The True Vine Record Shop, a Hampden-based record store that has been recognized as one of the nation’s best for its eclectic offerings and shelf space for experimental genres, says it is being forced out of its Hickory Avenue storefront by an unlikely foe: the Golden West Cafe, a funky Tex-Mex restaurant around the corner, on W. 36th Street.
True Vine posted the news on its Instagram account Sunday, saying the popular Hampden eatery bought the shop’s sublet lease and plans to use the space as part of an expansion. As Baltimore Fishbowl reported last month, Golden West has taken on a new investor to start a vegan-focused bakery and open other Golden West locations, as well as expand its current footprint to include an events room and a space for live performances.
“We cannot stay because golden west’s new investors do not find us to be a financially lucrative business compared to what they envision as financially lucrative, which is an extension of golden west,” the post from True Vine said.
A back-and-forth in the comments ensued, with Golden West proprietor Samantha Claassen posting with the restaurant’s account that the record store “has been in financial free fall for years.” With those struggles in mind, she said she and her new co-owner sought to “blend spaces” to ease True Vine’s financial burden, resulting in a “bar with records, a dj booth, food and shows.”
But when owner Jason Willett decided he wanted to keep True Vine as it is and asked for a rent reduction, the comment said, the arrangement fell apart.
Reached by Baltimore Fishbowl, Willett confirmed the details about his rent situation put forth in Claassen’s response: He made a handshake agreement 10 years ago with the former owner of Philly’s Best, a carry-out on the corner of Hickory Avenue and W. 36th Street, to rent the space at 3544 Hickory Ave. for $800 per month.
More recently, the former owner of Philly’s Best had increased the rent to $1,400 a month, an amount that added financial pressure on the store and led to several fundraisers on the True Vine’s behalf. So the offer from Golden West almost felt like the store was being saved, Willett said.
“I thought things would be legit and nice, and we would all try to work together,” he said.
Willett’s idea was that the restaurant would take over the smaller, secondary room in True Vine and fix it up for live music and dining–the store has already held shows in that space–and the main room, with the bins of records, would stay the same. But he said the plans suddenly changed. He was told he wouldn’t even have record bins in this new project, but rather just a few albums on wall shelves.
“It went very quickly from a familial thing to, ‘We’re taking over your record shop and you’re not going to be a record shop anymore,’” he said.
Of the plans to put vinyl for sale on the walls, he said, “That’s not a record store; that’s a cafe decorated with records.”
In an email, Claassen stood by her Instagram response and said she has long been an advocate for the True Vine, calling Willett a friend and saying she has donated to help keep his business afloat, and will continue to be.
“I was sad to hear about the posting yesterday. I spent the day arranging time for Jason to liquidate back stock and move, rent free,” she wrote. “I believe in Jason, his record store and this community. I wish him the best moving forward and I will help him as much as I am able.”
On Instagram, Claassen also said she tried to help find a new location for True Vine. Willett said the new space would only have a six-month lease, after which he would have to move again.
The owner of the buildings is someone else entirely: Howard Bernstein, the operator of West Thirty Six Street LLC, a company founded by his mother and father, Blanche and Melvin Bernstein in 2010. According to state land records, he holds the deed to properties at 1101-09 W. 36th St., 3542-46 Hickory Ave., and 1104-08 and 1114 W. 36th St.
Reached by phone, Bernstein seemed unaware of the dispute and said, “However they resolve it, they have to resolve it themselves.” He did say, however, that he hoped things worked out so that True Vine could continue on in some form.
The matter of the new financing for Golden West is scheduled for discussion at the Baltimore City Liquor Board on Thursday, when ownership will make its case to have its new co-owner added to the liquor license. According to a filing with the board, the financier is Vyomeschandra Patel, who lists a home address in Edison, New Jersey, but in an email told Baltimore Fishbowl he is renting an apartment on Roland Avenue and looking forward to joining the neighborhood.
Patel is seeking to buy an 80 percent stake in the business, the filing said. According to online business records, Patel and Claassen filed a new LLC, Golden West of Baltimore, for the ownership group on Nov. 7.
Over the 15 years it has been open, True Vine has helped with the formations of lots of bands and fostered friendships and romantic relationships, Willett said. People of different stripes can come into the store and connect on music, art or any other creative expression.
“People become family at the shop,” he said, “and that includes people who need it really badly.”
When he recalled discussions about his business not being lucrative enough to be part of this next phase for Golden West, he said running True Vine has never been about the money.
“I don’t want or need more than it takes to survive,” Willett said, adding that he has paid himself less than minimum wage during the shop’s recent slow period so he could stay open. “There’s so much more than that.”