Ethan Smith
June 07, 1996 AT 04:00 AM EDT

”Rock, soul, imports, blues, vinyl — what they’ve come up with here,” observes Max Weinberg, ”is the boutique idea applied to the mall concept.” The Late Night music director and erstwhile E Street Band trapsman, a walking encyclopedia of rock & roll history, is doing some of that walking through Manhattan’s Virgin Megastore. And his first impression of the six-week-old outlet-as-social-scene nails it. The Times Square emporium’s expansiveness (its three floors house a bookstore, a cafe, a Sony movie theater, even a travel agency) and vast selection (150,000 titles in 40 categories) instantly made it a you-gotta-see-this tourist spot. (Move over, Planet Hollywood and Hard Rock Cafe.)

Checking out the Vintage section, Weinberg clicks into rock-scholar mode. ”I’ve always been interested in the fabric and history of music in this country,” he says. The nebbishy 45-year-old thumbs through Louis Prima, the Rolling Stones, and the Astronauts, riffing nonstop. With typical freneticism, he rhapsodizes about acts from Sammy Davis Jr. (”I was a big fan of the Rat Pack”) to Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels (”the loudest, scariest-looking band I ever saw”). Considering the facts and figures he spouts, Weinberg is modest about his collection of 2,000 vintage singles. ”More impressive is [the E Street Band bassist] Garry Tallent’s — he has 20 or 25,000 rockabilly singles. Second to that is probably Bruce Springsteen’s.”

A store employee approaches Weinberg and, after an enthusiastic grilling about touring with the Boss, brings up a Springsteen cover group, Tramps Like Us. ”It’s not a typical tribute band,” he gushes. When Weinberg promises to check them out, the kid returns to his post, down in Video.

Twenty feet above the main floor, in a cylindrical tower, a DJ gets into the store’s all-things-to-all-shoppers philosophy, mixing a cut from Cher into Bone Thugs-N-Harmony’s latest, drawing a titter of enthusiasm from some teenage girls at the top of the escalator.

Weinberg gestures toward the listening stations. ”These are great,” he says. ”Listening booths were an important part of record stores in the ’50s. It’s only fair to let customers check out an album.” Sounds like he’s got lots of checking out to do: ”I could drop a lot of money here. I wonder if they’d let me open a charge account.”

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