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Farewell to Russ Solomon, Founder of Tower Records

A good record store, he knew, was like a shul, a place for folks to congregate and seek a little bit of heaven on earth

Mark Oppenheimer
March 06, 2018
Wikimedia Commons
Tower Records in Manhattan, during happier daysWikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons
Tower Records in Manhattan, during happier daysWikimedia Commons

Before reading his obituary, I had never heard of Russ Solomon, who died Sunday night, at the age of 92, at home near Sacramento, while watching the Oscars. But as I scanned the news item and read about his life and death, I was shaken, shaken as you can be only by the loss of somebody you never had, like the beloved author to whom you’d resolved a million times to write a fan letter, or the shy girl you never screwed up the courage to say hi to. If I’d ever known who Solomon was, and had the chance to meet him, I’d have told him what he already knew, that Tower Records, the music mega-store that he founded in 1960, was the greatest record store in the world. Not just because its inventory was so vast, or because its employees earned their surliness with their vast erudition, so that you almost forgave them. It was the greatest record store in the world because it’s where my older cousin Jason, four years older and so much cooler, took me when I visited him in Philadelphia and he had the keys to his mother’s car; we hit the branch on South Street more times than I can count. When I escaped the chaperone’s careful night watch during school trips to Boston, I found the Tower Records on Newbury Street. Just out of college, living in a roachy walkup just east of Union Square in Manhattan, I would wander east toward the river, then break south, and I’d find Tower Records on 4th Street. I didn’t have the money to buy anything, and by the time I did, I had left New York.

Here’s the thing about record stores: We need them. We need them more than we need bookstores, a thousand times more, which might sound strange coming from a guy who can’t whistle or carry a tune but has made a few shekels stringing words together. Bookstores, I love them, but the truth is that a soulless Barnes & Noble is, provided that it keeps late hours, basically good enough. Precisely because I am a book guy, I know what I like, and I have never asked a bookstore clerk for a recommendation. I also don’t much care for my fellow browsers, about whom my general attitude is may God bless and keep them … at least an arm’s length from me. When I make the mistake of looking over to see what they’re reading, I always like them less: It’s usually something self-help-y and dopey. I wish bookstores well, and I wish for more of them, and in my weaker moments, I daydream about owning one, but too many of them have cats in the window. Besides, the library is good. Give me some stocked shelves and a decent, erotic hush, and I am happy.

But at record stores I found a tribe. The record store at the mall was where you saw what the beautiful, cool people were listening to. What were they reading? Who cared? A good record store wasn’t ageist: For all you knew the head in the dad jeans had swallowed all of jazz and funk whole, and could spit it back out—spit you back out, too, if you didn’t watch yourself. People weren’t ashamed to be caught dancing in a record store: When a clerk put on some Katrina and the Waves, a little swaying was mandatory. At Cutler’s Records in New Havenzichrono livrakha, you only had to put on the headphones at one of the two dozen CD listening stations and close your eyes, and somehow the inhibition molted away. I remember a late afternoon at Cutler’s in the late ’90s, when the record biz was last healthy, in mid-December, when everyone was doing last-minute holiday shopping, we were all bumping elbows at the racks, and the sense of goodwill, the fellow feeling, could have levitated the Pentagon. I didn’t find anything for my mom, but I bought Fatboy Slim’s “Praise You.”

The clerks—Mark, Phil, Bob, the woman whose name I never knew—never left, never retired. They were like the old guys at shul. You’d have to carry them out by their payos, which is more or less what happened, to the gang at Cutler’s and at Sam Goody and at the music section of the college co-op, and to all the people who built Tower Records, as you can learn in All Things Must Pass, Colin Hanks’s terrific 2015 documentary about the business that Russ Solomon built. Solomon and his crew, many of whom started with him at his first store in Sacramento in 1960, built out of the back of his pop’s pharmacy, guys with names like Sockolov, Cotler, Danzinger, lost their congregation to a white walker called the Internet, a stealthy zombie killer that wasn’t even human enough to stab Tower in the front. A good record store is a little shtiebel, a haimishe congregation where everyone knew your name, and everyone is just swaying and looking upward, hoping to grab a little piece of heaven on earth; even in the listening booth or wearing the headphones, record-store patrons are alone together. “Everybody in a record store is a little bit of your friend, for twenty minutes or so,” Bruce Springsteen says in All Things Must Pass.

If a record store is a minyan, a twenty-minute assemblage of people coming together to witness the marriage of melody and words, the web is its antithesis, a hallway of loneliness, a sad suburb of isolation, where nobody cares if you shop alone. The last Tower closed December 22, 2006, a week to the day before I became a father. In nearly every way, my life has only improved since then, but I love my children enough to tell them the truth, which is that nothing good has come of the record store’s passing. To cheer up, I’ll take heart from Russ Solomon, a man who kept living well, secure that bankruptcy did not equal failure. He died with a whiskey in his hand, the papers say. And a song, you can be sure, in his heart.

Mark Oppenheimer is a Senior Editor at Tablet. He hosts the podcast Unorthodox. He has contributed to Slate and Mother Jones, among many other publications. He is the author, most recently, of Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood. He will be hosting a discussion forum about this article on his newsletter, where you can subscribe for free and submit comments.