From the Bee archives: Swan song for last local Tower store

By Dale Kasler

dkasler@sacbee.com

September 14, 2016 01:08 PM

Tower Records founder Russ Solomon was on hand as the 30-foot neon sign above the first Tower Records store on Watt Avenue came down March 12, 2009. The sign was donated to the Sacramento History Museum and now will hang at Golden 1 Arena. The iconic site, across El Camino Avenue from Country Club Plaza, is where Solomon opened his first free-standing music store in 1960, the so-called Tower North. Thursday, March 12, 2009. Randy Pench rpench@sacbee.com
Tower Records founder Russ Solomon was on hand as the 30-foot neon sign above the first Tower Records store on Watt Avenue came down March 12, 2009. The sign was donated to the Sacramento History Museum and now will hang at Golden 1 Arena. The iconic site, across El Camino Avenue from Country Club Plaza, is where Solomon opened his first free-standing music store in 1960, the so-called Tower North. Thursday, March 12, 2009. Randy Pench rpench@sacbee.com

Editor’s note: The Bee originally published this story on Dec. 22, 2006. We have republished it online to give readers background information on a historic Sacramento retailer that will be memorialized in the Golden 1 Center. A Goodwill store and Dollar Tree now stand on the site of the last Sacramento area Tower location on Watt Avenue.

Tower Records played its last song in Sacramento on Thursday.

As employees snapped photos, Elk Grove resident Thomas Stevenson purchased 15 jazz and rap compact discs at the Tower store on Watt Avenue. As he headed out into the rain, an employee locked the door, and Tower said goodbye to the city that gave birth to the legendary music retailer 65 years ago.

Closing one day after its fabled sibling on Broadway, the Watt store was the last Sacramento outpost of a company that once defined an era in American retailing.

“We went down with class, “ store manager Paul Brown said as he boxed up some unsold CDs.

The final sale came at 5:34 p.m., capping an emotional day. Well-wishers and bargain hunters scoured the dwindling racks for CDs that at day’s end sold for 50 cents. Some muttered there was little worth buying; others just soaked up atmosphere. One left a box of cookies with a thank-you note scribbled on the price sticker.

“It’s almost surreal, “ Sacramentan John Davis, 56, said as he roamed the store. “It’s almost like I’m sleepwalking.”

Beyond Sacramento, an estimated 10 stores are expected to close today. That will mark the end of Tower as a brick-and-mortar retailer in the United States. In all, 89 stores will have closed and nearly 3,000 employees have been put out of work since Tower’s going-out-of-business sale began Oct. 7.

“It’s kind of a relief, “ said the Watt Avenue store’s product manager, Dale Glover, a 28-year Tower veteran. “We’ve been going through this for 11 weeks now. There’s been this (shutdown) date out on the horizon. It’s been a grind emotionally.”

Scott Carpenter, executive vice president of liquidating firm Great American Group, said the sale went “pretty much as expected. ... I’m not thrilled, but I’m not disappointed.”

In general, sales went a little better in Sacramento than elsewhere, he said. The Watt Avenue store was left with about 1,000 unsold items out of 150,000. The remainder likely will go to a warehouse in Chicago for resale.

As for the rest of Tower, a small crew at the West Sacramento headquarters is tying up loose ends. Tower’s Web site will stay open for the time being but is for sale. Tower’s 142 international locations, which are owned by independent franchisees, also will remain open.

It’s not clear what will happen to Tower’s Sacramento locations. The FYE record store chain backed out of a plan to take over the Watt Avenue and Broadway stores. The other sites, including Davis and Citrus Heights, also are in limbo.

Tower’s downfall, in the minds of some, symbolizes the likely end of the traditional American record store chain in an age dominated by big-box discounters and the Internet.

“If music was in your blood, you were drawn to Tower, “ said Greg Vanderleun, a Warner Brothers distribution rep in Sacramento who stopped by the Watt Avenue store to say farewell. “It was a culture. Somewhere along the line, that didn’t matter anymore.”

Founder Russ Solomon began doing business as Tower Record Mart in 1941, based in the back of his father’s drugstore in the Tower Theatre building on Broadway in Sacramento. After a couple of false starts, he opened his first free-standing store in December 1960, the so-called Tower North on Watt Avenue.

“There’s a certain pride to that, “ said Brown, the Watt Avenue store’s manager since 1992.

While it blossomed around the world, Tower remained the coolest place in Sacramento -- giving the city some cachet. “This is my record store, “ Vanderleun said. “It was part of your life growing up in Sacramento.”

By the mid-1990s, Tower owned more than 200 stores worldwide, and its red-and-yellow trademark stood out from the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood to Piccadilly Circus in London. Sales topped $1 billion a year.

Brash and charismatic, Solomon stocked his superstores with practically every record imaginable: oldies, rarities and music that was hard to find elsewhere. Tower became an industry icon, favored by the rock stars who came by for in-store autograph sessions and concerts.

But in the mid- and late 1990s, Tower was beset with competition from discounters, Amazon.com and the free (if illegal) Internet downloads from Napster.

Tower had been online since 1995, before any other record store, but it felt the future was still in brick and mortar. In the late 1990s, it spent tens of millions of borrowed dollars to open new stores.

In 2001, the company reversed course and started closing stores. But the damage was done, the losses were overwhelming, and Tower couldn’t repay its loans.

A 2004 bankruptcy filing provided something of a fresh start, as bondholders forgave debts in exchange for majority ownership in the company. Yet the business remained moribund and suffered at the hands of new competitors such as iTunes.

In August 2006, Joseph D’Amico, a turnaround specialist who had become Tower’s third CEO in four years, sparked a showdown with the major record companies over payment of bills. The showdown ended with Tower filing again for bankruptcy protection.

The bankruptcy proceedings climaxed Oct. 6 at a law firm in Wilmington, Del. Great American won a 30-hour auction for Tower’s inventory, topping Trans World with a bid of $134.3 million. The going-out-of-business sales started the next morning.

After a frenzied start, sales slowed down around Thanksgiving, and the shelves began emptying after shipments from the warehouse ceased.

Stores struggled to unload product that was obscure even by Tower’s standards. Watt Avenue had dozens of copies of a Russian classical music CD that, according to the code on the price stickers, had been sitting around the warehouse since 1998.

But the items almost all got sold, at 50 cents apiece the last few hours. Some unsentimental shoppers bought in bulk -- hundreds of CDs -- to resell on the Internet. Others loaded up for their personal collections, even if they hadn’t heard of most of the musicians they were buying.

Employees, meanwhile, hugged, took one another’s pictures and swapped stories.

“You’ve got some people here -- this is the closest thing to family they’ve got, “ said assistant manager Bill Thomas, a 14-year Tower veteran. “We’ll all shed some tears, drink a few beers and start a new life.”

Dale Kasler: 916-321-1066, @dakasler