Slipped discs

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

Pagan refutes a December 5 story in The Dallas Morning News that reported he had sold his store to the Cleveland-based Record Exchange chain, which currently owns 17 stores. Rather, Pagan says, he and Record Exchange (which has a store in Austin) have merely partnered up in the CD wars; you can never have too many allies. As such, Pagan insists that a small, efficient business such as his--which buys directly from the labels instead of the distributors that supply both chain stores and independents--has nothing to fear from a "lumbering giant" such as Tower. After all, he has been in business for years next to a Sound Warehouse, which became a Blockbuster Music...which is soon to become a Wherehouse.

Indeed, it's more than a little ironic that even as the local indies encourage competition from bigger stores, at least one chain has given up the fight. Blockbuster Music, which replaced all the existing Sound Warehouses in town, will no longer exist in a few weeks. On August 11, 1998, the New York-based Viacom Inc. announced that it had sold its 378 Blockbuster Music stores to Wherehouse Entertainment for $115 million--mere pocket change, even though Viacom insisted its music stores generated $590 million in revenue in 1997.

Sumner Redstone, the chairman and CEO of Viacom Inc., insisted last summer that the transaction was "another step in Blockbuster's revitalization" that would allow the company to "focus on what it does best." In short, the video-rental giant was glad to be rid of the music arm of its business. It had long been rumored that Blockbuster's Dallas stores were hemorrhaging money--to the delight of the smaller stores around it.

"Personally, [the chains] don't worry me, because I know our client base are people that regularly shop for music," says Bill Stafford, an employee at CD World--which is just down the street from the Greenville Avenue Blockbuster Music. "Music's an important part of their life. Here, they can get a good deal, and we do special orders, and they appreciate the fact that most of the people who work here are into music and know what they're talking about. They know we can get the obscure import CD with that B-side they're looking for.

"It's the difference between going to Tom Thumb and your corner butcher. You can tell the corner butcher, 'I'm serving six people tonight and need this much meat,' and he can cut it for you. At Tom Thumb, the meat's pre-cut, and you pick it and eat it. We specialize in being decent. We treat people well and get them what they want. You go to Tower or Virgin, and the person checking you out is some high school kid making minimum wage or someone doing it as though they're selling product."

Almost to a man, the owners of the local independent stores talk about the chaining of their neighborhoods with a certain degree of defiance and glee. It's as though they welcome the fight, even though every newspaper in every city in the country is crammed full of obituaries mourning the loss of some beloved indie store stomped to death by Tower, Virgin, Best Buy, Borders, or HMV and other chains yet to rear their heads in Dallas.

When Tower went into Denver in 1995, at least one smaller store was forced to close its doors, and since then, two more venerable indie outlets (including one that had been around for almost 20 years) have gone out of business. But that did not stop Virgin from opening one of its megastores in downtown Denver the week before Christmas last year.

"A lot of indies have been going out of business here," says Garth Geisler, a manager at Denver's Twist & Shout, a new-and-used store that found it necessary to expand in 1995 to compete with the chains. "When Tower opened a mile away, we kinda felt them the first few months, and when Virgin opened, like, for a week we felt them. But since then, we've been doing fine. We dipped a little at first, but they're definitely overpriced, and our staff is a lot more knowledgeable about music than your average employee at Tower or Virgin."

A thousand miles away--at the CD Warehouse on Oak Lawn, to be exact--store manager Jim Antich almost word for word repeats Garth Geisler's nonchalant mantra: The chains are a novelty, and novelties wear off. "People come in and ask, 'Where's the Tower?' We tell them they're right around the corner," Antich says. "But they come back five minutes later and say, 'You're right, they're expensive.' So, if anything, it's going to help. It's just going to bring more people here and put more product out there for us to buy."

Ten years ago, it was much simpler to discount the threat of a major chain moving into the area. Independent record stores had independent records, and chain stores didn't. But music retail isn't as black-and-white as it once was. Chain stores don't exclusively stock only major-label releases anymore; you're as likely to find a Guided By Voices record at Best Buy as you are at Bill's. And Borders carries almost as many indie-rock CDs as anywhere else, from early Pussy Galore on Matador to records on Merge and Drag City; it even stocks a few obscure import titles.

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