Tower Records, RIP

Tower Records has gone bankrupt, been sold, and will be liquidated.

I could write a bunch of stuff about what this indicates about recent shifts in the music business, how Tower’s “deep stocking” policy no longer makes sense in an era where musicphiles can get pretty much anything they want with a few mouseclicks, and worry about what this means for brick-and-mortar music stores in general.

But my initial response is a personal one.

Moving from southern Illinois to New York in 1983, I had, quite literally, never seen anything like Tower Records on Broadway and 4th St. A record store that took up an entire city block? Three stories of it? Unbelievable. Records I had only dreamed of owning were on sale here every day from 9am to midnight, 365 days a year. That’s right, Christmas and New Year’s included. If, on Christmas morning, I suddenly felt the need to own The Minutemen’s Double Nickels on the Dime (maybe because I didn’t get it for Christmas) I could saunter right over and purchase it.

From the moment I saw that store, I vowed that this was the locus solus of the New York experience. My first home was in a far-flung corner of Park Slope, but each year I moved closer to my goal, until finally, in 1999, I was able to afford a loft on Broadway, a half-block away from Tower. An evening’s meditative walk for me would start at Tower Records, move on to Tower Video (and Tower Books, upstairs) when it was across the street on Lafayette, with perhaps a side-trip to Other Music if I was in the market for an Other Music kind of record, then on to St. Mark’s place where I would check to see if any of the new releases I was interested in could be found for used prices. If I was feeling expansive, up to Virgin on Union Square and then, if it wasn’t too late, the Strand. Then, often, I would end up circling back to Tower before heading home.

When I became interested in “downtown” music in the late 80s, your John Zorns and Elliott Sharps, before the Knitting Factory had their fancy digs and their own label, Tower was often the only place those records were available. And they were open late enough that you could see a band at a club (or a Philip Glass concert at BAM), dash right over and buy their record before the place closed (and the urge to purchase wore off).

When I began working in Los Angeles, I found myself overwhelmed, as many are, by the sprawling, anonymous quality of much of this kudzu-like metropolis. I would center myself and get my bearings by visiting the Sunset Blvd store. I used to say that if I ever became a fugitive from justice, the authorities would always be able to find me by staking out Tower Records on a Tuesday afternoon.

I have too many memories of joyous discoveries and artistic connections made in the aisles of Tower to list here, but here’s one that comes to mind as emblematic.  On the morning of 9/11, like everyone else in New York, I stood transfixed in my living room watching the horrifying images unfolding on TV (even though they were happening a mere 1.5 miles away).  The only thing that interrupted my morning was going downstairs to Tower — hey, it was new releases day, with not only the new Bob Dylan (“Love and Theft”) but also the new Leonard Cohen (Ten New Songs).  It was 9:30 or so and neither building had collapsed yet.  The aisles were filled with sobbing, wailing office workers, unable to watch the images being broadcast on the monitors lining the first floor, and unable to look away.  The street outside was filled with a tide of humanity walking uptown, all the subways being shut down and no cabs available.  In the coming days, when Manhattan was shut down south of 14th St, lower Broadway became an eerie, empty pedestrian mall, but Tower remained open.

So long, Tower.
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64 Responses to “Tower Records, RIP”
  1. craigjclark says:

    Yes, this is a sad, sad thing — and I’m not just saying that because I’m one of the thousands of Tower employees who will be out of a job in the very near future. Even before I worked there, I did a lot of my shopping at Tower and I can’t think of a single brick-and-mortar store that will be able to replace its depth of catalog and selection of all types of music and movies.

    At the very least, Tower will live on in the scene from Body Double where Craig Wasson goes to Tower Records to find a porno film starring Melanie Griffith. You would never be able to do that sort of thing at Best Buy.

    • Todd says:

      Not to mention the scene in Hannah and Her Sisters where Woody Allen runs into Dianne Wiest in the Jazz section of the 66th and Broadway store.

  2. leborcham says:

    Man, my life has been limned by the Sunset and East Village Towers, too, I remember on my first trip away from home in 1984 going to Tower Sunset and finding not only David Bowie but the Angel recording of IVAN THE TERRIBLE.

    I’m so sad I won’t be able to see the Sunset one again before its too late. Very very sad.

    • Todd says:

      Man, my life has been limned by the Sunset and East Village Towers, too,

      I would go to the Sunset Tower even if I wasn’t in the market for anything. It felt like I had to, like I had to check in at the music-lover’s embassy and get my passport stamped before I could travel freely in the city.

      • leborcham says:

        Well, I lived literally down the street on Palm for 10 years, so I was there all the time. It was my backyard.

        Your post also brught back the excitement of awaiting a new album, and going to buy a new cd, or search for something you had been questing for for years. Now it’s just a torrent file away.


  3. mitdasein says:

    I’m not just a former employee, but a Sacramento boy, so it’s hard to let go of one of the few memorable things to come from my hometown.

    • mitdasein says:

      Plus it was often a great place for celebrity sightings. Within a few months at the Newbury St. store, I shared a staircase with Anthrax, sold a bunch of laserdiscs (remember those?) to one of the non-famous Aerosmith dudes, spotted a washed-up NKOTB and met a pre-respectable Hilary Swank, busy bragging that she was the next Karate Kid. I would have had more such encounters if I didn’t work in the video department, as the Beautiful People were more likely to come by to buy CDs than to rent videos.

      • craigjclark says:

        I never had any celebrity sightings myself, but I know that Jeff Townes (a.k.a. DJ Jazzy Jeff) used to stop by my store fairly regularly. (I always seemed to miss him, though.)

  4. mcbrennan says:

    I wrote a little bit about this last month–sadly nowhere near as eloquent as what you’ve written here. I worked there for several years and it was a big part of my life. I’ll probably post something later on; I guess somehow I didn’t really believe Tower would completely cease to exist, and it does feel like a personal loss.

    • Todd says:

      Your reminiscences of Tower employees reminds me of my favorite Tower Video clerks, a Mutt-n-Jeff team of toad-like cinephiles who could check out a long line line of rental customers while having a non-stop, shrieking argument over which Pacino performance was better, And Justice For All or Bobby Deerfield.

  5. rfd says:

    Deep stocking policy?

    • Todd says:

      I’m probably using the wrong term. Perhaps one of the ex-employees here knows the correct one.

      Tower’s success was based on its policy of, essentially, stocking every record by every artist ever made, making its stock quite “deep” indeed. It’s the same policy that iTunes aspires to, the ability to get any music anyone might conceivably want to those listeners.

      The asset of the policy is that musicphiles knew they could walk into a big, brightly-lit record store in a prominent neighborhood and get some of the strangest, most obscure, least commercial music ever recorded. The liability of the policy is that there has to be a huge, knowledgable staff familiar with all kinds of esoteric stuff, plus shelf space to stock it all, plus thousands of different supply lines to keep stock moving and in place. Ideally (I’m guessing), you would sell millions of copies of, say, Thriller in the front of the store, and that would support your ability to stock the one copy of Away, Ye Shanties: Sea Chants of the 1800s you might sell in the World Music department.

      But nowadays (again I guess), the teenagers download their pop hits from iTunes (or illegally from a million different sources) while musicphiles can find their sea shanties at

      Strangely, the CDs that are driving the market these days are being sold to middle-aged adults, people like me, actually, who can’t grasp the idea of downloading music, for whom the artifact of the “record” is a cultural touchstone, so to speak. If you think I’m joking, both Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan recently had their first number one albums in decades in a rapidly decaying retail environment.

      • craigjclark says:

        I don’t know if there is a proper term, per se, but you’re right about Tower’s commitment to maintaining a deep catalogue — not just with CDs, but also DVDs. On new release days, Tower had frequently been the only place one could find titles from smaller vendors and specialty companies like Something Weird and Criterion.

        Ever since the bankruptcy process started two months ago, though, we haven’t been getting a lot of the smaller titles, which has been frustrating the hell out of a lot of our regular customers. Hell, I’ve been hoping against hope that we would eventually get the Something Weird release of Brian De Palma’s first feature, Murder a la Mod, in, but now that is never going to be. (I’ve heard it can be found at Borders, though. I guess I’m still in a brick-and-mortar kind of mindset.)

        • Anonymous says:

          My Tower Records years were the most formative years in my music fandom. They shaped my music tastes. Before I started working there I was a grade-a musical theater hag. That’s actually why I was hired. I had no job experience but they needed someone for the showtunes/soundtracks section and I was getting my BFA in musical theater from the Boston Conservatory. I was luck enough to be the expert needed at the time.
          I was luckier still that they had recently moved that section from it’s own room up on the classical/jazz 3rd floor to the rock 2nd floor. There I was thrown in with the goths and the punks and the indie kids and the rap experts, as I was tiring of musicals (something that happens when you’re studying them 10 hours a day plus homework) my friends were there to introduce me to Built to Spill and Superchunk. “You like Cibo Matto?” my friend Joe said to me one day, “Here you have to buy this Butter 08 album, trust me.”
          Tower was my escape from school when I had decided that I didn’t want to be a Broadway star (but my parents had decided that they did want me to graduate). My friends were there. It was the place where I was in charge of Midnight new releases, where I offended Everclear and had chair races during a late night Tonya Donnelly in-store. It’s where I gushed over Elvis Costello, rang up Lou Barlow, talked bosanova with Beck (before Mutations came out!) and knew what the Bosstones rented. So many of my best memories are from that time and, though the end is here, it will always live in my heart.

          Tower #172, Boston, MA ’97-’98
          Tower #118, San Francisco, CA ’98-’99

  6. kornleaf says:

    I refuse to believe it!

  7. gogogh says:

    I can see how this is sad for specific people, but I don’t understand how this is universally a sad thing. The chain of record stores did nothing to differentiate themselves from the likes of Virgin, The Wherehouse, and Blockbuster. It’s obvious that that formula of brick-and-mortar store has not worked very well since the prevalence of online shopping and chains like Best Buy and Circuit City carrying the same products.

    I say this is just corporate evolution and even has little to do with the transition to digital forms of media.

    • Todd says:

      The chain of record stores did nothing to differentiate themselves from the likes of Virgin, The Wherehouse, and Blockbuster.

      Well, Tower was the first to have the “deep catalogue” policy. Wherehouse and Virgin came along much later. Blockbuster failed for completely different reasons.

      As convenient and easy as online shopping is, nothing can replace the experience of entering the physical space of the marketplace. Online shopping can easily get you exactly what you want, but it has a much harder time introducing you to things you didn’t know you wanted. You walk into a store shopping for the new Beck and see a CD by someone you’ve never heard of because it has a cool cover, or it’s playing over the sound system, or it’s displayed in a unique way, these are all things that the marketplace does well and that the virtual marketplace does poorly. When you log on to looking for something specific and they say “Hey, if you’re interested in that, you’d probably like this too,” dollars to donuts you’ll look at their recommendations and go “What, do they think I’m an idiot or something?”

      • gogogh says:

        You have a point, but I’ll also point out that whenever I walk into a record store without some sort of list I get kind of lost. Being lost in a record store is pretty cool, but I kick myself in the ass when I forget to get some cd I’ve been wanting for the past few months because I saw something else that caught my eye.

        It’s sad to say, but the only record store I purchase anything from is Amoeba. I’m probably an anomaly in this respect, but I think they have the perfect formula for the record store in today’s music industry.

        Unfortunately, cafes and bookstores are becoming the new record store when it comes to finding a new favorite artist when hearing something whilst shopping. I say unfortunately because Starbucks is involved in 85%(*) of all cafes and bookstores in this country.

        * – Of course I pulled that number out of my rear.

      • dougo says:

        I don’t remember being impressed with the selection in any Tower stores since high school (late ’80s). And their prices were discouragingly high. I mainly bought holiday gift certificates there because it was cooler than Sam Goody but less regional than the places I actually did most of my shopping, i.e. Rasputin’s or CD Warehouse or Newbury Comics.

        • Todd says:

          Well, they might have been high compared to Rasputin’s, but most times in my neighborhood, Tower’s new releases were up to three dollars cheaper than even the local used record stores, like Sounds and Kim’s on St. Mark’s Place.

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  8. r_sikoryak says:

    Also, Tower produced Pulse! magazine, which published comics by Justin Green, Adrian Tomine, and many other great cartoonists, every month, for a least a decade.

    They published me, too.

    • Todd says:

      Those Pulse! comics were the first time I’d ever seen Adrian Tomine and I became a lifetime fan.

      And who could resist Desert Island Discs? All I can say that I hope that if I am ever trapped on a desert island, I am granted more than 10 CDs for the rest of my life. Some food and shelter would be a good start.

  9. Anonymous says:


    I’m a relatively new blogger, and rarely write such profound things. I enjoyed your blog immensley. I am new to the States (just moved here; ironically; on the 5 year anniversary of 9/11) and have enjoyed the convenience, selection and general ease of use of Tower records, not only since moving here, but since I began visiting the States a little over 5 years ago. It was a suitable farewell, your post. Well done!

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    • Todd says:

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      Thank you for your kind words. This, however, is not a website but a blog.

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      Furthermore, my name is not Bill.

      • rennameeks says:

        Re: Help with web design

        I was going to post about how I’ve been bemoaning the forthcoming departure of Tower and its deep selection for month, but having gotten to the bottom of the previously-made comments and found this post besieged by spammers, I am torn between crying with laughter and offering my condolences.

        • Todd says:

          Re: Help with web design

          Yeah, for some reason this post and my “green lantern” post get hit by spambots the most often. I don’t know why. I delete them when I find them but obviously some have slipped by.

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