On West Peoria Avenue, a proliferation of "Going Out of Business" and "For Rent" signs dangles on drab storefronts like so many dusty postscripts to corporate will. The mom-and-pop shops that once were the lifeblood of retail sales in Phoenix are falling piecemeal, replaced by chain outlets and beasts called Super Stores.
Yet at 59th Avenue and Peoria, in the Glendale Galleria, sandwiched between Feature Cuts and Cold Stone Creamery, sits the city's newest anti-corporate record shop. In fact, the store -- fittingly called Karma New and Used Music -- is one of the few record stores in all of west Phoenix.
Karma opened its doors on October 1, after much work, suffering and dreaming on the part of its founder, Jeff Luttschwager. The 37-year-old Luttschwager, who spent much of his youth as a shop rat whiling away the hours in record stores similar to the one he now owns, spent almost 12 years working for Zia Record Exchange. He went from doing construction work to serving as its GM of operations.
The problems for Luttschwager started last year, not long after Zia founder Brad Singer died. For one thing, Luttschwager, then the GM of operations for the Tucson/Phoenix chain, was told by the newly installed powers-that-be to lose his construction-worker appearance. It seems his patented blue jeans, workboots and tee-shirt look wasn't going to cut it for the post-Singer Zia. This command from a chain that once prided itself on its adherence to freedom of expression and diversity, for selling and trading in pop culture that veers far left of center?
Luttschwager didn't swing with the changes and was removed from his GM position. Zia offered him a job as its maintenance chief. Luttschwager, married with three young children, felt he had to accept the demotion.
"I wasn't interacting with any human beings whatsoever," he remembers of his new maintenance gig. "My dearest friend was a compound miter saw. You know, you can only have one discussion with the saw. 'Turn on, turn off.' It just wasn't cool."
Zia COO Jim Kelly says the decision to demote Luttschwager wasn't easy. He calls it a business decision. "It was very tough," says Kelly. "We had to transition from the old Zia to the new Zia. I think Brad Singer was a fucking genius, and I think that the foundation that he laid was very good. But I think that if he was around today, he would understand that changes needed to be made in order to survive. Jeff had that very old-school Zia mentality and was very hesitant to make those changes that I felt we needed to make. It came down to either I get my way or he gets his way. And I get paid to do this, that's why I'm here. That was more of a decision solely based on the fact that what we felt we needed to move forward he was not really willing to give us."
"Well, they didn't take any of my money, but mentally it did hurt," says Luttschwager, standing in the middle of his new record store. With bright blue eyes, legal-pad-yellow hair, sun-etched face and blue-collar attire, he seems almost out of place among the store's well-selected stash of hip singles, vinyl, CDs and DVDs. "And it was extremely insulting, you kidding me? I was mad. I was mad for months." He pauses a moment, then continues with a rueful laugh: "I stayed there for seven more months. Then I gave my notice and said bye."
Luttschwager gave his notice in September, and says the most difficult part of opening Karma was quitting Zia. "That scared the shit out of me," he admits. "It wasn't that hard to go in and say, 'Okay, I'm outta here.' You know, fuck, three kids, a house, dog, cats, fish, car payments, all that shit. Yeah, it's tough to take a pay cut so that I can kind of grow something. It was work. Every day is tough. Today is a 16-hour day."
Born in Tucson and raised in Phoenix, Luttschwager spent much of his youth hanging around record stores, sometimes buying, but mostly just listening and taking it all in. He also painted and sculpted. In the early 1980s, he wound up back in Phoenix attending graphic-design school. For a spell after graduation, he supported himself with design work. "I said to hell with that because I was making more money selling paintings and sculptures," he remembers, "so I started working at Texaco doing graveyards."
Luttschwager met and fell in love with a Zia employee named Maria during his Texaco stint. Through her he met Brad Singer, who soon hired him to do small construction jobs at the Thunderbird Zia location. Singer then put him on as a full-time clerk. Maria and Luttschwager married and now have three children, the oldest of whom is 11. Maria still works for Zia-owned Impact music as its major-label buyer -- which, Luttschwager acknowledges, is a built-in conflict of interest for both of them.
"Maria has been super supportive, though," he says. "She doesn't come here. She's busy working and with the kids. She just keeps telling me whatever I need to do, do it."
"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."
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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