Eleven more weeks

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!

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  1. says

    Oh, wow, even in New York City? That’s the last place I’d expect to suddenly be without a commercial retail store with a large classical selection.

    I remember the selection at Tower Records fondly. During my first year at UT-Austin, they were open on a corner location along The Drag. I was breathtaken that the entire second floor is devoted to classical music.

    Mind you, when I was younger, it used to be in the early 1990s that many media retailers had large selections such as Wherehouse Music and even Best Buy. Nowadays, you’ll be better off at a book retailer like Borders of Barnes & Noble to get a decent, if not rather small selection. Everything else is usually full of compilation albums or discount labels.

    But those were a glorious nine months when that store existed in my life. I usually go there every other weekend and simply just browse the selections. The even had an entire wall devoted to the Naxos label, which is by far the best combination of value and quality I have encountered thus far. I didn’t buy anything from the store because I had a free alternative from the Fine Arts Library. But it was still good to have a store with a good dedication to classical music.

    The combination of Tower Records financial troubles and the rapid turnover rates of retailers on the The Drag led to the stores closing by the summer of 2004. Now it is occupied by and independent bookseller.

  2. Richard says

    I think the days of the of hearing recorded music on “spinning plastic” are numbered. I also think the idea of “owning” recorded music is doomed, being replaced by web basedsubscription services, which would solve the problem of getting a recording asap. As wi-fi gets better, or some other wireless format comes on the market, even portable music players will become extinct.There is real possibiltie that no recording will ever be “pop”-ed (this is an acronym for put out of print, so I’ve always wondered why it’s not called “poop”- ed.) Having all music available is a mixed blessing, but there is no technical reason it can’t be done. (What I would REALLY,REALLY LOVE, would be some sort of web based subsciption series for scores!

  3. says

    Oh, this just, well, sucks.

    One of the great pleasures of visiting New York has been browsing in the Tower Classical department. For me, the most wonderful aspect has been the broad selection of historical recordings–ones that I wouldn’t think to search for online, and which might not come up on Amazon or Arkiv. A close second is seeing what new historical DVDs have hit the market.

    The Lincoln Center Barnes and Noble has the largest classical selection of any chain store I’ve visited. In the Indianapolis area )where I live) both Barnes and Noble and Borders used to have excellent classical departments. At both chains, the shelf space has diminished considerably in recent years. Every time I visit one of the stores, the classical department is even smaller. Now I no longer bother with them; there’s never anything interesting. And that’s what made my occasional visits to New York and Tower Records so rewarding.

    If I know what I’m looking for, online ordering is great. But when I am looking to be surprised . . . now what?

  4. says

    Hi Greg,

    Andrew said one thing I was thinking – that Barnes & Noble and Borders both do stock a reasonable amount of classical, and perhaps even get decent sales – I’d be curious to know how well they do.

    To add my bit to memory lane – in the Philly Tower Records they even had a separate “classical annex” building across the street, it was huge and fabulous and I bought posters there. A few years later, it was reduced to a few shelves in the main building. Another noteworthy story is the Times Square Virgin, which began with a huge classical section segregated by glass – within a few months they had converted it to DVDs and had next to no classical in the store. I think it was around that time record stores everywhere started lowering the boom on their classical sections.

  5. Larry Fried says

    Mr. Sandow: Did you forget King Karol – yes, that was the spelling – on 42nd Street, just east of 6th Avenue. That store had EVERY record available anywhere in the world – classical, jazz, pop, folk, etc. They didn’t offer much in the way of discounts but, if something was in print, they had it.

    Yes, I did forget King Karol! Probably becauase, for whatever reason, I didn’t go there much. Thanks for reminding me, and for correcting my record-store history.

  6. says

    There are too many record shops in London to count, I know I’m spoiled. The huge HMV on Oxford Street has half it’s basement enclosed by glass to keep out the Sugababes coming from the video games section and a good selection. I like it in there as it’s practically the only calm place on Oxford Street.

    Though I admit I do 90% of my music buying on iTunes, even though the classical section is a bit weak. It’s part laziness and part frugality – CD prices in the UK are high.

    It seems really strange there isn’t anywhere reliable in New York of all places to buy classical CDs. When I worked at Best Buy head office (don’t ask), the Music & Movies department hardly ever broke even, they were only there to drive customers into the store – that’s why the sections are shrinking and they only sell new releases. It’s the only thing that doesn’t all out haemorrhage money. I can’t imagine being able to run a CD-only shop sustainably without having to charge a fortune for the CDs, let alone in an expensive rent city like New York.

    Oh would I ever love access to a web-based subscription for scores.

  7. Paula says

    And, you forgot Music Masters which Tower put out of business back in 1990.

    Music Masters Uptown, Inc., was a NY institution for several decades. I worked there briefly in the late 1980s until it closed in 1990. Music Masters was really the last of the “mom and pop” record shop for serious collectors.

    It is a horrible shame that now except for Academy Records(which is largely a zoo), there is no place to browse anymore. Part of what got me interested was just seeing all the new recordings displayed.

    In the UK there are still places—Harold Moores for one. Frankly, I, for one, think New York should be ashamed of itself. How can you call yourself a mecca for serious (classical, new, whatever you want to call it) music and NOT have several stores which sell CDs.

    Yes, I know iTunes. But, sorry, not half as much fun, not the same journey of discovery.

  8. SteelyTom says

    The Tower in Cambridge, MA is closing as well, along with Virgin Records on Newbury St. in Boston. According to a local paper, the Tower classical department in Cambridge did the fourth-greatest volume of classical business in the US.

    I’ve got to believe there’s a place for specialty retailers in places like NYC and Boston. Perhaps Tower’s problems had to do with competing with Best Buy in selling the most new Beyonce cds. I’ve gotten some great bargains in the liquidation sales, but it all seems very sad– and unnecessary.

  9. Erica says

    When I was living in Los Angeles this past year, I spent many of my evenings browsing the classical music section at Dutton’s in Brentwood, an independent bookstore with a meticulously chosen collection of books and classical music. The clerks for the music section were extremely knowledgeable in classical music, and though the selection was small, it was so well-picked that you couldn’t help going home with a new, rare, wonderful find every time. I’m sure Dutton’s makes most of its profit from its book sales as the book sections were always crowded and the music section usually desolately empty, but the existence of the music section as it was reminded me of the days when the arts weren’t quite so divorced from one another. It also seems more feasible for independent bookstores, which have more control over their inventory than bigger chains do, to add decent music sections to their book sections. I’ve always thought it would be great if independent bookstores in New York, many of which are very successful, could add a music section like Dutton’s, well-chosen and dependable.

  10. Yvonne says

    I’m living in Sydney, but spent three years living in Cleveland OH. Aside from Borders, it was impossible to buy classical CDs in Cleveland. This particular city compensated by having the most extraordinary collection of classical recordings in the main Cleveland Public Library and its sub-branch in Cleveland Heights. (I still remember wandering into the local Clv Hts branch when I first arrived there and seeing shelves of scores, including works by people like Michael Torke! Cleveland is one musical community.) But basically, when I lived in Cleveland I either used the library or I ordered online from Arkivmusic or Amazon.

    This was part of a cultural discovery of the US as the Land of Mail Order.

    Back home in Australia, mail order and online shopping is a much weaker business. I suspect we simply don’t have the population or the mail order culture to support it. That, together with an urban population that it is strongly centred, together with retail, in the eight capital cities.

    The plus side is that there is enough shopfront business to sustain specialist retailers, especially in Sydney. Although things are declining here, too, we can still boast Fish Records, with an excellent selection and truly knowledgeable staff, as well as reasonable classical ‘lounges’ in HMV etc. Sydney also doesn’t do too badly on the second-hand CD front.

    So while I miss the limitless selection and great prices of the US online retailers, I’m glad to be able to enjoy – at least for the next little while – the tangible, tactile, visual experience of browsing a record store.

  11. says

    I worked for Ben Karol for several years in the 70’s. I worked in management at out main store at 42nd and 6th. There will never be a store like that again…..sadly. Ben and Phil made a record store a destination and we really were. We were obnoxious,know it all’s,but we really did know. Ben hired music people and record collectors,so we we walking phonologs. After King Karol closed I worked for R.Friedman i.e, J&R MUSIC a great record store for the time