one – always flitting in and out of the premises, taking orders and splitting his time between his office and the store, only occasionally behind the counter. I meet Phil at 9:30 a.m. on a rainy Monday morning when he opens the store, a brown cardboard package (no doubt containing the latest musical releases) tucked under one arm. He has been up since 5:30 a.m., he tells me later. We agree to meet up later that afternoon, after my last class, and I spend the day preparing for an extraordinary history. Cutler – and Cutler’s – doesn’t disappoint.
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In the 40s and 50s, two decades featuring milkshake-drinking, diner-going youth in New Haven, the enterprising Nat Cutler, a young man with good business sense, began selling 45s to juke box dealers. In 1948, he took a leap, counted on enough music-crazy kids to help him make a living in the neighborhood, and founded Cutler’s. By 1954, he had two listening booths put into the store, so kids could listen to records before they bought them (and maybe canoodle in the cozy cubbies).
In the early 1960s, Jayson, Nat’s son, took over the store. Jayson liked free-wheeling, old-time jazz, but also David Bowie and the Beatles. When The Beatles came out with the White Album, Jayson sold over 2000 copies at midnight. The line stretched around the corner.
Phil Cutler, Jayson’s son and the current proprietor of Cutler’s Records, remembers the first concert his father ever took him to: Louis Armstrong at Woolsey Hall. Phil was 10 years old.
In 1971, Phil started working at the store. Then, Cutler’s featured Levi’s, lava lamps, and inflatable furniture in addition to records. There were 22 video game machines in the back.
At Christmas, the store was so busy, they had to keep a police officer on hand to keep order.
The police officer never had to put down any brawls, but the era wasn’t without conflict.
The transition to Cds
The resurgence of vinyl
In 1999, Cutler’s moved from 33 to 27 Broadway, losing their old, enormous sign. Despite the move, the smaller space, the economy, and the state of the music industry in general, Phil has an upbeat and positive attitude about his profession and his business.
Cutler’s has been mentioned in Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone.
Kiss, They Might Be Giants, and Ozzy Osbourne have all played at the store. Osbourne was over two hours late and fans had to wait outside in the rain.
Other famous patrons:
Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead (a big fan of classical music)
On where to eat: The Educated Burgher. “You can’t beat the Burger.”
On his favorite music: “U2, Seal, Genesis. I like Jay-Z. But what I listen to mostly is the news. CBS radio, Sirius radio, Bloomberg.”
On Toad’s: “When I was 21, I used to work there. I worked Billy Joel. Saw Springsteen. The Rolling Stones did a warm-up gig there once. It was just a rumor, and if you knew about it, you were lucky.”
“I saw U2 there when they first came over from Ireland. It was a snowy Sunday night, with maybe five people in the place.”
On his tabby cat, who lives in the store: “His name’s Wally. He had a sister, Polly, but she passed away. Before that, we had Sheba, who we got because of a mouse problem.”
On the future: “We’re plodding along. As long as Yale wants us, we’ll be here.”
Yale wants you, Cutler’s. At least scene does.