Remembering Utica’s Last Unicorn Independent Record Store
Even though it's long closed, the Last Unicorn record store made a lasting impression on music fans in Central New York. The Last Unicorn was the music scene in Utica. First opening for business in Herkimer. Soon the store became a chain adding on the Genesee Street store in South Utica. Finally the stores were consolidated to Commercial Drive in New Hartford. The Last Unicorn was the go-to store for music lovers in Central New York. The store even won national awards for Best Independent Record store. In honor of National Record Store Day, we took a look back at the beloved indie music shop. We asked former patrons and empolyees to share their memories of the Last Unicorn.
When I think about the Last Unicorn, the first thing that comes to mind isn’t the great collection of $1 records I bought or the hard to find import singles I picked up every payday. I think about friendship. When I moved to Utica in September 1992 to work at WKLL, I knew two people--the woman that hired me, and the evening DJ that I just happened to overlap with for three years at the same college. And that number was cut in half when my friend was fired three weeks into my stint at the station.
I happened to move into an apartment that was just off Genesee Street in November of that year and went looking for a place to do laundry. The closest place just happened to be across the street from the plaza that housed The Last Unicorn. (The years have robbed me of exactly where that location was, and Google maps hasn’t helped.) I started going in there every time I did laundry and found everyone in there to be extremely friendly and welcoming. And they treated me that way long before they realized I was the guy they heard on the radio late at night.
Gina, Leo, Emily and Jason were the people I got to know first, and there would be times I would hang out there long after my laundry was done just to shoot the sh*t about music and talk about bands we were playing on the air. It was a place that a local “celebrity” could hang out amongst friends and not hear, “Why don’t you play this?” or “I hate that morning show that’s on after you.”
The Last Unicorn was a place where I rediscovered my love of vinyl (those $1 bins in front of the store in the summer definitely helped). It was the place where I found out one of my favorite bands, Buffalo Tom, was playing at nearby Hamilton College. (And they had tickets I could buy right in the store!) I ended up going with one of the newer employees, Mike, and our trip to that show cemented a friendship that’s still going 18 years later.
The Last Unicorn was the essential part of my non-work time while I lived in Utica in the mid-90s. I can’t imagine how I would have survived without it. Although, I imagine I would have had a few more bucks to spend on the essentials like food and gas.
Never mind that I was fresh out of high school in 1990 and about to start my freshman year of college, I had seriously just landed the best job ever. I was working in a record store. And not some corporate mall chain store. I landed a job at the Last Unicorn. Unicorn carried new and used music. Cassette tapes, CDs, records and imports. Ahhh yes..the imports. We were able to order stuff overseas that was not available here.
We sold cassette tapes for a buck, records for .99 and we took in the crap that you no longer wanted. I remember at one time we had over 20 Milli Vallini CDs . Ugh. One hit wonders always had a way of ending up in our bins.
We were an independent store.. only about 8 of us working long and dreaded retail hours. But we got first crack at all the new stuff coming in ..posters, radio promos.. concerts tickets. We had midnight sales for Guns and Roses Use Your Illusion I and II, Metallica Black , Pearl Jam and many others. Who else at that time in this area had midnight sales? No One ! People would line up around at the time was the Great American Shopping plaza and up Auburn Ave.
We had a basement full ( and I do mean full) of vinyl records. All alphabetize and categorized . I am talking thousands and thousands of records. A few times we almost locked up the store leaving customers down there. People would go down there and spend hours just going thru all the music.
Of course it wasn't all good. I remember Garth Brooks started a stink with used record stores- upset that he was not making money on the used items we sold. Poor Garth thought he was being under cut. This was back during his No Fences CD release. We started a petition and had our customer sign it telling Garth in our own way that he could go find friends in low places somewhere else. I believe the final count was over 300 customers before we sent it off to Warner Brothers records.
We were mentioned in Billboard magazine in March of 1995 as an award winner for Indie Music Store. That was pretty awesome.