It looked like a massacre. Link Wray, Hasil Adkins, Dave “Baby” Cortez, and countless other unsung music legends just laid there, piled recklessly on top of one another inside the remote Red Hook, Brooklyn building. It was impossible to recognize most of them; their jackets torn to shreds and sopping wet. Volunteers treaded carefully over the remains while trying to save as many of them as possible.
Norton Records’ warehouse sits at the end of Van Brunt Street on the edge of Erie Basin. The independent record label, which specializes in rare, previously unreleased vintage rock and R&B records, suffered a massive blow after wind and surging waters from Hurricane Sandy hammered open the large iron doors of the Civil War era building, and drowned almost their entire stock of roughly 150,000 vinyl records in five feet of water.
Miriam Linna and Billy Miller, husband and wife and co-owners of Norton Records, thought their stock would be safe in the building. The building had stayed so dry in the past that, historically, it was used to store grain.
The floodwaters turned everything on its head. Boxes of records, books, and even a drum set, were violently picked up and thrown from every corner of the warehouse, dumping them into mountains of cardboard and vinyl.
“In the pitch darkness, some kind of demon was in here,” said Miriam Linna donning boots and yellow, rubber gloves to navigate the heaps of waterlogged boxes while deciding on what to salvage and what to trash.
Miriam has dirty blonde hair and the matter-of-fact humor of someone who has done a lot of living. As a musician, she spent time on the road playing drums for various New York acts during the classic, 1970s punk era of CBGB before meeting Billy and launching Norton Records.
“Last November at this time we were celebrating 25 years of Norton,” Miriam said as she examined some warped drumsticks. “Maybe I can use these to start a new sound.”
Around her, volunteers in white, dust masks carried boxes to a U Haul parked outside, waiting to take as many salvageable records as possible to Norton headquarters, where Billy organized a group to perform first-aid.
Norton headquarters is also Billy and Miriam’s home. Two converted classrooms in a former public schoolhouse in Prospect Heights serve as their apartment and office.
The office is shelved floor to ceiling with vintage paperbacks, records and other collectable memorabilia. The only noticeably modern piece in the room is an iMac, which Billy used to show friends photos of damage to their Red Hook warehouse.
In the common hallway on the third floor of the building, hundreds and hundreds of records lined the walls in brand new white sleeves with floor fans blowing in their direction.
Around 18 volunteers were set up in groups of three and four around a few tables also set up in the hallway. Two more showed up and were quickly put to work peeling off wet, cardboard jackets from records. Vinyl is surprisingly resilient, considering how easily a small scratch can ruin a song or a whole album. If they’re taken out and cleaned before the paper dries to the vinyl, they’re as good as new.
“That’s what’s so great about vinyl,” said John Jacobs, a volunteer and local DJ who exclusively plays old rock and soul records. “This is important stuff. They’ve been dealing with it pretty well.”
In the basement, another group of a dozen or so performed the same operation on hundreds of other records.
Billy and Miriam aren’t strangers to disaster, though. A fire destroyed their first apartment in downtown Brooklyn almost 23 years ago. Miriam remembers Billy waking her up during the night and telling her to grab what she could. When they got out of the building, she stood on the sidewalk holding a drum cymbal.
Back at the warehouse, Miriam continued to slowly look for anything that might have a chance at being salvaged. She comes across a paperback titled, “The Wrath and the Wind.” She picked it up and examined it for a moment before tossing it back to the floor. “You think you’re gonna wake up and it’s gonna be a bad dream.”