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A time to mourn, a time to bargain hunt

Tower's demise saddens many loyalists. Some not-so-loyal shoppers are also left upset.

October 11, 2006|Chris Lee | Times Staff Writer

The sign outside Tower Records' flagship store on West Hollywood's Sunset Strip underscored the mixture of disappointment and disbelief greeting the announcement on Friday that the giant music retailer would be liquidating its inventory and closing all 89 stores across the country.

"It's the end of the world as we know it," the sign read, deliberately echoing the title of a hit song by R.E.M. "Thanks for your loyalty."

A vigorous going-out-of-business sale was underway Monday, part of an effort by Tower's new owner, Great American Group, to offload the foundering record-store chain's assets over the next six weeks. Merchandise has been marked down 10% to 30% (with deeper discounts promised as the weeks go by), and foot traffic in the store was up by about a third, according to one employee. Despite a snaking line to the register, a somber mood prevailed -- an atmosphere conjured, in part, by a baleful ballad by indie rock quintet the Decemberists on the sound system.

But the imminent shuttering of the 46-year-old chain of megastores, one of the largest in the country, was front of mind for many customers, including West Hollywood musician Brent Heller, 37. He said he had been a regular shopper at Tower for the last quarter of a century and recalled bygone days, before the chain's music sales were eroded by the Internet and competition by big-box discount stores such as Wal-Mart and Best Buy, when Tower was a meeting spot-cum-hangout for teens: a non-virtual version of Myspace.com.

"I remember buying Bob Dylan's 'Blood on the Tracks' here, a lot of my favorite records," Heller said. "I probably make music because of what I bought here. It's an institution. I'll miss it."

Members of Tower's sales staff have long been known for their encyclopedic knowledge and outsized critical appraisals of music. Workers at the West Hollywood branch, however, weren't talking -- under an apparent gag order by store management. But in the view of Jon Lau, 18, a visitor from Seattle, morale appeared to be low. "Everyone here seems pretty bummed," he said.

Across town at the chain's Santa Monica store, four people positioned around the Third Street Promenade wielded large cardboard placards advertising the liquidation sale. According to Mike Martin, 30, the store's receiving supervisor, longtime customers had been responding to the news with sadness and anger. "Some of the regulars are mad," he said. "We have a lot of customers in their 60s and 70s. They can't believe it's closing."

Further, Martin said Great American has not won karma points among employees -- many had hoped the Los Angeles-based liquidator would not place the highest bid in last week's auction for Tower's assets. Soon about 3,000 people will be out of jobs. "Now they're just trying to blow everything out and make a quick dollar," Martin said.

Some consumers, anticipating such a pricing blowout, were disappointed.

"The first sign I saw that something was wrong with this picture was the sign an employee was holding up in the parking lot of the Buena Park Tower, as I pulled in on Saturday afternoon," said Dave Schmerler, of Westminster. " 'Up to 30% off,' it proclaimed. Already, my hopes for half-off, and then some, were dashed. And that pesky 'up to' had me worried."

On learning that the initial discount for CDs and DVDs was 10%, Schmerler said, "I realized that, even with the 10% discount, I would be paying way more than Amoeba prices. I mean, the average disc price was an astronomical $17.98, so it was still over $16 -- before sales tax -- per CD! I put back seven and bought one.... I left thinking that Tower doesn't even know how to go out of business properly. No wonder they went out of business."

In a download-happy, file-swapping era, the discreet joys of browsing among record racks and losing oneself in reverie while pondering album cover art -- the boilerplate experience of shopping at a brick-and-mortar outlet operated for and by music lovers -- seem lost on a generation of young shoppers like Marisa, 13, and Teddy Louden, 15, from Mar Vista. They decided to check out the sale in Santa Monica after seeing the placard-bearers, motivated by curiosity rather than brand allegiance.

"I don't really even like to buy CDs," said Teddy. "Usually I just buy songs on iTunes."

chris.lee@latimes.com

Special correspondent Steve Hochman contributed to this report.

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