Toppled Tower

The envelope sat on the porch, and the Tower Records return address told me all I needed to know. After 28 years as a buyer for the industry icon, I had been laid off, liquidated, via FedEx. Inside the package were a brochure picturing happy faces suggesting counseling, a brochure offering “tips to survive a layoff,” instructions concerning health insurance (“just because you have lost your job does not mean that you and your family have lost insurance coverage . . . it just means that now you are responsible for paying for it all by yourself”), and a final paycheck (sans severance).

Thinking back, I’d had quite a ride, thanks to the Sunset store’s location: Star sightings, publicity campaigns and in-store concerts were the order of the day. I remember walking into work one morning and hearing Candice Bergen saying, “Oh, there you are”; Elton John coming over to shake hands and wish me a happy New Year; giving career advice to Laura Nyro; and instructing Elvis Costello about getting an Irish passport. There were concert tickets, screenings, backstage passes and many industry parties. I liked to boast that Tower paid us an honorarium and all the freebie CDs we could carry.

So, 10 days later, I’m behind the counter at Tower’s Classical Annex across the street. What happened? Well, in the best Hollywood tradition, the store’s opera guy won a big part in a movie, and the new owner, the liquidating firm Great American Group (GAG), needed a body to replace him. My new colleagues in Classics are named Joe, Jay and Jerry, and their libertarian antics quickly put them at odds with the GAG procedures. Jay, for example, busies himself filling CD end-caps with Rubenesque nudes from the Baroque section. When we are ordered to answer the phone “Tower liquidation,” Jerry responds, “Hello, the shop formerly known as Tower.” The frequently asked question “When are you closing?” is answered with “They don’t tell us, because then they would lose their power and control.” When our liquidator tells Jerry that this is a totally cynical response, he says, “Thank you.”

The customers are an altogether different group. It becomes apparent that they are devoted to the store and they are suffering from grief. I say that not as an astute observer, but simply from empathy; they are going through what I am feeling. One night, Michael, a regular visitor, comes up to the counter and asks if we would like to see his imitation of conductor Leopold Stokowski.

“He does a good Rubinstein too,” Jay tells me later.

Another group comes in, sits at the table and chairs in the back, and discusses the week’s events at Disney Hall along with the latest recordings. I call these regulars “the coffee klatch”; apparently, the klatch disdains Andrea Bocelli.

The remaining Tower managers receive an e-mail from the ruins of the Sacramento hierarchy: “You are not used to dealing with this kind of atmosphere . . . I’m not asking you to like it. I’m not even asking you to stay . . . However, some employees are behaving in embarrassing and irresponsible ways . . .” It appears other Tower workers are also resisting liquidation. Suddenly, corporate e-mails emblazoned “Goodbye” or “Gone!” fly through cyberspace as employees and managers walk away when their stores are emptied of product.

Certainly, business is flourishing, and the liquidators are hitting their numbers. Well, not all of them. Apparently, those of us asked back are expected to work for $10 an hour, but I have been spared that indignity, apparently in error. I am outed and told that my previous salary is skewing their numbers. My liquidator agrees to let me keep what I have earned but take ten-spots for the duration. I did not think it was possible to make less than I was already making, but you can get blood out of a turnip, and I am Mr. Turniphead.

Inevitably, the time comes to consolidate; by compressing the thinning CD rows, we are able to eliminate dozens of racks and make the store smaller. It is easy to see what this is leading to, and the regulars are distressed. One night I play Barber’s Adagio, and a customer begs to hear something else.

“All of us are weeping on the inside, and this is just twisting the knife,” he tells me.

It is then that I realize they are mourning for themselves; the store’s demise is emblematic.

The next morning, I see to my horror that the klatch’s furniture has been thrown haphazardly behind the discarded bins. I spend the morning rearranging racks to acquire space, replacing the chairs and table just as the guys begin to arrive. For a moment, anyway, it is still possible to find a place in a crowded, noisy day to ruminate about the good things in life.