4th & Broadway: When Tower Records was Church
The downtown New York hub—famously packed wall-to-wall with music—is officially ten years gone
When you walked into the Tower Records store in New York City’s Greenwich Village neighborhood back in the day, you just didn’t go in there to buy an album and then rush off to leave. To me, going to Tower was like visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art or attending a baseball game — it required a certain investment of time.
Sometimes it was the overall experience of being inside the store that mattered more than the purchases: the act of walking through the aisles and aisles of music, finding out what the new releases displayed out front, and hoping to meet an musician who was doing an in-store appearance. There was always a sense of anticipation as you went through Tower’s revolving doors underneath the the large sign displaying its distinctive italicized logo because you just didn’t know what you’d discover.
This month marks the 10th anniversary of the closing of that particular Tower Records location and others following the record store chain’s bankruptcy after 40 years in business. It’s a loss that I still haven’t quite recovered from after shopping there for almost two decades. When I recently saw All Things Must Pass, actor/director Colin Hanks’ lovingly-made and poignant 2015 documentary about the rise and fall of Tower Records (which is now out on DVD), the memories of what made that New York store so special to me came flooding back again, mainly because it played such a pivotal role in my music-loving life. This was my version of church, but instead of being covered with stained glass, its windows were decorated by blown-up covers of the latest albums.
I still remember my first ever visit to Tower Records as a 13-year-old in 1987. It was a weekday morning, and my older sister and I traveled via the subway from our neighborhood in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn to then-edgy East Village section of Manhattan. Our music store back home was the Record Factory, a decent place, but that was nothing compared to when I stepped inside the Tower Records on East 4th Street and Broadway for the first time. This store had four floors of wall-to-wall music — 45s, vinyl albums, and cassettes — in one place. What impressed me the most was that it still carried old 45s from the 70s and early 80s that a smaller record store would have already phased out from its inventory. For the next several years I was a regular visitor to the store, buying its music almost every week—starting with those old 45s, and then graduating on to cassettes and compact discs. Never once did I get lost in this maze of music; I knew the place like the back of my hand.
There were other record stores nearby in the Village: Bleecker Bob’s Venus Records, the Wiz, Sounds, Kim’s Underground, It’s Only Rock and Roll, Second Coming, and Revolver. But Tower Records literally towered over them. I didn’t know that Tower originated in Sacramento, California back in 1960, and that the store in New York, which opened in 1983, was part of a growing chain (see All Things Must Pass for the history of Tower). But unlike McDonald’s or Wal-Mart, this East Village Tower Records store had its own distinct character without the homogeneity and sterility that one would expect from a corporate chain. Perhaps one reason for that is the large diversity of the selections that had something for both the casual and sophisticated music fan.
This was the layout inside the store during the 90s: the ground floor usually consisted of the pop and rock sections; the mezzanine area would be where the cassettes or boxed sets were shelved; the upper level was devoted to classical, jazz, country, world and blues; and the basement level consisted the CD/cassette singles section. There was an information area near the entrance. The prices were generally reasonable and it always felt good to leave with my purchase inside that shiny yellow plastic bag with the store’s red logo printed on it.
Another important quality about that Tower Records in the East Village went beyond what was in stock: it was the store’s laid-back vibe, a reflection of the personality of the down-to-earth and hip employees. As pointed out in All Things Must Pass, working at Tower wasn’t so much a job but being part of a family (I actually did try to apply for a summer job there once). I was never harassed or treated rudely by an employee, nor did I felt pressured from a staff person to buy anything. Sometimes I would just go to store just to kill a couple of minutes before seeing a show at the nearby club The Bottom Line. I loved the atmosphere so much that I didn’t mind having to drop off my knapsack at the security area. And there were the many times when my high school friends and I hung just out at the store because it was a chance to be surrounded by all this music and act cool.
In addition to selling music, Tower Records was the place to go when it came to in-store appearances by musicians, which were usually advertised in The Village Voice. For me, a lot of time was spent on line at Tower to meet such artists as Patti Smith, Bryan Ferry, Lou Reed, Erasure, Philip Glass, Peter Murphy, and most memorably Kate Bush, whom I waited for four hours outside on a cold December day in 1993 to sign a piece memorabilia. I also saw performances by the Jayhawks and Yo La Tengo for the first time ever at Tower.
Another thing I always looked forward to during a visit to Tower was picking up the latest free issue of Pulse, the monthly music magazine that the company published. Back when I couldn’t afford a subscription to Rolling Stone, Pulse was the closest to a legitimate and serious music magazine that I avidly read for its great content (knowing that it was also a vehicle of promotion for the record companies, as it carried advertising). Among those who appeared on the cover of Pulse were Metallica, Stevie Wonder, R.E.M., David Bowie, Marianne Faithfull, Tony Bennett and Depeche Mode.
It was also at Tower Records where I had a mixtape professionally made sometime around 1989 through a service called Personics, in which you picked and purchased individual songs from a catalog or kiosk. Through a special machine, the songs were transferred from an optical disc onto a high quality blank tape with your name printed on the cassette sleeve. This approach to buying only singles instead of whole albums only prefigured digital music retailing that iTunes later pioneered, and Tower Records played an indirect role in that with the Personics service. It was also a harbinger for the store’s future.
By the early 90s, Tower Records still reigned in music retail everywhere that there were other stores in New York City in addition to the one in the East Village: the Upper West and East Sides, Long Island, and a mini outpost inside midtown’s Trump Tower. In addition to the music, there was also a Tower Books store that sold books and magazines and a Tower Video that sold movies. But a couple of factors, as explained in All Things Must Pass, accounted for the chain’s financial problems that would eventually lead to its bankruptcy, including expansion and debt. Then the advent of the MP3 and the downloading of music changed everything, first illegally (Napster) and later legitimately (iTunes) also put the nail in the coffin for Tower.
I didn’t go inside the East Village Tower on its last days before it finally shut down for good in December 2006 — I might have been busy finishing up a project for grad school at the time. Or perhaps subconsciously I didn’t want to be there to see people cleaning the carcass. I wanted to remember the store when it was filled with music, people and activity instead of my last memory to be of empty shelves, packed boxes, and ‘going out of business’ signs.
After Tower’s demise (although it lives on as a retail website), a few record stores in the Big Apple filled the void until they also sadly bit the dust: the venerable Bleecker Bob’s, Virgin Megastore, J&R Music World, and the small and respected indie shop Other Music, which ironically was across the street from Tower. Rough Trade NYC, the American outpost of the popular indie British record chain, opened in 2013 in the hipster Brooklyn section of Williamsburg; I liked it, even though it’s a bit out of the way from where I live.
A recent trip I took to San Francisco’s vast Amoeba Records store recaptured a bit of the magic I had experienced at Tower. But the damage was done: I moved on to shopping for music through digital downloads or retailers like Amazon or eBay, and then later streaming on Spotify. And I don’t often visit the East Village — which has since succumbed to being a tourist trap and a place for luxury condos — as much as I used to, since Tower was the main reason why I went to the neighborhood in the first place
As hard as it is for me to still accept what happened, I am so grateful that I still have some mementos from the Tower years — the autographed CDs from those in-store musician appearances, the old copies of Pulse, the Personics cassette, and maybe even an old shiny yellow bag with the store’s logo — to remind me of a place that really shaped my youth and formulated my knowledge and love of music. Compared to today’s younger folks, I am fortunate I got to experience Tower Records earlier in life rather than later in the age of the iPod and MP3.
As a postscript, they never really made good permanent use of that space on the corner of 4th and Broadway after Tower left. For a period it served as home of the MLB ‘Fan Cave’ until it reportedly closed a year ago.