By Christopher Arnott
2:15 PM EDT, May 23, 2012
Kyle Mullins, who's worked at Cutler's Records for the past decade, is mulling over what it'll be like when the store — an institution on New Haven's Broadway shopping district for 64 years — closes later this month.
"A guy walked in last week," Kyle recalls, "looking for some Otis Rush." We didn't have any, so he asked where else he might go to find some. I didn't really know where to send him, but I did say 'Whatever you do, you definitely want the Cobra Records stuff — don't get anything else.'
"He left," Mullins continues, "and I thought, 'Now, when's the next time I'm ever going to say that?'"
The closing of Cutler's is symbolic of many changes — in how people buy music, in how and where they discuss those fave sounds, in how New Haven's Broadway shopping district is unrecognizable compared to how it looked in the late 1990s, let alone the 1940s when it first opened.
Cutler's is going out as a legend, run by three generations of the Cutler family, its logo emblazoned on countless T-shirts. Current owner Phil Cutler has worked at the store for 40 of his 53 years. But Cutler's isn't some dinosaur band still vainly trying to flog the old hits. It changed with the times as deftly as Madonna has, or Radiohead.
Back when it was important for a CD store to be extremely well-stocked with the latest releases, Cutler's was unbeatable, even boasting a second store just for classical music. When having such an extensive inventory was rendered moot by the availability of everything on the Internet, Cutler's stayed in the game thanks to the expert recommendations of its dedicated, authoritative staff, who helped customers special-order stuff that wasn't already in the racks. The store also diversified, stocking DVDs and T-shirts and gift items and magic tricks. Cutler's also downsized its space, shifting into smaller digs next door to where its former multi-store empire had been.
Cutler's just won its umpteenth Best CD/Record Store from New Haven Advocate readers. There was one scandalous year in the mid-1990s when Cutler's didn't claim that "Best Of" prize, losing to a Strawberries megastore which had sprung up on Chapel Street. Who would have laid odds then that Cutler's would outlast not just the Strawberries chain but such other deep-pocketed competitors as Sam Goody's or Buck-a-Book? In the late 1980s, a major CD distributor launched a retail chain called Amperes; its flagship store on Chapel Street featured "listening stations" of new CDs blasted through headphones in the walls. Cutler's retaliated with its own, less flashy listening stations. Ampere's was gone within a couple of years.
"Thank God it turned out this way," Phil Cutler says contemplatively from behind the sales counter. He's leaving on a high note. He's bantering good-naturedly with the throngs of well-wishers who've come to bid the store farewell. He doesn't look dejected or worried or beaten into submission by economic realities. He looks like he's taking good care of an old friend. When the news of Cutler's closing was announced last week, the press release used a nicer term, "retirement" — even though Cutler himself isn't retiring, and has allied himself with the Campus Customs T-shirt printing business down the street.
Cutler's has maintained its blend of cutting-edge and traditional until the end. Last weekend, you could pick up the newly released "lost solo album" by Joey Ramone, …Ya Know?, in either CD or vinyl format.
The announcement of Cutler's "retirement" came along with a sale: 25 percent off everything in the store. The actual closing date of the shop depends on which comes first — the end of May or Cutler's running out of stuff to sell. "When the inventory tells me we're done, we're done," says Phil Cutler, a pragmatic businessman to the end.
You can say that New Haven's longest surviving record store has had its last spin. Or you can just be gratified and amazed that, thanks to Phil Cutler's community consciousness and small-business savvy, it lasted as long as it did.
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