Where the Good Stuff Was

If you liked rock and roll, a record store was a gateway drug, and there was no better dealer in the world than Tower Records

I'm not usually big on nostalgia, but record stores?

Oh, baby.

My first was Walt's Record Shop on South Salina in downtown Syracuse. I was in grammar school, and that was before malls, when people still went shopping downtown. Walt's wasn't even a great record store, but it had a better selection of LPs and 45s than Woolworths or Grants.

If you liked rock and roll, a record store was a gateway drug. Everything was there! You could hold albums and singles in your hands, look at the covers, read liner notes, smell the vinyl. Records were real, tactile objects, which you brought home, put on a record player, heard the pop and hiss of the needle as it hit the disc's revolving grooves on the turntable and then—bam! loud rock music filled the room before your parents told you to turn it down.

One of my most vivid memories of Walt's, which seems unbelievably archaic now, when you can get any kind of music instantly on the Internet, is going to Brian Fahey's house after school and calling the store every day for what seemed like weeks, asking when the new Doors record was coming in.

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When it finally did, we rushed downtown to the store, only to find a long line of kids who had obviously also been badgering them and waiting to get the word. Kinda like the dealer putting out the word that the good stuff had come in.

In high school, we graduated to the Record Runner on the Syracuse University campus. Just walking into the store was exciting. It was literally underground, dimly lit, psychedelic posters from the Fillmore West on the walls and filled with the smell of burning incense.

The bins were packed with all the new rock albums from San Francisco and England and hippies with long hair played the new releases, including jazz records we had never heard of before.

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In other words, it was heaven. Kinda like the dealer was getting even better stuff, and had a much cooler crib.

When I moved to New York City, the big record store was Sam Goody's in midtown, which was big, but not hip. Then Tower Records opened in the Village, on Fourth Street and Broadway, and it was kinda like the dealer now had an emporium with the best stuff from all over the world.

Every imaginable kind of album, cassette and CD from every genre and country filled three floors at Tower Records. People spent hours browsing, talking, listening to the new releases and getting help from staff who also loved music. It was the ultimate record store.

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Tower was a chain, but didn't really feel like one. That's because it was owned by Russ Solomon, who was—and is—a really cool guy, who loved music, all kinds of music, and loved to have a good time. After starting Tower as an outgrowth of his father's drugstore in Sacramento in 1960, Solomon realized that young people would flock to stores that carried lots of good rock records at reasonable prices–and were cool places to hang out.

So he took the plunge and opened stores in San Francisco and Los Angeles in locations no one else wanted. Those stores broke the mold. They were very large and had everything. Solomon hired hippies and anyone else who loved music. People stood in line to get in. Rock stars bought records there. Elton John would come in with a long shopping list and buy multiple copies of the same record for his homes all over the world.

You can see Elton in the aisles holding a clipboard, meticulously checking off the records he just bought from his list in "All Things Must Pass," a new documentary about Tower Records by Colin Hanks.

The movie is also the story of the record and music business riding high (literally) in the rock era until its precipitous Web-entangled decline. And it's a cautionary tale: business was booming and bon vivant Solomon was living the good life but got blindsided by the Internet—and overextended the chain by expanding too fast when sales were stagnating, using too much debt.

But Solomon had a great ride in the process, and he exuberantly and lovingly recounts the highs and lows on camera, drink in hand, supplemented in the doc by candid and often very funny interviews with his ex-hippie managers.

See the movie if you love records, record stores or shopped at Tower.

Or if you agree with Bruce Springsteen, who describes a record store as a place where everyone else in there was your friend, at least while you were all listening to, talking about and looking for the good stuff.

Tags: music