Death of a Record Store: Robrt Pela Spins Through His Life as a Vinyl Geek at the Soon-Defunct Associated Distributors

All I'd ever wanted to do was work in a record store.

I'd begun collecting LPs in earnest during my freshman year in high school. I joined the Columbia Record Club (under the name ZaSu Pitts) and, by senior year, my collection was overtaking my tiny bedroom. My classmates had letter sweaters and college-friendly GPAs, but I had a factory-sealed copy of Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac and a first pressing of the ultra-rare Runaways "Cherry Bomb" picture disc. Who needed a degree?

In 1980, while my pals were prepping for their SATs and applying to various colleges, I filled out only one application: at Hollywood Records, the music shop located just behind my childhood home. I explained to Beef-Bob, the assistant manager there, that I'd be graduating on June 3 and could start the following Monday. Hollywood wasn't hiring, but Beef-Bob told his boss, a short-tempered grouch known as Fuzz, that he needed to meet this kid who was obsessed with vinyl. Fuzz grilled me for an hour with record label minutiae, finally offering me a job when I answered his "What's the flip side of the new Sylvester single?" by asking him, "Which version, the Dutch seven-inch edit on Mercury or the domestic 12-inch on Fantasy?" Fuzz probably figured I already spent more time at Hollywood than I did at home, so he might as well let me ring up sales while I was there.

Hollywood Records was a big deal back then. A chain of 11 stores spread out across the Valley and throughout Tucson, Hollywood was owned by Associated Distributors Inc., a record-distribution company whose major accounts included Motown and Arista, then the largest independent labels in the country. Associated also owned Circles Records, a chain of three upscale record stores scattered across the state. Circles on Central was a real destination; I remember my brothers driving clear across town from the west side to buy the new Rolling Stones or Bob Dylan record there. Elsewhere, people bought music from Sam Goody or Tower Records, but those were chains based in New York or California. Circles and Hollywood Records were ours, a locally grown company that not only sold us the new Smokey Robinson album, but also sold it to all the other record shops in the Southwest, besides.

Associated was literally a ma-and-pa operation. Founded by Leonard and Angela Singer in the '60s, the distribution company that provided Jackson Five and Barry Man­ilow records to retailers across the Southwest started out as a car stereo joint called Murray Auto Stereo over on West Camelback Road. Clients who bought tape players for their cars wanted something to play on them, and Leonard, who always had his eye on the next big thing, began selling 8-track tapes. Eventually, the Singers became distributors of the tapes. By the time I went to work for them in 1980, Associated was a music biz hub, with sprawling offices, 15 stores, and a colossal warehouse full of records and tapes.

But as the industry has morphed from tunes on tape to downloads to an iPod Touch, the Singers — who are among the last record distributors still standing — have downsized. I tried to keep up with Associated and its stores long after I left them to forge a writing career in the mid-'80s, so I knew they'd slowly closed up the remaining Hollywoods; read that they'd shuttered the Circles stores in Flagstaff and Scottsdale. I'd heard how, as the major labels began gobbling up what was left of the indies, the Singers had moved Associated into the vast hangar attached to their flagship store on Central. In December, Angela, to whom I'd rarely spoken, surprised me with a phone call. "We're closing Circles on Central," she told me, sadly. "And Associated, too. There's nothing left to distribute anymore. The record industry is dead."

It had been a long, slow death, one that started in early 1982, right around the time the Singers promoted me to manager of one of their stores. The Hollywood Records on West Camelback was a ratty old tract home that had been converted into the former Murray Auto Stereo shop from which the Singers had grown their empire. The guy who'd had the store before me had painted its walls and ceiling flat black and covered its windows with posters depicting heavy metal bands; the first thing I did was whitewash the interior and replace every one of the dreary bins and countertops with new fixtures plucked from Associated's downtown warehouse. I hired a couple of young guys — a clean-cut architecture student named Allen Brock and an angry punk called Weldon D. McGill — and the three of us got busy trying to survive in the shadow of the Tower Records at ChrisTown Mall.

We had a lot of help. Back then, record labels employed representatives who did nothing but travel from store to store, talking to vinyl nerds like myself about records. Lou from Capitol would drop by to tell me about the weekend he'd spent with Anne Murray and her husband in Vegas, then he'd play me songs from Anne's new album, due out the following month. Maybe I didn't care about Murray, but by the time her record arrived in my store, I had the talking points that would help me sell it. We did a lot of talking about music back then. I could call Cindy, the singles buyer at Associated, to ask if the new Janie Fricke 45 was worth stocking, or Sandy, the manager of the Scottsdale Circles store, who'd share my misery about how MCA had raised its single-LP list price by a whole dollar. (The nerve!)

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2 comments
Brad Myers
Brad Myers

I initially had reminiscent feelings of sadness when I was reading this, but by the end I realized that these record stores killed themselves off and I don't have much sympathy. Granted the record industry has changed a lot in the last 10 years; however, at the end of the day you're running a business. Sometimes you have to adapt, and sometimes you have to think about what you're doing and why you're doing it. You can't make fun of everyone who comes in to buy the new Nickelback or Lady Caca CD, because they are the ones who are ultimately keeping you in business. Nobody likes the cool guy at the record store who thinks he is cooler than everyone else even if it's evident that he's not. I guess if you're doing minimum wage at a record store you probably don't have business models running through your head though.

I've been buying most of my music online over the last 5+ years, because I don't want to drive across town and not be able to find what I'm looking for. Granted it's not the same as being able to flip through the inventory and find passed over gems, but that hasn't happened for a long time anyway. Maybe I just got lazy and got sick of losing "the hunt". It's real easy to find what you're looking for online (and I don't mean downloading). I hate to say these things, but that's the way it is.

Derrick Bostrom
Derrick Bostrom

Great article! I have a slightly different take on the record store clerk experience: that of being ridiculed by the staff for buying punk rock records in the late seventies. I rememeber waiting all afternoon and into the evening for the single copy of "Never Mind The Bollocks" to arrive at the Evolution Records (or had it changed to Rolling Stone Records by then?) on Camelback and Scottsdale Road. The clerks took their sweet time fishing it out of the box, and then they just kind of tossed it at me: "we don't want this crap; you might as well take it..." To think, these were the same guys who had lavished so much praise on me in previous seasons when I cbought Frank Zappa or King Crimson records from them...

Of course, over at the Tower Plaza Evolution, it was a different story. They always got good punk 45s in from the coast, and the lady at the counter would be noticably impressed when I marched to the counter with indie pressings by the Germs or the B-52s.

I guess it just serves to illustrate the point of how much fun it was to hunt for records back in those days. Even within the same chain, different outlets with different people would give you very different experiences. Record shopping was always an important part of my life, and I've got a room full of vinyl in my house to prove it. Thanks to all the Robrts of late-70s-early-80s Phoenix for helping nuture that addiction.

 
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