Music News

Instant Karma

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.

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Brian Smith
Contact: Brian Smith