Hightstown is a town with a rich history. There are names on the buildings and streets that still have descendants living here. John and Mary Hight would be proud of how their little community has grown. So, it’s really not too surprising that a business that is all about preserving a time in history, like catching lightning in a bottle, would find the old Victorians lining the downtown streets nearby a perfect location.
The Man Cave, now located at 119 Ward Street in Hightstown, NJ, is the brainchild of Randy Ellis. Ellis is a fourth-generation Bordentown resident. His resume is eclectic; former mail carrier, DJ, club promoter and band manager before adding the title of store owner in 2012 in his hometown of Bordentown. And like his resume, the stories Randy has from each chapter are equally interesting.
Please Mister Postman
Randy was a mail carrier from the ‘70s to the ’90s. He began his route in family-friendly downtown Cranbury and then was moved to the Clearbrook route—mostly retirees. He can tell you about the day a man walked two alligators down Main Street in Cranbury, or perhaps you would rather hear about all the mail the woman that was President of Engelbart Humperdinck’s Fan Club sent and had to send back out in the days before the Internet.
It sounds very much like Randy enjoyed every moment of his daily routine interacting with the residents wherever he was posted. The only negative comment he made about his mail carrier days was he wasn’t allowed time off to go to the Heatwave Concert at Mosport Park in Toronto in 1980, billed as “Punk Rock’s Woodstock.” I told Randy that as one of the 50,000 people that attended–he really missed an amazing show.
Trenton, NJ Rocks
Randy may have missed the show at Mosport, but there’s a whole world of music that he had a front seat for. In his tenure as the promoter and booking agent for City Gardens during the ‘80s and ‘90s, he was able to introduce Central Jersey to a wide range of punk rock, rockabilly and new wave music as the sound on our radios began to shift to new songs.
The Ramones, Nirvana, Jane’s Addiction, REM, Red Hot Chili Peppers were all bands that played this Calhoun Street Club in Trenton, New Jersey. Sinead O’Connor played her first American Show at City Gardens. If a band was booked in Philadelphia and New York City–there’s a good chance Randy lured them to Trenton during this time period.
Randy has stories! Oh, the stories he could tell! But being Randy, he’s also judicious in what he shares. When I asked him which band was the biggest jerks, he didn’t hesitate. Motorhead was booked and tickets had been sold. The crowd was eagerly waiting for them to take the stage. But Motorhead refused to go on and never did perform.
What went wrong? In 1973, the drinking age was lowered to 18; in 1980 it was raised back to 21. City Gardens tried to have “dry shows” so that the music-loving kids under 21 could attend the club. This meant no alcohol on stage too. Motorhead refused to go on and Randy narrowly avoided a riot. I believe Jon Stewart (yes, THAT Jon Stewart) was working at the nonalcoholic bar that night.
Burning Down the House
When REM played City Gardens, all they asked for in their rider was a six-pack of beer and four clean towels. New Order remarked that the city of Trenton reminded them very much of Manchester, England. The Buthole Surfers nearly burned the place down with their pyrotechnics at their all-ages show. The first time UB40 played City Gardens, the crowd was 40 fans. Randy says that Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys is one of the nicest people he knows.
I did manage to find out which band he thought was highly overrated–Pearl Jam; and the most under-appreciated band in his opinion is Sparks. If you want to take a deep dive into the punk music scene at City Gardens you really need to read, “No Slam Dancing, No Stage Diving, No Spikes” by Amy Yates Wuelfing and Steven DiLodovico. There’s also a movie that captures this era, “Riot on the Dance Floor, ” which is in its third repressing.
City Gardens in Trenton, NJ via Flickr
Shiny Happy People
As someone who was lucky enough to be of an age that City Gardens was a part of my growing up, I could understand why Randy hesitated and got a faraway look in his eye when I asked him for his observations on what it was about City Gardens; the time, the place, the music, that even while we were living it you knew it was special and couldn’t last forever. His observation was spot on. You could walk into the club any night and find a punk rock mohawk kid with a rockabilly kid and a hippie kid and everyone just got along. There was time, space and tolerance because we all just loved the music.
It wasn’t like any place else in New Jersey at that time.
The Times They Are A-Changin’
Randy began his music-oriented career in 1979 as DJ Randy Now doing 90-cent dance nights at City Gardens. By the time he left in 1996, the club had booked over 4,000 shows and some of the current and future top names in alternative rock had come through the doors at City Gardens. After City Gardens, Randy worked over at the Cherry Hill club Emerald City for a time. He worked for the Bordentown Record Collector, he delivered newspapers and he experienced some health issues.
When Randy Met Mary
Back in 1982, young Mary Lang attended her only show at City Gardens. She went to see Lene Lovich with her photographer boyfriend. The music was too loud so Mary went to sit in the back where it was a little less frantic. For two hours she chatted with Randy as he attempted to pick her up. Mary went back to her teaching job in Monmouth County and proceeded to live her life preferring the Fast Lane scene and the E-Street Band.
Fast forward about 20 years to a newly divorced Mary and a recently single again Randy and the wonders of Match.com. Unbeknownst to this pair, they had a previous encounter which finally came out after Randy saw all Mary’s Beatles posters in the background and the conversation turned to a shared love of music. They were married in 2012 and are currently living happily ever after.
To the Man Cave!
It was the union of their two households that brought about the genesis of Randy’s Man Cave Shop. Mary’s home was more Victorian-style and Randy’s bobblehead collection just couldn’t seem to find the right location. It was then he had his epiphany to take his collection, and some other memorabilia and open a shop to share his love of music and associated items. The store would fulfill his dream of bringing in bands, selling records, having snacks and memorabilia from the golden age of punk, and would be a way to earn a living too.
The Man Cave opened in downtown Bordentown, NJ in 2012 and for a long time, Randy was able to find creative fulfillment running his shop. After 10 years, Randy is ready for the next chapter; he simply outgrew his Bordentown space. His new shop in Hightstown has tons of free parking and over twice the square footage. The space is what Randy seems excited about; room for displaying those cool vinyl records of course, but also more space for customers to move around the shop and interact with merchandise.
The location is really key here. There’s a little triangle in town that houses a wonderful handmade crafts store, a beautiful shop that refinishes furniture, a cozy luncheonette and the local brewery which has started hosting live music some nights now. There’s an energy in this part of town that seems the perfect fit for unusual items and music.
I asked Randy what his plans are for the new location. He has allocated a lot of space to vinyl records because if you didn’t know–vinyl is back! In 2021, vinyl record sales alone increased 61 percent and revenue is now one billion. And that doesn’t include CDs, which will also be in the shop. Record Store Days are big. Two- or three-times year manufacturers release about 600 new releases and repressings only to stores that participate in Record Store Day. The next one is slated for June 18 so you might want to get in line before the store opens.
Randy is also excited to bring back live music. Although nothing is currently booked, his connections are still strong and I suspect we will see some top-named talent in Hightstown pretty soon. I heard the name Marshall Crenshaw tossed around, even put in a request or two of my own.
What Will The Neighbors Say?
As a local, this move is certainly personal. I wanted to get a sense of how the neighbors felt, so I asked a couple of the shops nearby for feedback. Mark Fenton of Hand Made Art Studios put it best, “the backbone of any small business is connections. The Man Cave will bring a diverse group of people to town which is the lifeblood of a thriving downtown. The business community in Hightstown is definitely expanding and it feels like the dawn of a new era. The Man Cave is going to be a great addition to our local business community.”
Lee Stults of Old Hights Brewing Company also sees the synergy between these neighboring establishments. Lee said, “In addition to great beer, Old Hights enjoys sharing great music with our customers. In fact, our team includes musicians and music teachers so we’re excited to have Randy Now’s Man Cave next door. He will undoubtedly attract people to Hightstown for the first time who will hopefully then walk a few steps over to enjoy our beer. As we approach our two-year anniversary in June, we know our customers will enjoy visiting the Man Cave. We wish him the best of luck and welcome him to our growing, creative corner of West Ward Street in Hightstown.”
There’s More in Store – The Grand Opening of the Man Cave
The shop had a soft opening the first weekend of June. The Grand Opening was held June 11 and Randy reports this was his second-best sales day ever! In addition to all the excitement of opening the new store, the Ellis’ have a lot more going on. Mary has written a children’s book coming out just in time for Christmas. It’s called, “Fritz Lang: A Fairy Tale of City Gardens.” It’s the fictional story of a mini-wirehaired dachshund really being the brains behind City Gardens. I suspect Randy will have lots of copies in the Man Cave for the holidays, too.
Hightstown began in 1721 with a purchase of 3,000 acres of land. Through the centuries it has grown and attracted all types of businesses to this one-mile square town. I think the Hights would be proud to know that their land has become a home for the dreamers and entrepreneurs like Randy Ellis. When I asked Randy what he was most proud of, he didn’t hesitate. He said (in this order), marrying Mary, his role at City Gardens, creating the Man Cave and his photo exhibit of City Gardens pictures which is housed at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Randy said, “I wish I could have worked for a music company. I was discovering all the new bands before they could find them.” This boy from Bordentown has shown the world that this mail carrier was capable of not only delivering the mail–but spreading his love of music to a wide-ranging audience. Thank you for the gift of music, Hightstown is lucky to have you.
Will you be visiting Randy Ellis’ Man Cave? Let us know in the comments!