Silicon Insider: Tech Kills Tower... and Nostalgia?

Farewell nostalgia.

I got an e-mail the other day from an old friend, Dan Fernandez, who these days lives in Seattle.

I first met Dan more than 20 years ago when he was working with my wife at a terrific Silicon Valley bookstore called A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books.

What I remember most about Dan at the time was that he seemed to spend most of his wages buying books from his employer. … And spending any money he had left on albums at Tower Records.

Perhaps it's not surprising then that Dan's e-mail contained a link to a Washington Post article on the death of Tower Records, with the comment, "Requiem to an icon of my youth."

I know what he meant.

I moved to California as a boy just about the time the first Tower Records store opened in Sacramento, and I watched the chain open store after store in the Bay Area.

To me, Tower represented not only records and music, but a whole way of life: shiny, neon buildings that seemed to capture the bright optimism of the early '60s on the outside, combined with noisy, messy and stoned (both clerks and customers) interiors perfectly attuned to the second half of that decade.

As the years passed, both got increasingly seedier -- once again the perfect analog for the age of metal, punk and then grunge.

Indeed, my memories of Tower Records are inevitably linked with the memory of the parking lots outside, which always seemed covered with a thick layer of wrappers, promotional fliers, cigarette butts, gum and spit.

Remembering the Role of the Tower Institution

I bought a lot of records at Tower, as well as a lot more at funky, little record shops around my community.

Those records were the core texts of my education in becoming a rock record critic.

I still have about 1,500 of those LPs tucked away in a closet and other corners of my house -- with bootlegs, rarities, and obscure one-shots mixed in with some multiplatinum classics. I occasionally take them out and play them, just to hear that beautiful warmth that only analog recording can provide.

Some of those records are worth a lot of money these days -- but tellingly, not for the records themselves, but for their album covers.

The records, whatever their advantages, are now essentially scrap, replaced now by not one, but three technology revolutions in turn -- first the audio cassette, then the CD, and now the digital mp3 file.

Tower managed to thrive on the first revolution and survive (barely) the second.

Because cassettes and CDs were still physical objects, with packaging and promotion, they could be inventoried and offered to consumers in a supermarket-style retail environment.

But the arrival of the consumer Web in the mid-'90s soon set record stores like Tower -- and for that matter, small bookstores such as ACWLPFB -- on the path to oblivion.

When you could one-click on Amazon.com for the hottest new book or CD, and have it delivered to your door in a couple days, why drive down to skuzzy Tower Records and either discover that it had sold out of the item or, if you were lucky, pay more money to have some surly clerk with a bone in his nose sneer at your musical taste as he rings up your order?

Thus, Tower Records and its lesser brethren were already reeling when Napster and the iPod completed the classic tech cycle of turning hardware into software.

In a few more years, a basic mp3 player will hold all of the songs that used to make up all of the records in the stock of a traditional Tower Records store.

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