Slipped discs

Are Virgin and Tower really the enemy, or can the indie stores fight back?

Tucked away on the ground floor of a three-story shopping complex on the corner of Greenville and Mockingbird, CD World is the kind of record store you can't leave empty-handed even if you want to. There's always buried treasure to be found hiding in the racks, like an undiscovered Rolling Stones live set or an, ah, import of unreleased studio recordings by Stevie Ray Vaughan. Its well-organized racks teem with imports, rarities, and used discs chosen with a fetishist's eye for detail. A visit to the store, one of this town's last old-time independent record shops, is like combing through someone's personal record collection. An entire wall is devoted to new releases, from The Afghan Whigs' 1965 to Jad Fair and Yo La Tengo's Strange But True, adjacent to a row of bins crammed with most every local CD released in the last 10 years. The opposite side of the cramped store features an unrivaled assortment of techno and punk records, and more show tunes than a week on Broadway.

Yet as good as it is, CD World is a relic of the past. Back in the day, Dallas used to be full of stores like CD World, record shops staffed by real music fans who would sell you what you wanted and what you didn't know you needed. But they have all succumbed in recent years to chains that use cheap CDs in order to lure customers to the stereo and washing-machine departments; they've fallen victim to stores that dazzle with breadth of selection at the expense of personal service. Neal Caldwell's VVV Records, Metamorphosis and Direct Hit Records, 14 Records, and Last Beat Records have all shut down in recent years; they have been chained up.

Only a few stalwarts remain: Bill's Records, R.P.M., CD Source, Pagan Rhythms, Oak Lawn Records, and Collectors Records, among them. But for better or worse, the future of music retail lies in corporate giants such as Virgin Megastore (which launched its first Texas outpost in Grapevine Mills a little more than a year ago) and Tower Records, whose Lemmon Avenue store opened December 15.

And that is only the beginning.
Rumors swirl of another Virgin Megastore opening up on Greenville and Mockingbird in the near future; indie-store owners have heard that the chain is supposed to go in near the old Dr Pepper plant. And new Tower locations in Dallas and Fort Worth are already in the planning stages.

Yet Tower's chief operating officer, Stan Goman, based in the company's Sacramento headquarters, doesn't see his store as a threat to independent music retailers. Rather, he says Tower is on the same side as stores such as CD World and Bill's, nothing more than a Mom-and-Pop outfit--albeit one with more than 200 locations worldwide to serve you. In his eyes, Tower is an independent store too, an ally in the fight against cold corporations like Virgin.

"They're Darth Vader," laughs Goman, who started at Tower as a 19-year-old rack jobber in 1967. "They're not good either. That's the funny thing. They have these big spaces designed by some Italian designer. They're not warm. We're two different companies. They're a public company. They're slick. We're much better. We have the goods. We have the records. And it's done locally. We buy locally. We don't centrally buy. That's what makes us unique. We let the kids in the store stock the store. While some companies try to micromanage inventories out of a central office God knows where, we let the kids micromanage. We pride ourselves on each one of our stores looking totally different."

Despite Goman's cheerleading, the only real difference between Virgin and Tower is that Tower moves into existing locations--the store on Lemmon Avenue was formerly Trucker's restaurant--while Virgin prefers to build its own stores. Both chains have comparable selections (hit and miss) and prices (from the reasonable to the offensively exorbitant). And both aren't really record stores anyway: CDs fight for space with books, magazines, videos, laser discs, DVDs, and--at least at Virgin--a coffee shop. They're record stores-cum-theme parks--shinier, happier versions of their independent counterparts. But because of their size and advertising budgets, Virgin and Tower are able to attract a wider variety of customers. A casual music fan is much more likely to shop at one of the chains than at one of the smaller stores.

Surprisingly, even though the threat of extinction is more immediate than ever for stores like CD World, they're not as concerned as you might think. Bill Wisener, owner of Bill's Records, recently re-upped his lease for three more years, and claims to have had his best Christmas in 17 years in the business.

And Pagan Rhythms owner Lavon Pagan--who first started selling records out of the trunk of his car in 1975--believes his store will actually get a boost if Virgin moves in down the street. After all, when Pagan opened his store on Greenville Avenue almost a decade ago, he did so next to one of the top-grossing Sound Warehouses in the country. "Any place that's putting out a lot of CDs is a great place for me to have one of my stores," he says. "[It's] a big boon to be close to anything that drives people into the area."

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