Monday, October 09, 2006

Requiem for a Record Store in Three Movements

Tower Records didn't survive bankruptcy
. On Friday, their assets were auctioned off. The stores are having liquidation sales.

The Music Fan

As I started to really get into music in my late teens, the record store at the mall just wasn't cutting it. My tastes were turning too obscure for what could be sold in storefront between suburban department stores. Back before you could buy anything on Amazon, Tower Records was record-buying mecca. They had everything cool. They had everything old. They were open until midnight, so I could pick up the new Nine Inch Nails on my way to Dobbs or after a show at the TLA further down South Street in Philly. Going there could be an event unto itself, a date spent browsing for new CDs.

What made Tower different from other chain stores wasn't just their depth of inventory but the depth of knowledge by their staff. Not only did they know and care about music, they looked like they knew and cared about music, unlike the tools at the mall stores who had to wear ties and red vests and looked like they could just as easily been selling smoked cheese logs or personalized golf towels. Members of many bands passed through their ranks of employment. When I suggested to an editor of Pulse, their in-house magazine, that they do a story of former employees who went on to greater fame as musicians, she said there were far too many, although I think Perry Farrell's name was mentioned.

Tower indirectly launched my writing career. While scouting for reading matter for a long plane ride, I hit their magazine section and stumbled upon B-Side. Unlike Rolling Stone, which I was finding increasingly exasperating, it covered nothing but music. It covered the music I was listening to such as Echo and the Bunnymen rather than Huey Lewis and the News. I was shocked to read the masthead and discover it was published locally. The record store at the mall had no interest in 'zines or local publications. B-Side was my first writing outlet.

My experience as a consumer is typical in explaining their demise. I don't have extensive time to browse record stores anymore. Amazon and Tower's own web site have taken away the thrill of the chase, so my only limitation is whether I'm willing to shell out for import prices, not whether I can merely locate an obscure album. I can download songs for instant gratification. No one has bought records at record stores in ages, but no one ever called them CD stores.

The Employee

Until I worked at, being a sales clerk at Tower in London was my coolest job. Yes, the pay was meager but I was surrounded by music and by people who cared about music. We sneered at those picking up Samantha Fox's record (now mercifully forgotten by most). We lauded the parents visiting from America who could actually name bands their kids liked when asking records that couldn't be found back home. David Bowie shopped there. The place was constructed with a DJ booth, although the position was cut by my second summer on staff. My mother suggested that I should try to transfer to accounting so that I could make more money, but then I would have just been a bean counter in an anonymous office when I wanted to be swimming in rock and roll.

When I returned to Wharton after my first summer at Tower, my classmates were bragging about their summer internships, working 60-hour weeks on Wall Street. I kept quiet, but thought to myself that I probably learned more as part of the working class in a foreign city, supporting myself on 100 quid a week (slang for "pounds" being one of the facts I picked up).

The Librarian

While I no longer have time to spend hours browsing record stores for fun, it is now part of my job, doing collection development for a public library. Tower was our favorite place to do so. I still had the thrill of the chase but more importantly the benefit of serendipitous finds. For my boss shopping for jazz and classical, the staff's in-depth knowledge was an invaluable source of recommendations. There was also the entertaining distraction of things worth a laugh even if we wouldn't buy it for the library.

Unfortunately, Tower's inability to provide sufficiently-detailed invoicing proved the death knell for our library's financial relations with them. I miss the field trips to the store because it meant heading into Lincoln Park instead of the suburbs. I miss being mistaken for Tower staff, even when carrying a baby, because I was marking a list and hauling around dozens of CDs. I miss finding out about the new Cinerama album because they were playing it in the store, even if it was followed by the horrible new Janet Jackson album. I'm saddened that a large chain employing lots of people who are there because they care about music can't survive.

The timing of the auction was particularly depressing because I headed to a conference of music librarians on Friday preparing to give a talk on collection development, and recommending Tower for their selection, staff knowledge and useful web site was part of speech. The information was already outdated by the end of the day.

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