It’s just past 10:30 a.m. on a Tuesday morning during the second week of the Tower Records liquidation sale. At the West End Avenue location already the parking lot is full, and people are streaming in and out the entrances. Few, if any, exit without a purchase.
Discounts on the merchandise aren’t all that remarkable yet. Whereas in the past—as recently as three weeks ago—a new release $18.99 CD would be competitively priced at $9.99, it seems odd so many would flock to a 20% off sale. There are a host of reasons proffered now to explain Tower’s demise, but today there seems to be some credence available to those monthly “going out of business” sales the furniture stores used to hold.
Local DJ Phil Gilliam has worked at Tower since 1989, “one year after the store opened,” he says. “I was first hired in the books division, and then, when the books division closed, I came here.” Longtime shoppers will recall the books section at Tower originated in the far back room at the West End location, and later moved across a parking lot, until its collapse in 2000.
Of unassuming stature, casually dressed, with shoulder-length hair (wisps of uncontrollable locks jump out in front on both sides), an easygoing, quick smile and genuinely engaging intonation seem almost a composite of any employee in the Tower chain. It’s a mix of encyclopedic knowledge and devil-may-care presentation that makes each store feel unique, local. We sit down in a couple chairs at the back of the store while customers wander about us, all in search of that (dubious) price point they can’t pass up.
Phil’s time at Tower seems in a way to have always complemented his rise as a DJ in Nashville. “I started in the early '90s at a place on Second Avenue called 176 Underground,” he tells me. “I started doing an '80s night and it was huge. It got to the point where it was almost scary to be there, it was so full of people. The crowd really enjoyed themselves.”
“Being a gay DJ, I had a gay following,” he says, “so we had a clash about there being too many gay people there, so I gave that all up.” He laughs. “It was during a time when it was cool to be gay—but they acted as though if one more (gay person) came in, it was all wrong.”
After a four year stint at the Chute, he was offered a position at Tribe when it opened four years ago, where the emphasis of the DJ's job is much different than it is at a dance club.
“It seems so funny,” he says, “that even though MTV is so popular, if you want to see a video, you have to go to Tribe. My style has benefited from the iPod age, I think. I used to call myself the human jukebox. At Tribe I can incorporate bits and pieces from everywhere. It’s not so necessary to keep the beat going, as with a dance club," he says. “I can stop-start. It’s like hooking up train cars.”
Off to the side, a customer says loudly, indiscriminately, to no one in particular, “How much is this?” This is so, so funny because everything is discounted and, with a little math, we all have to figure out how much anything is. But for employees, prices are easy. It’s the short term prognosis of the store and their jobs where the greater confusion is found. “Our standard answer for almost anything these days is ‘we don’t know,’” Phil says, “because in a lot of cases we really don’t know.”
As for his position at the store, he says he’s in it “until the end,” but, again, he’s unsure when that will be. The West End Tower has been consistently one of the top 10 or 15 most successful outlets among the entire chain. He says, in fact, that they haven’t really seen the drop off in customers that other stores have experienced, the exodus that has led ultimately to this companywide shutdown. For that reason, this may be one of the last stores to close.
“It’s been a home away from home for so long,” he says. “It’s been a big part of my life. Most of my being upset is not that I lose a job. I’m sad because Tower will not be there anymore, when I drive down West End.” He goes on to explain just how complementary his two jobs have been to each other.
Apart from the employees’ expert knowledge of particular genres, Tower was known in the industry as one of the last music stores that carried an extensive selection of both new and old music. Along with singles and vinyl, it also proudly stocked independent films and music from local artists. DJ Phil, both as a former employee and as a consumer, will miss all of this.
“DJs are more singles oriented,” he says. “We’re not interested in albums, so since we haven’t received any new releases the past couple weeks, I had to go somewhere else when I wanted a new compilation of Beyonce remixes. I went to Best Buy and, when I asked about it there, they looked at me like snakes were coming out of my head.”
“People who say the future of music is online are not giving credit to the people, the part of the population, who want to physically hold the music,” he says. It’s the beginning of a diatribe, lamentably, that it seems only the audiophiles and collectors—a minority of us—can fully appreciate.
“There’s a certain tangibility to shopping that people aren’t thinking about,” he says. “It seems these newer generations feel music is more and more disposable, like a can of Coke, and the industry reflects that. What do you do with a can when you’re done? You throw it away.”
“As a DJ, I notice a lot of songs now that aren’t standing the test of time,” he says. “Look at what happened to Madonna. To this day, I can play a song like ‘Holiday’ or ‘Into the Groove’ and people react immediately, noticeably. And even to ‘Music,’ to an extent. But the new stuff. You play it and people shrug. I have this collection of songs that I know can wake up any crowd, but the number of songs in that collection just gets smaller and smaller. And older.”
Though he’s not often on the floor in a sales capacity, Phil’s work is nonetheless noticeable to the Tower consumer. “I’m the visual merchandiser,” he says. “The position used to be called ‘store artist,’ but they changed it.” All of the signage throughout the store, from small cards identifying promotions and the (now ubiquitous) discount signs to the large four-by-seven foot murals that adorn the walls, are DJ Phil creations.
About those large murals: “we give them away, to customers, to people who ask for them when we’re done with them. We’re not supposed to sell them, but…” his voice trails off intentionally, “and then there’s a part of me that likes to take something I’ve made”—we’re looking now at a massive creation in the likeness of the promotional material for a recent animated film—“and just destroy it. Tear it up!”
It’s a fitting outlook, I suppose, for an employee watching the disintegration of the company where he’s worked for seventeen years. If it’s served its purpose and, at this point, all that’s left is nostalgia, sometimes it’s best to just let it go.
Even if some of us aren’t quite ready to.