Wednesday, January 17, 2007

R.I.P. Tower Records


It was only a store. A franchise, at that. Those come and go like weeds these days. Why should this one be any different? Why did it hurt to lose this one?

If you live within 200 miles of Chicago, you’ve probably heard about the demise of that city’s beloved retail icon, Marshall Field’s. Even if you’re not a Midwesterner, you might've heard the tale. How the East Coast retail giant, Macy’s, bought out Field’s like Captain Jack Sparrow might've boarded the Good Ship Lollipop. How Macy’s cruised into town like the evil Once-ler in Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax, ignored the wishes of the locals and tried to impose a New York State of Mind upon Chicagoans. How this has caused many Chicagoans to vehemently protest—protests that have ranged from refusing to shop at Macy’s to actually picketing Macy’s stores. How Macy’s was left, like the Once-ler, fondling its sluggish Chicago Christmas sales like that last, lonely Truffula seed.

You have? Good for you. But this post is about a different store: the late, great Tower Records. I know what those Field’s fans are going through, though. It feels like I’ve lost a close friend.

There was only one Tower Records store in my vicinity and it was almost an hour’s drive away. I didn’t, like Bruce Willis, drop $15,000 there in one visit. I didn’t, like indoor beach enthusiast Brian Wilson, hang out in my bathrobe there (BOTH TRUE: http://www.suburbanchicagonews.com/beaconnews/lifestyles/132292,2_5_AU12_TOWER_S1.article). But I did manage to get to Tower about once a month and I never left the store empty-handed.

I can hear you now, especially you Gen-Y’ers. “Big sigh, Methuselah!” you’re saying. “You’ll just have to ask your 7-year old nephew to order stuff for you on Amazon.com. Prices are lower and they’ll ship those Monkees CD’s right to your door. Or God forbid, you’ll have to actually exercise your frontal lobe and learn to shop online yourself!”

Yeah, I suppose so. I realize Amazon.com is cheaper and more efficient. I know that you can find a gazillion and one more CD’s, DVD’s, videos and books there than the biggest Tower Records store could ever stock. It is far easier, and often preferable, to have your audio/video goodies delivered discreetly to your home. I learned this about five years ago when, upon exiting my local Tower, I ran into an old friend of my mother’s, “Mrs. Pharisaic" the Sunday school teacher. Mrs. P. was there to buy her granddaughter a copy of “Veggie Tales: Heroes of the Bible”. I had just purchased a copy of “Spiderbabe”, starring the noted thespian Misty Mundae (http://www.towerrecords.com/product.aspx?pfid=2892282&title=Spiderbabe). A word to the wise: always, always ask for a bag. Mrs. P.'s mouth flapped like a storm door in a hurricane and Mom didn’t speak to me for a week.

But it won’t be the same. Online, you can’t actually pick up the merchandise, look it over, feel it, experience it before the sale is rung up. With internet purchases, you’ve got to base your choice on a tiny excerpt from the work, on the seller's sales pitch, or on a “review” written by somebody like “Musikfreak99” of Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, who writes like he failed the same junior high English class that Harry “Ain’t It Cool News” Knowles did. Online, it’s always something of a gamble. And, with 101 ads for related and additional products blinking at you from the computer screen, the focus is always on the sale. You’re never allowed to forget that you’re there to spend, Spend, $PEND!!!

What’s more, you can’t cross-reference online. Well, you can, if search engines turn you on (All right, but this is not about me and Ms. Dewey, okay?). At Tower, I could pick up a biography about Bob Dylan, browse through a few chapters and see a reference to the folk singer Odetta. I could research Odetta’s career in any one of the recognized music reference books and magazines Tower Records stocked and read up on her definitive albums. Then, I could amble over to the “Folk/New Age” section and find those albums sitting on the shelf. While there, I might spy several other names I recognized from the Dylan biography: Dave Van Ronk, Richie Havens, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Joni Mitchell. And I could repeat the process, which I believe is called “learning”, and it was actually fun. Then I could buy those albums—or not. Not once did any Tower employee ever approach me and pressure me to buy something. When I did take a selection to the checkout stand, the Tower clerk never tried to strong-arm me into other purchases or extras of any kind. The clerk simply rang up my stuff and thanked me for stopping in. In this day and age, it was like traveling to another retail planet.

True, Tower’s prices tended to run to the higher end of the scale. But in exchange for discounts, you got selection. Where else could you find albums by Black Flag, Shakira, Grandmaster Flash and Bond sitting mere feet from each other? Where else might you find a DVD copy of Orson Welles’ best (in my opinion) movie, “F for Fake”, an aisle away from a DVD of Ursula Andress’ finest film performance, “The Sensuous Nurse”? Who stocked comedy albums by Pigmeat Markham and Moms Mabley, as well as spoken word albums by Henry Rollins and Gregory Corso? Who else had Jack Kerouac books, Marvel Comics action figures (Hard-to-find ones, like Captain America and the Silver Surfer!), picture postcards of Dylan Thomas, posters of Bettie Page, copies of both the British and Italian editions of Maxim and locally-produced fanzines of various ilks? Not Best Buy and Barnes and Noble combined, that’s for damned sure. At least, not without making you wait for weeks for “special orders”.

For those of you living in major cities, where independent as well as chain stores of this kind are plentiful, it may seem like I’m making a mountain out of a molehill. But for those of us lost in these vast hinterlands called the Suburbs, a store like Tower was nothing less than a cultural outpost. Occasionally, honest-to-God celebrities would actually travel here and do personal appearances in the store. It helped us yokels remember that we were part of the, like, actual world.

It was at my local Tower, in fact, that I had my one and only encounter with a gen-u-ine famous person. Couple years back, the Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan dropped in to autograph copies of his poetry book, Blinking with Fists. After standing in line for a few chilly November hours, I was admitted into the store. There, a quartet of bodyguards resembling Bluto from “Popeye” allowed me to come within six feet of the talented Mr. Corgan, who was seated at a folding table with a bunch of black Sharpie markers. As he signed my book, we had the following exchange:

BILLY CORGAN: (scribbling his name) Hi.

JOHN LEFT: (flushed and shivering) Hi.

BILLY CORGAN: Lousy weather, huh?

JOHN LEFT: Typical November!

BILLY CORGAN: (hands signed book to bodyguard, who passes it to another bodyguard who passes it to Left) Yeah.

JOHN LEFT: (looking at autographed page while moving toward exit) Thanks! Can’t wait for your next album!

BILLY CORGAN: (already signing the next fan’s book) Thank you, sir!

It ain’t much, that’s true. But it also ain’t going to happen at your local Wal-Mart (“Your First Stop for Music!”) any time soon.

Damn, damn, damn, double-damn! This sucks like an Oreck XL. Where am I going to go to get my “fix” of the stuff that, for me, is the spice of life? The stuff that makes me feel like a tuned in, cultured person with a functioning brain? Not from “big box” stores with fluorescent lights, staffed by gum-popping Clearasil cases who think Britney Spears invented rock n’ roll. You can put that on a plate and serve it up hot.

Well, I guess I’ll just have to stop standing outside the now-vacant store, whimpering, with my face pressed against its glass doors. I considered protesting, but picketing an empty building seemed anticlimatic. Besides, you need more than one person to form a picket line.


Let’s see, my nephew is off school on Saturdays and pee-wee hockey doesn’t start up until next month. If I offer to do—I mean, “help” him with—his book report on The Phantom Tollbooth, he might be willing to create an Amazon account for me. Maybe.

2 Comments:

Anonymous /jq said...

Hey Johnny boy,

Doyou actually think a genYr would use a term like "Methuselah"?

4:03 PM  
Blogger John Left said...

Jq:

Yes, but only if Methuselah were a character on "The Gilmore Girls". But I see your point and appreciate your feedback.

9:21 AM  

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