[From the archive, first published in 2006.]
I remember the day that the woman walked into the Tower Records I worked at — the classical annex on Sunset Boulevard in L.A. — and asked me for the best record in the store. I got a little snooty with her, like Jack Black in “High Fidelity.”
I told her that “these aren’t hamburgers,” you can’t say which one is the best. I offered to show her some good ones, and let her decide. I recall that I ended up selling her Carlo Maria Giulini’s recording of the “Eroica” Symphony. I hoped it would change her life.
Clerking at Tower Records for two summers in the mid-’80s (between stints at grad school) was an education in itself. Your customers ran the gamut from dimwits to seasoned connoisseurs, many of whom came in for their regular fix (stacks of records) and stayed to chat. My fellow clerks were also endlessly knowledgeable (for kicks, we’d open up several different recordings of the same piece and debate their merits) and a few of us even went on to bigger (though maybe not better) things. Mark Ringer, the author of a recent, lauded guide to Monteverdi, was one such colleague.
The death of Tower Records (bankrupt, liquidated) is a serious blow for classical music. With the disappearance of the independent dealer, Tower became the most reliable and comprehensive source for classical-music recordings over the past few decades. According to The New York Times, Tower alone accounted for perhaps as much as 50 percent of all classical record sales. It’s not easy to imagine how the store will be replaced.
Browsing is important — absolutely necessary — for the classical buyer. I saw it firsthand. Often, customers didn’t have much of an idea what they wanted when they walked in the door. Often, even if they did, it was a piece of repertoire, a recording of “The Magic Flute,” say, or of “The Four Seasons,” not a specific recording. Which one of the dozens offered they didn’t know; they’d browse and find out, often with our help.
And while they were at it, they’d see other things. Ah, a new Pollini recording they hadn’t heard about, a newly restored Klemperer re-issue, a live recording never before released of Callas singing Bellini. You browsed, you discovered. Who knew Tchaikovsky wrote a seventh symphony (the “Manfred”)? You weren’t likely to find out about any of these recordings, and most others, unless you browsed.
Having a knowledgeable clerk on hand is also crucial to the classical-buying process. This is not only so for the novice listener. A knowledgeable clerk (record stores don’t always have them, but Tower had its fair share) knows his stock, knows what’s best, knows the deals. With its vast back catalog comprising a history of Western music stretching back to the Middle Ages and even earlier, classical recordings require a music-critic guide at ground level — the knowledgeable record clerk.
At the Laguna Hills Tower Records, that was my friend Charlie Brand, who knows more about classical recordings than just about anyone I’ve ever met, including myself. I relied on his advice, and he never let me down. (Thanks for turning me onto Maxim Vengerov, Charlie).
You just can’t browse online like you can in a record store. And downloading doesn’t cut it with many (most?) classical fans. (You download “Gotterdammerung.”) In this way, you might say that classical recordings are like hamburgers.