Used music central

With the newly expanded Tower Records, downtown Chico has become a hotbed for used music

CDS DON’T WARP <br>Tower Records clerk Kirk Leonard is busy filing CDs at the new, refurbished Tower New &amp; Used side that once contained Tower Books.

Tower Records clerk Kirk Leonard is busy filing CDs at the new, refurbished Tower New & Used side that once contained Tower Books.

Photo by Tom Angel

Tower of power: The first test for a Tower New & Used independent store began in Sacramento last November and was called Pugs.

Back in the day, it was hard to find a decent used-CD store.

When it comes to buying music in the form of CDs, the cost for new items can run staggeringly high. While some naïve folk continue to predict the inevitability of lowering prices, the cost of a single CD for a new, well-known artist remains between $16.99 and $18.99 on average (practically highway robbery when you consider how much it costs to make the product—anywhere from a quarter to a buck).

Longtime manager of Tower Records Lynn Brown will tell you the expansion of his store into the used-music business simply makes good sense. Since the MTS Tower Corporation was still paying on a lease at the time of Tower Books’ closure, Brown made a proposal to incorporate the location into his record side in order to sell used product as well as new vinyl. Already up and running, the new store, called Tower New and Used, may soon be the big dog on the used-CD-selling block thanks to a steady, plentiful supply.

With a large inventory of returned items at various distribution outlets to choose from, Tower New and Used will have a constant shipment of used titles coming into Chico, somewhere around 2,000 pieces a shipment, in addition to locally purchased used items, from CDs to vinyl and DVDs. For the consumer, that means more deals and a better chance of finding any given selection. But for the other used-record stores downtown, it could spell trouble in the form of lost profits.

For a small downtown, Chico suddenly appears to have a disproportionate number of stores handling used music. They include Underground Records (which maintains a large selection of used items), After Shock (just opened in the old Sundance Records location), and Melody Records, a reliable used store specializing in vinyl and an older, broad range of music. Then there are places away from downtown like Rerunz Books and Video, located on East 20th Street, and The Wherehouse on Mangrove Avenue. Whether the new Tower Used will dominate used-music sales remains to be seen.

“I’m assuming the [Tower New and Used] will hit a different niche than us,” says Ray Coppock, owner of Melody Records, providing downtown Chico with used records since 1979.

Melody relocated a year and a half ago to its new location on the corner of Main and Fourth streets, next to Duffy’s Tavern. Coppock says he now has better business thanks to increased foot traffic at the new location. Even so, having weathered 20 years in the used-music business, he doesn’t appear worried about the new competition starting up down the block.

“Of course I’d rather have all the records to myself, but that’s the way it is,” Coppock smiles. He believes that Tower New and Used will likely specialize in newer music such as DJ and electronic-music markets.

“They’re probably not going have knowledgeable enough people to buy too broad a range of records. We’ll see how it plays out,” he said.

Next door at the Underground (one of three used-music shops within two blocks of Main), manager Jeanette Jackson said the new competition from Tower is a healthy thing.

“We’ve always been competitive with them up the street,” Jackson says. “This keeps us on our toes and changing. But basically, our used selection is based on the community, whatever the community is into, they bring to us and we sell it back to them. …[Also] we’ve been here 22 years and we guarantee our music.”

“If you look at our music selection, you really see the community,” she notes. “We have a nice punk section, fantastic metal, country, new age, Christian.”

Around the block on Broadway, the people at After Shock are still selling off the stock of used items left from Sundance Records which, after 14 years, called it quits because the used market here was too saturated.

But After Shock owner and manager Lynette Frost also believes a community-minded approach can work.

“I believe Chico is really good at supporting local businesses,” she says. “Basically, we can’t compete with the corporate stores, but we’re going to have friendly customer service and we’re going for a lower price range with nothing over $9.99. Everyone here loves music. … We’re all involved locally in some way. My idea was that people want to support the Mom and Pop places.”

Frost said her store, which will carry other entertainment items besides used music, is going for more of an all-ages/family appeal than the Underground. Right now, she says, they are still trying to build a good stock of used-music items before the grand opening in August. They are also planning on having some in-store music shows.

Brown has been extra busy lately expanding his Tower store to nearly twice its original size. Ever since the neighboring Tower Books location closed a few months ago, the retail space has been undergoing a makeover. The best part of the new venture: the diverse selection and the price—the average disc falls between the $3.99 to $7.99 price range. Brown has already seen profits rise 20 percent even in the slowdown of summer.

“We get refurbished stuff from the Bay Side warehouse. We’ll always have that supply that I get to pick, and then we’ll be buying locally too.” Brown explains.

The store is open for business and has turned into a huge project that will include a live music stage for in-store appearances from touring artists as well as regular live shows from locals.

“We did all the work on the new store; it wasn’t a huge investment for them [Tower Headquarters in Sacramento]. We painted it and built the stage. … There’s going to be entertainment Thursdays through Saturdays. I think we’re calling it the Herreid Fender stage [Fender contributed a $2,000 sound system including microphones]. … Ideally, I’d like to give showcases to the younger bands that can’t go into other places.”

On first visit, the Tower New and Used store provides a shock to anyone familiar with the once-crowded aisles of Tower Books. The belly of the store has been hollowed out, the thousands of books and magazines carted away (actually, the $12,000-a-month magazine business was kept and moved into the Tower Records side).The new side seems to have substantially greater sales area, not to mention the freedom it has created on the Tower record side (allowing them to improve their DVD selection and consolidate all CDs in the back of the store).

“I’m also thinking about doing old, creepy movies or something on Monday nights … add a couple of couches, maybe have some different performances,” Brown adds. He mentions a local dance troupe and slam poet Aaron Yamaguchi.

The used side certainly has more of a community feel than its sister side, from the alternative styles of music played there to the lack of corporate junk products and the emphasis on bargain deals—always a hit in Chico. The used side will be selling jukebox 45s, used video and DVD as well (and used vinyl once the local buying starts), and Brown is understandably excited for the future.

“When the kids come back, it should blow up.”

Perhaps the number of used stores is growing on a national level now that big corporations have taken notice and gone in that direction. It’s difficult to know for sure, since there are so many small, Ma-and-Pa-type used-music stores that don’t keep records. If Chico is any indication for the national college market, used music and used CDs in particular will continue to be a growing trend.

But when the big corporations hit the market, will there be room for anyone else? The local Tower Records has always been more community than corporate in its approach, so it is not the best example, but still, as in so many things, Chico can seem like a microcosm of national trends.

Places like Blockbuster Video have already realized the value in selling pre-viewed items at discount prices. Tower Records may be re-adjusting its national image.

Although an erroneous AP report (now retracted) stated that Tower had declared bankruptcy, the 41-year old international corporation is not dying. Tower headquarters recently shut down four of its 10 bookstores nationwide as well as two record stores, but spokeswoman Louise Solomon says the company is merely restructuring and is encouraged by recent revenue stability.

As far as used-music outlets are concerned, “there is definitely a market,” says Solomon. “Students are an important demographic for us. They are working with limited income, and we can provide them with affordable prices through used music.”

“A while ago, record companies changed their return policies on open CDs,” explains Chief Operating Officer Stan Goman from Tower Headquarters. “Once, we could send it back to the manufacturer, but now you can’t. Each place was faced with what to do with the returns.”

Goman is currently working on instituting used stores in college markets across the West Coast in places like Berkeley and Davis and as far east as Austin, Texas, with the trend likely to spread.

“It’s still an evolving process," he says. "The used concept up in Chico should be really student-friendly … we want to do it right … retain our roots if you will, the neighborhood record store independent from the corporate office."