SARA SHERR REPORTS: We got the news on that fateful Friday, but that was only the half of it. Most of us went home thinking we were going to be working for mall record store behemoth Trans World Entertainment, and inexplicably, one of the last music retailers standing. Would we still have a good selection? Would we have to wear those dreadful polos? About an hour or two later, the Internet would reveal that Trans World would lose the auction by $500,000 to liquidator Great American, and we’d be out of work sometime in December. Ironically, the latest news is that Transworld is going to rent the Broad Street store’s space from the Land Title Building after we’re gone. And for once, I’m rooting for the lame mall record store. At least it’s better than another upscale restaurant or condo or CVS or Starbucks or Old Navy, as friends had theorized.
I’ve lived half my life in record stores. It started in my childhood when I’d shop with my musician father, looking for songs for his band to learn, and he’d ask me what records were good. Boys often bond with their fathers over baseball; I used records to connect with my divorced, distant Dad. Since I turned 18, I’ve worked in about five of them, malls and Moms n’ Pops. It’s the only place I feel like Ibelong. When all employment options run out, it’s a skill I can fall back on, like waiting tables, or carpentry. It requires mercy, patience and a mind filled with tons of music trivia.
My last stint was at Tower South Street in the early 90s, which led to my first writing job at the Philadelphia Weekly (when it was still called the Welcomat) and onto my accidental career as a rock critic in Philadelphia. The South Street Tower Records taught me more about being a critic than Temple’s journalism school. My co-workers were music scene folks like Rich Kaufmann, King Britt and Red Burns, andI learned how to know my shit and stand my ground. These days, I often forget how to stand my ground. But the minute I’m back at the racks, I never question anything.
I ended up in Tower’s Broad and Chestnut location in the fall of 2001, right after my unemployment from CDNOW ran out, thinking I’d stay through Christmas. Five years later, I’m still here, having worked at the Information Desk, taking calls from the lonely old people and the drunk ones, running the Ticketmaster machine and answering questions ranging from “you got a bathroom” to “who’s that guy who sings that song about the girl.” Last year, I was promoted to Merchandiser, where I set up sales, made sure that Van Morrison was filed under “M” and not “V,” cleaned sunflower seeds out of the rap section and removed empty latte cups from rock racks. It’s a job I alternately loved and hated, but which ultimately kept me on my toes. And, I learned a lot about human nature, the music industry, and more about gospel than I’ll ever need to know.
From the day after we got the news in October, it was like someone was dying a slow painful death. Even though the sales started out with a measly 10 percent off, it was like “Dawn of the Dead.” It was as if we were transported back to communist Russia and we would never be able to buy Pink Floyd or Isley Brothers records ever again. And those were our regulars. “Going Out of Business” sales bring out the dregs of society, like people who yank on the door an hour before we open at 10, even though there’s a big sign clear as day that says, “We open at 10.” People come in and ask “Y’all goin out of business?” “How long is the sale?” “When’s it going to be cheaper?” Other customers complained that 10 and 20 percent off of CDs that were regularly priced at $18.99 was not much of a deal. They were right.
Because when the company was up for sale two months earlier, we had to discontinue all of our ongoing sales. It’s a myth that everything was $18.99 all the time. Some titles were $18.99 and I agree that’s way too much. But we had a bazillion sales going on all the time. Many catalog titles were on sale from $9.99-13.99, as were our Top 25, New Releases, and listening station programs, and tons of other promotions that took me and my three-person department about three days to set up and take down each month.
Tower was no innocent player in this scenario by any means, but I can’t point fingers until after Dec. 22, when we shut our doors and they can’t fire me. (Of course I want unemployment, wouldn’t you?) The main culprits are record companies who can’t docustomer service, and they’ve turned the retailers into custodians for their DOA releases.They’ve done everything they can to alienate consumers of all ages. They forced people to download when they discontinued singles, then raised their prices, then started suing grandmothers and 11-year-olds. How many readers remember the first record they bought? I remember clear as day walking into the Sam Goody at Neshaminy Mall with my baby-sitting money, scraping together $1.49 for a “Kids in America” 45. When you ditch the singles, you ruin the whole process of introducing young people to a lifetime of purchasing music.
And guess what? “Old” people still buy records by genres the record companies largely ignore: WXPN-friendly rock, indie, adult R&B, gospel, jazz, and classical. So, the record companies continue to chase the people who don’t care about them anymore and then ignore the audience that does. There are still plenty of people who want human contact and who find navigating record retail online an intimidating experience, and these are the same folks who are bewildered by stepping into a store. There are others who can’t even read a sign that says, “We open at 10.” My solution? Keep the human beings, the bricks and mortar, and add computer kiosks and young kids to help the old folks, poor, or otherwise non-computer savvy navigate said computers, and work out a solution where the artists and record companies get their fair share from downloading. War is over, if you want it.