Instant Karma

An old-time Zia man goes up against Brad Singer's old company -- using the lessons he learned from Brad Singer

"I can't comment on that right now," says Kelly regarding his major-label buyer's marriage to his newest competitor. "That's kind of the weirdness that I'm dealing with right now. When it all comes down, my obligation is to make Zia the best I can make it, that's my job. There are some issues there that I've got to look into."

"I harbor no ill will toward Jeff," continues Kelly. "I actually kind of like him. I think he's got huge balls for doing this. If tomorrow I walked into Zia and they said, 'Hey, we don't need you anymore,' that would be something that I would have to look into doing myself."

Luttschwager saw Singer as a teacher, and says he learned everything he knows about operating a record store from the man. Over the years, the thought of opening his own record store occasionally entered his mind. What most impressed Luttschwager about Singer was his loyalty to his employees. "That's why I hung out for so many years," he says. "He would take care of me, so I was gonna take care of him. I mean, criminey, he would do anything for us."

Good day sunshine: Karma's crew, from left, Jeff Luttschwager, Matt Silverman and Clancy Holm.
Vivian Spiegelman
Good day sunshine: Karma's crew, from left, Jeff Luttschwager, Matt Silverman and Clancy Holm.

Singer taught a lot of people. Nearly all prominent indie record stores in the Valley (Hooligan's, Stinkweeds, Eastside) are offshoots of Zia in that their owners, at one time or another, worked for Singer. Among other things, Singer single-handedly redefined the way music is bought, sold and marketed in the state, constructing an empire from customer trade-ins. A single Tempe store blossomed into an entire chain -- and Zia Enterprises became a $15 million-a-year Arizona institution.

"I just sat back and sucked up as much information about how things worked as I could," continues Luttschwager. "I thought, 'Okay, we'll do this in 20 years when things are comfy.' But things are never comfy. It's like when you have a kid, you're never ready. You're never ready -- then all of a sudden you're fucking ready 'cause you don't have a choice. That's kinda what happened, I felt like I didn't have a choice. Brad died and the teacher was gone."


A quick glimpse around Karma suggests that Luttschwager and company learned their Singer lessons well. At the far end of the shop, two couches are arranged near a magazine rack. Wall displays loom tall: Hellcat records, Amen and Everclear. The bins house thousands of mostly used CDs ranging from classic Byrds, Bessie Smith and Stan Freberg to new Collective Soul, Busta Rhymes and the Zeros. The store has an angular, up-to-the-moment feel, but also the warmth of a shop run from somebody's living room. Interior hues of cerulean and bottle green disarm the brutal front-window view of the Galleria's edifice and parking lot.

Luttschwager's partner in Karma is another Zia graduate, Matt Silverman. Now a lawyer, Silverman was managing the Seventh Avenue and Thunderbird store when the two met. When Luttschwager needed help late last year organizing the new store, he called Silverman. "Eventually he called me back and said, 'Let's do this together,'" Luttschwager says. "And I was ready to run at that point. So we started looking for places and getting a business plan down and figuring out how exactly we are gonna deal with this."

Luttschwager launched Karma with CDs and vinyl stock straight out of his personal collection (with added pieces from partner Silverman and sole employee Clancy Holm, another Zia vet), much like Singer did with his first Zia location. He spent 30 long-ass days converting the space from a coffee house to a record store. The navy blue CD and vinyl bins he built himself. He did all the painting. In fact, he's crafted mostly everything here, which explains the place's homespun feel.

Luttschwager's goals are admittedly lofty. In two years he plans to open Karma number two. In five years, he plans his own one-stop to supply those stores. Twenty years from now he plans to have 100 stores. That's when he says he'll stop working. All this sounds a little removed from the mom-and-pop shop called Karma struggling to find its legs on West Peoria Avenue. The ambitions seem, oh, just a wee bit corporate-minded.

"But if you're gonna have goals, make 'em lofty," says Luttschwager, laughing. "I'll either do it or explode trying.

"I traded my record collection for a record store," Luttschwager continues, eyes wide. "But I'm all excited. I get phone calls and I start dancing around. Every time something comes in or sells, it feels more like a record store, it makes me really happy. Overly happy."

What does he think Singer would say about all this?

"I think he would be proud of us," says Luttschwager. "I think he would. We did it like he did, with nothing but piss and vinegar. I think he would pat us on the back and say, 'Go for it, guys.'"

(Editor's note: As this story was going to press, Maria Luttschwager was fired from her position at Zia Enterprises after 12 years of loyal service. Just hours after being interviewed for this article, Zia COO Jim Kelly notified Luttschwager of the decision, citing "conflict of interest" issues. Kelly said the action did not reflect Luttschwager's job performance or previous service to the company. The Luttschwagers were shocked nonetheless, and angry. If you listen closely, you can hear Brad Singer spinning in his grave.)

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