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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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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela