‘Deep catalog’ taught a deep love for music

Times Staff Writer

Chain stores supposedly have no soul; they’re the watering ground of conformity, luring shoppers lemming-like to the same sweater, the same refrigerator, the same musical soundtrack. Tower Records was different. It was a chain, yes, its vaguely Stalinist red-and-yellow signage instantly identifiable, its blockbuster hits stacked high on the end racks; but something made it a shelter for would-be individualists wandering the malls of America, for whom pop music was not just a diversion but the key to fulfillment.

The something was “deep catalog,” an extremely broad selection of product that attracted musical obsessives and helped novices evolve from casual fans to connoisseurs. Deep catalog was the commitment Tower made to the regular shopper: the jazzbo looking for that weird fusion project on the American Clave label, the dreadlocked hippie browsing the Jamaican imports, the hard-core punk looking for anything with speedy guitars and a shouted chorus. By allowing its product buyers -- a motley crew of aspiring musicians, bohemian lifers and undergrads willing to accept retail wages just to be near all that music -- to stock the shelves with virtually every pop derivative imaginable, Tower created a physical space where the music’s variety came alive, where the snobbish geek and the casual listener were equally served.

For this critic, Tower -- first the one on Mercer Street in Seattle, where I shopped as a high school New Waver, and later the San Francisco flagship at Columbus and Bay, where I worked during my college years -- provided a sentimental education. As a kid I was too intimidated to talk to anyone at the hip independent stores, but a clerk at Tower Mercer turned me on to Elvis Costello and the Clash and changed my life. Then, when I moved south and became that clerk, I tapped my co-workers’ knowledge -- and that deep catalog -- to go far beyond rock, into Coltrane, Schoenberg, bluegrass, whatever added a new color to my expanding palette.

Tower’s demise may be inevitable given today’s schism between mainstream consolidation and the fragmenting of the underground. Stores aiming at both sides of this divide seem destined to fail. Deep catalog, though still available in rare spots like Amoeba Music, now feeds the “long tail” of the Web, where low overhead allows entrepreneurs to sell just one of many things and survive. The selection is better than ever on the Web’s myriad retail and subscription sites, not to mention MP3 blogs. And the virtual conversation among fans seems inexhaustible.


But I mourn the bodily encounters Tower offered -- with those beautiful vinyl albums of my youth, but mostly with the people whose fingers tripped through them. Tower was where music nuts, not a socially adept breed, had to face each other in the flesh. It was good for us; it brought us into the light and gave us a place in the ordinary world.