SACRAMENTO — Multimillionaire Russell Solomon said you don't have to climb mountains for adventure; just try building an international empire of retail stores like Tower Records.
His tireless expansion of the chain has been so packed with unseen risks that he was threatened three years ago with prison in England when he unwittingly kept his new music outlet in London's Piccadilly Circus open on Sundays, in violation of labor-oriented laws that regulate store hours.
British officials sent "a high court writ and said either you close or go to jail, so we closed on Sundays," Solomon said as he lounged here in the sleek headquarters of his company, which had sales of $330 million-plus last year and employs 3,200 people.
Sold in Father's Store
The 62-year-old record czar with longish white hair and a full beard, whom the media have dubbed "King Solomon," started out selling records in his father's Sacramento drugstore in 1952.
His international chain now has 53 record stores, with a sales volume that makes it second in the world, behind Musicland. Together with book, videotape and art stores, his outlets total more than 100.
But don't look for Solomon on TV shows celebrating life styles of the wealthy and well known.
He dressed for the office one recent day as if he might be headed outside for yard work, said he doesn't care about collecting boats, planes or cars, and lives in a condominium because he hasn't found time in the last three years to break ground on a house he plans to have built.
"I guess you could say I'm wealthy, but I don't have the trappings of a multimillionaire," he said. Then a smile flashes across his bespectacled face that is somehow reminiscent of a professor's, and he added, "I get to drive a Mercedes."
Son Is a Lawyer
Solomon has been separated from his wife, Doris, for 14 years. His son, Michael, a lawyer, works at Tower Records.
Solomon describes his company variously as his hobby, his challenge, his passion.
"It sometimes is very adventuresome when you go to another country and start up a company from scratch and finance it yourself, not knowing anything about what you're going to run into in that country, about the customs you're going to have to learn, the people you're going to have to deal with, the real estate customs, the government customs, your customers," he said.
"It's like climbing up a mountain. It's a little bit dangerous to do; a lot dangerous. But risk is part of the adventure."
Tower Records has outlets throughout the West Coast, in Hawaii, in many of the nation's major cities--including Washington, Philadelphia, New York, Boston, New Orleans--and in Japan and England.
Moscow Store Planned
Solomon has opened talks with intermediaries in hope of establishing a store in Moscow.
"We'd love to have a store or a relationship to export music there," and not just because it would be a new market, he said. "Everything isn't necessarily motivated by profits. It would be an interesting cultural advance."
Culture is important to him. He collects art and listens to jazz, classical and country music.
"The record business is a hell of a business to be in because it keeps you very contemporary," he said. "You have a direct communication with contemporary ideas. Music ideas specifically, but along with the music ideas, all the other ideas of contemporary pop thought and contemporary cultural thought go with it."
Solomon said he got into the business when he was too young to know better: "I was only 16."
Solomon, in 1952, bought the record section of his father's drugstore from his father, Clayton, and started distributing records to discount outlets.
Went Broke in 1960
He went broke in 1960, but with borrowed money formed Tower Records a few days later. He reopened in the drugstore, located in the Tower Theater building, then a short time later opened another store in Sacramento.
The first milestone came in 1968, when he opened his first out-of-town outlet in San Francisco, which was the largest record store in the nation at the time.
"In 1968 in San Francisco, it was right at the point of the flower children, that whole acid-rock kind of thing," and Tower Records rode that wave of popular music, he said.
The success in San Francisco led to the second milestone, a store in Los Angeles, which attracted the attention of the entertainment industry.
Direct Ordering Is the Key
Solomon said the growth of Tower Records has been aided by direct ordering between individual stores and manufacturers without the common practice of central ordering, warehousing and distribution. The employees who do the ordering are often young and have fine-tuned musical tastes.
Tower was the first to keep its stores open long hours, seven days a week. The outlets also stock virtually every record title, both popular and classic, and order plenty of the best-selling items, which they try to sell at the lowest prices. The chain also stocks compact disks.
After more than four decades in a business, most people in their 60s would probably be thinking of retirement. But not Solomon.
"What would I do if I retire?" he asked. "I was reading about George Burns the other day. He's 92, and he hasn't retired."