At a time when institutions and entities we cherish might disappear, the rebirth of the Tower Records brand is especially welcome. Since the company’s Chapter 7 liquidation in 2006, I know there’s been a void in my life.
That’s why I was gleeful to learn from an attendee at the May 2019 Making Vinyl Europe in Berlin that Tower was planning a comeback. That attendee was Danny Zeijdel, who appeared to be no more than 30 years old. As we walked back to our hotels, Danny introduced himself, and shared the news that he now represented Tower. As far as I had known, the assets were sold during the bankruptcy, so obviously I was intrigued.
Zeijdel then attended the next Making Vinyl conference in Los Angeles in October 2019, and soon after, the two of us met to talk about how I might help with a relaunch as a consultant. But I cautioned Danny that if I was to help him, I needed proof that the investment company indeed now owned Tower, because Billboard’s last reporting of the matter was that a different entity bought the brand name. Apparently that deal never closed.
A few weeks after at a diner in Chelsea, Manhattan, I met David, an associate of Zeijdel’s. David and I met again – this time without Danny – at a different diner in Columbus Circle. He opened a large briefcase of legal papers that satisfied my inherent journalistic skepticism, proving that their European-based employer indeed was the current owner of the Tower brand.
A month later, I was sidetracked by my father passing away, and getting his affairs in order. I let David and Danny know it might take a while before I could help them further. Then the pandemic hit, delaying Tower’s business plans, which I will not divulge here.
But the good news is that TowerRecords.com re-emerged later in 2020 as an e-commerce operation, preceded by an Instagram presence providing music trivia that garnered scores of fans and potential record buyers. Then in November 2022, a Tower Labs performance space/pop-up store appeared in Brooklyn, offering limited-edition music and merchandise releases, and listening parties.
The Tower Labs store and performance space. Courtesy of Tower Labs/Christian Anwander.
I should point out that in the mid-1980s I was a regular contributor to Tower Records’ in-house publication Pulse, for which I interviewed musicians including Aimee Mann, J.J. Cale, and Al Stewart. In 1986 the monthly magazine also published a two-part series that featured portions of my master’s project about how MTV had changed the record industry and the record-buying habits of Penn State students. (Pulse also killed an interview I did with Gil Scott-Heron because they thought he was too critical of Arista Records and feared the label might pull its advertising.)
For New York City music lovers, the downtown three-story Tower supermarket on the corner of Fourth Street and Broadway was mecca. At its peak, the home entertainment beachhead extended all the way to Lafayette Street, selling and renting DVD discs and VHS tapes. (At some point Keith Richards lived in the co-op above.)
Circa 1992, living within a 10-block walk to the East Village, I relished the ability to get my music browsing and buying fix any late night of the week (they’d close at midnight) if there was nothing on television. Cable didn’t yet reach my neighborhood. Mind you, this was the pre-internet era, where you couldn’t just punch in Wikipedia, YouTube or Spotify for discovering new music.
I’d peruse Tower’s LP and CD bins and get educated on my latest genre and artist obsessions in reggae and jazz. I distinctly remember, in the early 1990s, being in the jazz department and asking the clerk about who was playing on the system, and he replied, “Mingus.” I asked what album, and he said: “Oh Yeah,” and then I asked if he had it on CD, to which he replied, “oh no! But I have it here on LP.” I promptly bought the vinyl.
The Greenwich Village store was where I inadvertently bought my first CD in November 1985, thinking I was buying the vinyl boxed set of Bob Dylan’s then-new Biograph, which turned out to be a CD set with a misprinted box for five LPs. I decided to keep it even though I didn't yet have a player because I figured, what better way to kick off a collection with the new format? (Ironically, I recently purchased a used vinyl version; what goes around comes around.)
It was at Tower where at CD signings I met personal heroes the likes of Alice Cooper, Patti Smith and Elvis Costello. I also recall getting shut out when Morrissey was there because the line was too long.
When I moved to Washington, D.C in 1987 for a work opportunity, I took comfort in knowing there was a local Tower Records store. In fact, I might have fallen in love with my future ex-wife the night she called me around 8:30 p.m. She asked if I wanted to go with her to Tower, and told me that she’d pick me up in her car in front of my apartment building. Who could turn that down?
When I moved back to Manhattan a year later, she drew a picture of me standing in front of my apartment building, carrying the iconic, yellow-and-red Tower Records bag; unfortunately,, it didn’t survive several subsequent apartment moves.
After marrying and starting a family, we moved to Manhattan’s Upper West Side, and Tower had an uptown location on Broadway and 66th Street. I’ll never forget the day that the Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill was blasting over the sound system and droves of shoppers rushed out the doors, holding their ears. Of course, I stayed.
I also appreciated the fact that Tower Records would be there when I’d travel throughout the US to places like New Orleans, where I heard Jack White for the first time over the store’s sound system. I bought the Cold Mountain soundtrack on CD, and also my first issue of the British rock magazine Mojo. When I’d go overseas on business to London, I visited Tower stores if I had time to kill. I remember being in Hong Kong and snaring just-released CDs of Bryan Ferry’s Frantic and Madonna’s Ray of Light.
Tower Records had stores around the world, including this one in Dublin, Ireland. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Joehawkins.
There’s no doubt that Tower Records set the bar for deep-catalog music-related merchandise, a trend that still lives on these days at Amoeba Records in Hollywood and San Francisco, and other large indie record stores all over the world.
Much credit must go to Russ Solomon, who passed away in March 2018, for convincing his dad to expand his Sacramento, California drugstore in 1960 to also sell records, and to come up with the record supermarket concept. At its peak, Tower generated more than $1 billion in annual revenue, with nearly 200 stores in 21 states and numerous franchises internationally.
By the time of its Chapter 7 bankruptcy in 2006, 89 US Tower Records stores were shuttered. One shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that at the time of the 2006 liquidation in Manhattan, Virgin had also recently liquidated its two Manhattan “Megastores” (at 14th Street and in Times Square). HMV was the first retailer to flee its American beachhead in 2004, closing two large midtown Manhattan stores after four years of not turning a profit.
The former Tower Records in West Hollywood, California in 2006. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Mike Dillon.
I miss buying fanzines about musicians (I’ve kept the ones on Bob Dylan, Kate Bush, and Bryan Ferry) that I would see at the old Tower Records stores.
In 2010, three years after Tower’s Greenwich Village store (and the chain) closed, No Longer Empty (NLE), an arts organization dedicated to creating exhibits in vacant storefronts that emphasize the heritage of those sites, took over the massive space at Broadway and Fourth Street.
The month-long exhibition, “Never Can Say Goodbye,” featured fake album covers dotting the walls; a paper-sculpted store clerk, whose creator had captured the know-it-all attitude of former employees; promotional materials that copied Tower’s familiar yellow and red graphics; and of course, record bins, courtesy of a faux retailer called Never Records. Indie label Sacred Bones Records donated real LPs to the Never Records bin. Thankfully, the landlord didn’t charge for the space.
“Today, freely downloading selected songs have created an empty space where a music store once thrived,” the NLE press release stated.
I remember that walking through the physical walls where I had been hundreds of times before was a little eerie, as if ghosts were watching. Apparently I wasn’t alone in my personal connection to the place: at the opening of the exhibition, a line extended around the block from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.
So kudos to Danny and David, the two stewards of this unexpected Tower Records rebirth. They realize the importance of how people’s lives were shaped by this iconic brand. I look forward to seeing how the venerable Tower gets further remade in the digital age.
Header image: a former Tower Records store in Manhattan in 2006. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Nicolas Marchildon.