That’s what one of the people at the cash register was telling customers last week, in the classical department of the Tower Records store near Lincoln Center in New York. “Please come back and see us. We’ll be open for 11 more weeks.” Tower Records, which had flirted with bankruptcy for years, is now formally bankrupt. All that’s left is to liquidate the stock (to raise cash), and then every Tower store will close.
And maybe now it’ll happen before 11 weeks. This past weekend, Tower put up “Going Out of Business” signs at its stores. I read about this in the New York Daily News (once again, a tabloid scoops the New York Times), and saw it myself, as I drove past the Tower store on Route 17 in New Jersey, north of Paramus. Not only were there signs on the store — there were also flyers stuck up on the opposite side of the highway, where I was driving, just in case anyone might want to turn around and pick up some bargains.
I’m bereft. When Tower closes, New York won’t have a fully stocked classical music store, for the first time since I started buying classical records, back in the 1950s. In the ’50s, you could buy classical LPs at Sam Goody’s (no relation to the current chain with that name), or at The Record Hunter. The Record Hunter stayed in business for many years. In the ’90s, at the height of the CD era, there were five serious classical CD departments in New York: at the two Tower branches, at two branches of HMV, and at J&R Music World. J&R downsized its classical department; HMV closed its stores; now Tower is going out of business.
Why am I bereft? Of course I can buy any classical CD I want online. But sometimes I wanted something in a hurry, maybe something to play for one of my Juilliard classes. I could look for it before class at Tower. And I loved browsing in the classical department. I saw what was available, especially from indie labels. I saw how classical labels were marketing themselves, what they featured, what they thought people might want to buy, what was on the CD covers. The covers were slowly starting to improve. How will I keep up with that now? And will covers even matter, if most of the CDs can’t be seen in any store?
Tower also flew the flag for classical music. At a time when the classical music business is going through so many changes, here were two big classical departments open for business in New York City, showing that at least here — in the center of the classical music business in the USA — classical CD retail wasn’t dead. And now it will be, right here in the national center of the classical music business. That’s an ugly omen.
And I doubt any private parties will step into the breach. We can dream about a beautifully stocked, beautifully run classical CD store, with clerks who know classical records and are devoted to helping their customers. But the numbers make that unlikely, if not impossible. First there’s the cost of real estate in New York, which makes any store expensive to run. And then there’s the state of the CD retail business generally — profit margins are very low, even when you’re selling pop hits. Gross sales are falling; more and more people are buying CDs online. And what happens to stores when downloads take over?
All might not be lost, though, at least in New York. Two non-profit institutions — Juilliard and the Metropolitan Opera — have stores that sell classical CDs. The Met, as you’d expect, sells only opera (maybe other vocal music, too; I’ve forgotten). But their store is wonderfully full, as fully stocked as Tower used to be, maybe even more fully stocked. Juilliard concentrates on opera and historical instrumental recordings, with a small stock of current non-operatic CDs. Both stores have one important thing going for them — I assume that real estate costs aren’t what they’d be for a private company, unaffiliated with a major institution that has its own building. The Juilliard store may also be expanding, since Juilliard is building a new building.
So here’s a suggestion. We need a full-service classical CD store in New York, at least while CDs still are sold anywhere. And to give us something approaching that, the two stores I’ve mentioned ought to cooperate. The Met should keep on selling opera, and Juilliard should eliminate its opera stock, and sell instrumental music instead. That way, the two stores together could add up to what we need.
I’ll make some inquiries. Maybe this could happen!