The end of an era

The sign guys were at plenty of intersections this weekend, waving huge Tower Records “going out of business” boards. I couldn’t bring myself to join the crowds picking over the corpse at Watt Avenue or Broadway, though—especially after viewing the mug shots of the executives who run Great American Group, the company that won the bankruptcy auction on October 6. Go to, click the “executive summaries” tab and see what I mean: Maybe it’s just the lighting the photographer used, but these guys don’t look much different from the Damon Runyon characters in a book about the history of organized crime I own, which I bought at Tower Books many years ago.

And maybe it’s my emotions. It’s hard to watch a company where I worked for 20 years die and get busted out by the same kind of cheesy outfit that liquidates furniture stores and hires winos to hold signs on street corners. Tower deserved a much better fate than that.

I don’t think people in Sacramento realize what they have lost. People here kvetch about losing the Kings and Monarchs; just listen to the mass whining on Sports 1140 any time the Maloofs jack up the locals for more cash by threatening to move their teams. “Waah! We won’t be a major-league city if the Kings leave,” they bleat.

Now, Tower Records may not have made this town a major-league city, but it made Sacramento a world-class place. Think about it: Deep-catalog record retail was perfected, if not invented, here. Founder Russ Solomon then transplanted his idea to other cities—first to San Francisco and then to Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, Nashville and many other locations. Most of those stores were run by people who started here in Sacramento. In each of those cities where Tower opened stores, customers could browse through a wonderland of music titles in every genre, and not just the latest hits by this week’s former-Mouseketeer sensation.

Walk into the jazz section, for example, and you’d find a lot more John Coltrane than Kenny G. And the selection wouldn’t be limited to best-of packages; you could start by exploring Trane’s Prestige catalog, move through his tenure at Atlantic, conclude with his selection of titles on Impulse! Records and then find other Coltrane albums, even obscure ones, on other labels. Then you could explore the careers of his sidemen—McCoy Tyner, for example. Or you could follow jazz forward into the experimentalism that followed Trane, or backward through Charlie Parker and Duke Ellington to Louis Armstrong, or sideways to blues, or to the African section of world music, or to the composers like Igor Stravinsky who influenced Coltrane.

I thought I knew a lot about music when I began working for Tower in the 1970s, but the things I learned—from my co-workers and from talking to the hard-core music fans who hung out in the store—dwarfed what I walked in with.

I could write another 5,000 words. Suffice it to say that Tower’s success made it possible for entire record labels to exist, for blighted urban areas to be renovated and for culture in general to be disseminated. People, you don’t know what you just lost.