Charles Petzold

Closing 1: Tower Records

October 16, 2006
New York, NY

One Sunday in 1983 I opened the New York Times Arts & Leisure section to find a two-page ad announcing the grand opening of Tower Records on 4th Street and Broadway, proudly open 9 AM to Midnight seven days a week. That address was about a 5-minute walk from my apartment and it was after 9 AM already, so I quickly put on some clothes and trotted down.

Up on the top floor of Tower Records was the large classical section, and customers that opening day were literally walking around in a daze. "What have we done to deserve this magnificent gift?" they (and I) seemed to be asking.

Of course, there were other places to buy classical records in NYC before Tower. When I was in college in the early 70s I used to take the Path train into the city to go to the Sam Goodys on 43rd and 3rd, whose whole basement was devoted to classical music. There were specialty stores as well: The famous Discophile on West 8th Street seemed to have permanent customers who spent the day arguing about great opera performances of the past.

But nothing came close to Tower Records for the sheer depth of its inventory. Nothing, that is, until another Tower Records opened on 66th and Broadway, right near Lincoln Center and the Julliard School of Music, and quickly became the preferred place to shop. Here's an example from my recent experience: Suppose you were looking for the 37 CDs of Schubert lieder released by Hyperion. The downtown Tower might have about 6 in stock. The uptown Tower had them all.

The Tower Record stores in Manhattan are closing now, as are (it seems) all the Tower stores across the country and around the world. I went to 4th Street and Broadway yesterday and bought 3 CDs (one Schubert lieder, two Wolf lieder) for 15% off. It was sad, I guess, but it wasn't Tower itself I liked so much but their inventory.

These closings leave a severe gap in the city. I honesty do not know where else to shop for classical CDs. (Obviously I'm familiar with the two Virgin Megastores on 14th and Broadway and 45th and Broadway — gosh, everything seems to be on Broadway — and they surely pretend as if they have a classical CD section, but on close examination it's clearly inadequate.)

Of course, the free-market economists among us (I've actually met a few) will scoff at my very assumption that New York City should have a first-rate retail store that stocks a healthy collection of classical CDs. Don't I know that classical music accounts for only 0.024% of all CD sales? (I made that number up.) Don't I know that classical music in all its forms would dry up and disappear were it not for subsidies that are clearly improper and unhealthy in a free-market? Aren't I being un-American for even listening to classical music, some of it actually French?

As you drag me off to Guantánamo, I'll be screaming that it is to the overall advantage of a capitalist music industry to foster a music culture based on transience rather than permanence. It's easier to move lots of CDs when The Best Song in the World changes every week. This is part of what Daniel Bell was talking about in The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. Capitalism actually destroys those values that Conservatives supposedly hold dear, to the point where Conservatives don't even know what they want to conserve except for the capitalism. What are people talking about when they want to go to war to preserve our "way of life"? Are they talking about Western Culture, including music, art and literature? Or are they talking about Halliburton, drug companies, and Nascar?

Of course, we all know that the problems begin in the educational system. Inexplicably, school boards would rather fund football than music education. I know this because otherwise there would be a new TV show called Friday Night Stage Lights. (Please don't put me in solitary. I'll shut up now.)

Yes, I know that there are wonderful modern alternatives to stores such as Tower, and that I can actually bypass the antique CD medium by directly downloading music. But the last time I checked, the bit rate used at iTunes was clearly inadequate for classical music. (And what about the all-important liner notes? Virtually everything I know about classical music I learned by reading liner notes. I am not exaggerating!) And I hate the idea that music that is possessed solely as bits is so ephemeral and so easily disposable.

For years, I have raged (usually privately and sometimes in emails) about the terrible classical search engines on both Amazon and the online Barnes & Noble. B& is particularly shocking because they stock classical CDs in some of their stores, but online they can't believe you actually want to buy classical music, so they keep dumping you back into the pop music search engine.

Fortunately there is also, which is devoted to classical music, and which has such an exceptional Browse system that I rarely need to use an actual Search. That's my new best friend.