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Lend them your ear

An elite group of audiophiles does more than pontificate on classical music. They're culture curators.

August 25, 2003|Scott Timberg | Times Staff Writer

He quotes Nietzsche or Furtwangler in casual conversation, and describes recordings with swooning praise or corrosive disdain.

He clutches his heart over one piece of music, shakes his head in weary resignation over another. He's got theories -- miles and miles -- on why British sound engineers are the most sonorous, on the ruthlessness of mobile society, on why conductors get more action than the rest of us. What starts out as an innocent question can leave you intellectually worn out.

He's neither a tenured professor nor a nationally syndicated commentator, but a clerk. A lanky, shorts-wearing Tower Records clerk named Eric Warwick, an early-music and chamber-group enthusiast with features so Germanic he seems better suited for lederhosen.

In his heart, he's a rebel and an idealist, but also someone in humble service to the music.

"Some of the older guys here have seen [Maria] Callas and [Franco] Corelli!" the alarmingly boyish 58-year-old says of his customers at Tower's classical annex on the Sunset Strip. "They've heard the old-timers -- they know it all."

But sometimes dedication requires getting tough. "This is just not good!" he says, grabbing a newly issued disc by the late, much-revered pianist Rudolf Serkin and launching into a rapid-fire barrage. "Plain, tawdry, not very refined! Mediocre! Amateurish!"

Like their counterparts at book and video stores, record clerks shape our experience of culture as decidedly as any critic, curator or culture-industry executive. They're street-level tastemakers, part of a breed that's entered pop mythology: Kevin Smith's first film was set in a New Jersey video store, and Quentin Tarantino went from South Bay video clerk to indie auteur. Nick Hornby's novel "High Fidelity," which became a 2000 film, was narrated by an obsessive, emotionally stunted London record salesman.

Endangered species

But despite these glamorous associations, serious clerks have become an endangered species. The Internet, with outfits like book and CD merchant Amazon and DVD service Netflix, is put- ting stores, which offer the joy of browsing, serendipity and human contact, out of business. And in a city that increasingly draws people with its promise of fame and fortune, erudite members of the service economy become harder to find. Warwick and others, including a young clerk at Dutton's Brentwood Books named Hammurabi Kabbabe, have removed themselves from the rat race but have found, perhaps, something more valuable. What they represent, though, may be fleeting.

Sales of CDs in all genres are falling about 8% a year. Although classical music isn't pinched by piracy as badly as rock music, and concert attendance shows a modest rise, classical's share of the market is low and getting lower. Last year, according to sales tracking firm Nielsen SoundScan, U.S. buyers shelled out for 21.5 million classical CDs -- only 3.3% of the discs sold by an ailing recording industry.

Tower Records, in particular, is having a hard time: After several years of bleeding money -- it's posted a loss every quarter for the last three years -- the company defaulted on $110 million in bond debt in June and is now up for sale. It's hard to imagine a new owner maintaining the West Sacramento-based chain's attention to classical music, which includes large sections in many stores and classical annexes not only on Sunset Boulevard but near San Francisco's North Beach. (The company did not return calls seeking comment.)

"People like Eric are becoming a real rarity," says Richard McFalls, former classical coordinator of Tower Records in the L.A. area and now a sales and marketing rep for Universal Records. He wonders how retail will survive as the music audience dies off. "In another 10 years, it could be completely devastated."

With his superhuman memory and a record collection to match, Warwick is a classic American autodidact and the quintessential record salesman. For some, a stint at a record store is a bridge between college and grad school, or a way to wait out a recession; for others, like Warwick -- who grew up in Santa Monica, studied psychology at UCLA, took jobs that didn't catch and celebrates 20 years of clerking for Tower this summer -- connecting fans with the perfect recording is a life's calling. He sometimes wears shorts, which he describes as "kind of a trademark," even when attending concerts.

"Eric is an institution," says Joe Lawrence, a Beverly Hills restaurant manager who loves 20th century music and has bought discs from Warwick since the mid-'80s. "He's led me down a lot of paths."

"They're important acolytes to the artistic muse," Michael Ward, a Westside collector of CDs and 78s, says of clerks, after dropping $200 on a Wagner box set and other recordings at Tower Sunset.

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