SONIC REDUCER Boo! And hiss, while you're at it. Isn't it scary how the music retail biz has changed? As a onetime music store flunky, I was hard-pressed to decide whether it was a trick or treat when I heard a few weeks back about the liquidation of Tower Records — this after filing for bankruptcy twice in the last two years. After all, I wasted a good, penniless year and a half of the late ’80s behind a register in the "tape" room and then behind a clipboard at one of the Sacto chain's flagship stores at Columbus and Bay in San Francisco.
Those were the days — the horror, the horror of trying to subsist on megamuffins and minimum wage. The fun of stacking and alphabetizing cassettes under the benevolent leadership of the azure-Mohawked experimental musician Pamela Z. The joy of talking psychedelia and envisioning earth-shattering cultural epiphanies (one fave: imagining Sonic Youth teamed with Public Enemy years before "Kool Thing") with Winter Flowers' Christof Certik. The insanity of controlling the red-eyed, camped-out crowd from behind the Bass ticket booth when the final Who tour went on sale — and getting a Tower sweatshirt when my $50,000-in-two-sellout-hours register totaled to the penny.
The shock of realizing, as a budding world music buyer, that my assistant was thieving bags of Van Morrison and Chieftains CDs from my section. The starstruck bedazzlement of glimpsing the musicians and celebs pour through the glass doors on a regular basis (following a testy Todd Rundgren around with a drooling coworker, catching a lady-killing grin from Chris Isaak, and listening to Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys praise the version of Gabriel Fauré's Requiem pouring out of the speakers). The weirdness of instructing shut-in customers on what to do when the cassette ends (you press "rewind" or you find Scotch tape and record over it in disgust). The surprise of ordering vinyl and CD versions of the same release and finding certain humongous labels unwilling or unable to ship records, making available only the higher-priced so-called alternative. The pleasures of the lurching, lumbering 1 a.m. Muni ride home after completing the midnight closing shift, back to my digs in the Lower Haight. The switch-flipping surrealness of realizing I was the only one actually bothering to work during most of my shifts — while everyone else was down the street on three-hour lunches or fielding drinks with label reps.
Sure, the party was great while it lasted, and in pop cultural backwaters like Honolulu, Tower became the only, life-changing game in town — jetting in imports, hard-to-find discs, zines, and books at below list prices — and likewise you could get your hand-stapled xeroxed zine into Towers from Tokyo to Paris. And while the sprawling stores flourished, they drove out of business the local mom-and-pop music stores that didn't recalibrate and start to sell used music and books, collector’s cards, comics, and games.
So now it's being boiled down to end racks and wire fixtures — after a 30-hour bankruptcy auction ended in favor of the Great American Group's $134.3 million bid rather than that of Trans World Entertainment, which said it would have kept most of the stores open. And frankly, I feel only somewhat sentimental — despite the initial quality of in-house magazine Pulse and the quasi-democratic, carry-everything supermarket atmosphere — because Russ Solomon's retail model was far from carefree. The reason the prices were so low was that the workers there were barely scraping together a living (therefore often resorting to unrepentant graft — one staffer funded his trip to Italy on returned, unmarked promo music). At the time it felt like the glamorous equivalent of a record store sweatshop, with its overeducated, obsessive employees bitterly muttering to themselves about the amount of money that would pass through their hands — and straight into Solomon's coffers.