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.
Until I worked at RollingStone.com, 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).
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.