Tuesday, December 26, 2006
Photo by Andrew Schwartz
Our Town downtown
December 25, 2006
At The NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) Center of New York, consultants teach clients how to navigate their unconscious minds, so they can get more out of their lives, and mental health professionals how to incorporate the techniques of Ericksonian hypnosis into their work.
Who are the people you treat?
People who are looking to manage their emotional state. There are so many triggers in the world that trigger us into negative states, whether it’s in a relationship or it’s for work – things we fear, things we were told, things we see.
Is hypnosis a complement to talk therapy or can it be a substitute?
I don’t see hypnosis as being a substitute. I see it as being a complement. I think that one of the things hypnosis does, it helps people move from their head into their body, from their concepts into their experience, from their being linear and rational to being experiential.
What does the trance state feel like?
In a way it’s accepting. It’s a lot of giving the person the experience of being comfortable where they are right now. Even if they’re feeling tension. People don’t often realize they can be relaxed and tense simultaneously. And a lot of trance does happen when people can hold two opposites, when they can be aware of the yin and yang of their experience, that it’s not just one or the other.
When I’m working with someone in trance, it helps them really have an experience, not a concept. So they’re experiencing what they’re seeing, what they’re hearing, what they’re feeling. You know, when we’re in trance, everything gets amplified, and intensified. I see trance as a vehicle. It’s not the destination. It’s sort of that you as an adult can do your own healing.
What is Ericksonian hypnosis?
Milton Erickson was a medical hypnotherapist, and has a pretty huge following. And his whole methodology was to help people get free of their rigid patterns and their habits that they weren’t even aware of.
Some hypnosis is more authoritative, more oriented towards working with the client’s model of the world. Some hypnotists work with a script. It’s very much about matching the script to the problem.
Some people might say that the goal of hypnosis is not putting the person into trance, but bringing them out of trance. I don’t believe I know what’s best for someone, but I do believe that they have the wisdom and the resources to handle whatever challenge is facing them. People often try to solve their problems consciously, with their rational mind, when the resources are not in their head, but in their body, in their unconscious. So it’s a matter of tapping into the experiences that will allow the problem to meet the challenge. It’s about resource activation. And rather than focus on the problem, it’s more focusing on solution.
What is the concept behind NLP?
That we each are programmed, that we have certain set programs that motivate us, that determine how we respond to situations. By learning about our programs, we can reprogram ourselves, update our programs. In NLP, we really unpackage how that process takes place so we can become aware of, basically, our operating system. Many people feel like passengers being taken for a ride. It’s learning how to use your own brain so you can be in the driver’s seat, so to speak – to move from things happening to you to making things happen.
Are the same mechanisms at work when a nightclub hypnotist brings someone on stage and all of a sudden they’re barking like a dog?
Well there’s a real difference. Some people are very compliant. And the stage hypnotist is looking for people, and actually, literally looking and listening, and watching for the people that are nodding their heads, and the people that are smiling. He wants to show the audience that people will obey his commands and go along; he’s the powerful hypnotist and they’re gonna do his bidding. Where if anything, in a therapeutic context, you’re really wanting people to get in touch with their own power, not to be influenced by outside suggestions, but really tap into their own inner suggestions. And to be able to tap into a place where you could hear suggestions and respond to whether those suggestions really fit for who you are as an individual. Someone once said to me that the person who’s mature is someone who can do what they want to do, even if their parent wants them to do it. In other words, rebellion is not doing what you want to do. Rebelling is rebelling. And complying is complying. But to really do what you want to do is to be able to do it in spite of other people’s wanting you to or not wanting you to. [Many] of us are operating in terms of either going along or rebelling.
Can you talk a little bit about self-hypnosis?
I’d say that all hypnosis, ultimately, is self-hypnosis. When I’m working with someone and they’re experiencing going into trance state, I’m also teaching them how to go into trance, how to induce trance in themselves. So, even though it may look like I’m doing it to someone, I’m doing it with that person and I’m giving them certain tools so they can sort of then do it themselves.
-- Matt Elzweig
December 25, 2006
Sarah Polley speaks when spoken to in "The Secret Life of Words."
Playing at: Quad Cinema
Run Time: 87 minutes
Director, Writer: Isabel Coixet
An oil rig is a massive, intractable thing. It hovers over the water and bores down into the darkness, hoping to suck up precious black gold out from under the bedrock. But basically, it’s a big inhospitable vehicle that doesn’t move. This story of a mysterious, deaf nurse (Sarah Polley) and her burn-stricken patient (Tim Robbins) who works on such a rig, doesn’t either.
Most of the action takes place there, on that rig, somewhere off the shores of Northern Ireland, where Hanna (Polley), has gone on vacation at the behest of her boss. He can’t fire her in good conscience since she has a flawless work record – but must respond to complaints from the union she works for that, more or less, she is a misfit among her factory coworkers.
In the unidentified British country she lives in, she is a laborer who speaks only when spoken to, and often turns off the volume on her hearing aid to drown out the sounds of those around her. We only learn that she is a trained nurse when she volunteers for the assignment spontaneously, shortly after arriving in Northern Ireland.
Her accent that is vaguely Eastern European, but where she comes from is hardly even implied until the film’s final scenes.
The romantic relationship that develops between Hanna and Josef, and pulls her out of her shell, getting both of their painful pasts out in the open is inevitable and predictable Hanna’s personal history is especially grim.
Polley’s performance is understated, nuanced, taut and convincing. Robbins is not as hard to take as he usually is, but that may be because he is confined to a hospital bed, temporarily blinded by a flash fire.
Somehow, though, Robbins still manages to chew the scenery in the tradition of Kevin Kline’s Hamlet or anything with Tom Cruise, on screen or off. In all fairness, this may be a bit of prejudice on my part, a kind of knee-jerk reaction to his hangdog mug, his overheated performances in movies like “Mystic River” and his off-screen political grandstanding. (Alec Baldwin may flap his jaws a lot, but at least he plays to his strengths on camera.)
Despite Polley’s best efforts, it takes two to make a spark, and there really is little chemistry between her and Robbins in. It also seems like kind of a softball that Coixet made Polley’s character hearing-impaired in the cleanest, most aesthetically pleasing way possible. She speaks so clearly and fiddles with her hearing aid so little, it’s easy to forget that she even has a disability.
It makes sense that Spanish filmmaker Coixet thought of Robbins for the part of Josef after she finished writing the script, and that Robbins was drawn to it; the requisite civics lesson, tacked on, awkwardly at the end of the movie. This one’s about the way we romanticize the victims of war and genocide and in doing so, exploit them. It’s a pat lecture, and is about as natural a progression as a let’s-talk-about-sex discussion that begins with some books dad brought home, sheepishly, from the public library. Another problem (the biggest of which is probably the pacing – it’s like the peeling of a genetically altered mega-onion) – is that the film is not consistently a romance or a political drama. It has two potentially interesting characters and an intriguing backdrop (the dreary confines of an oil rig, which is a claustrophobic site to behold). But it doesn’t really make use of them. And like an Exxon behemoth slurping up oil, it doesn’t really go anywhere.
-- Matt Elzweig
Monday, December 18, 2006
A rendering of the Trump SoHo project at 246 Spring Street.
Our Town downtown
December 18, 2006
The talk on Wednesday was of bones—human ones. They were found by workers excavating and laying the foundation for Donald Trump’s condo-hotel project in Soho.
According to an archived New York Times article, the site was once a 19th Century Presbyterian church called the Spring St. Church.
It opened in 1811, and was almost destroyed by a mob in 1834 for its radical abolitionist leanings, but it reopened two years later.
Andrew Berman, of The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP), speculated in a prepared statement that the bones could be from the church’s graveyard.
Jennifer Givner, a spokesperson for the Department of Buildings, confirmed that the remains were discovered and that the department had issued The Trump Organization a stop work order so that Buildings and the Landmarks commission could confer about what the next step should be.
It was the latest moment of serendipity for opponents of the 45-story tower, which The Trump Organization would like to see standing at 246 Spring Street in less than two years.
(The site is a former parking lot located on the south side of the street between Varick and Avenue of the Americas, close to the Holland Tunnel entrance.)
A discrepancy in literature being distributed to prospective buyers, that seemed to support claims that Trump and his partners in the venture are violating zoning rules by building there, was another.
Before Wednesday’s discovery, this argument gave them the most traction since, they conceded, the height would be legal. A transient hotel (an ordinary hotel) for example, would be legal. The area in question is zoned as a light manufacturing district though, and anything designated as a residence would be illegal.
In the early 1900s the area was the center of the U.S. printing industry, but printing businesses there began to disappear during the Great Depression and their numbers declined sharply after Black Monday, according to David A. Reck, a community activist and architect who has lived nearby for 30 years and opposes the project. There are still digital printers in the area.
Representatives of The Trump Organization have emphasized time and again that the planned building will be a hotel and nothing more. That claim ran into some complications when a form for prospective buyers on the official site for the project, trumpsoho.com, was discovered to contain a list of options on a contact form, under the heading “What will the property be used for?” The choices, which were verified by Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, another opponent of the tower, and Andrew Berman, read “Primary Residence, Secondary Residence, Investment Property.”
Those who don’t want to see Trump Soho a reality point to it as an attempt to violate the zoning law by marketing residences at 246 Spring Street. The Trump Organization called it a simple error.
They removed it from the site, shortly after Stringer sent a letter signed by State Senator Tom Duane, Assembly Member Deborah Glick, Congressman Jerold Nadler and himself, to the developers and Buildings Commissioner Patricia Lancaster on December 6th.
The letter described the Web discrepancy in detail, and called attention to “kitchenettes,” described in marketing materials, which Stringer identified as “clearly a residential amenity.”
A press release from NYC & Company, the city’s official tourism bureau, dated November 14, 2006, advertised the units as part-time residences, but later contradicted itself in the same document, by listing them as full-time residences: “Each unit will be sold individually to investors who may use their property for a number of days annually.” And later it said that “every unit will be sold individually to buyers who might live there year-round, from time to time or seasonally.”
Real estate in the development is also being advertised on miamirealestatetrends.com, the Web site of Remax Beach Properties in Florida. Along with its Letter of Interest for prospective buyers, the site read, on December 11th, that “all construction issues have been worked out and the Trump Soho Condo Hotel project has received a green light from the zoning board to move forward,” which was wishful thinking at best.
It also listed the condo features as “Residences (sic) Amenities.” Julius Schwarz, an executive vice president of Bayrock Group LLC, which is developing the project with Trump and The Sapir Organization, said that the list of options for prospective buyers on trumpsoho.com was an error and that “we fixed it immediately.”
Due to the unwanted attention that the word “kitchenette” drew, the developers have stop using it, but he said that you would find the same amenities “in every other hotel in the city” … “What we were trying to imply is that there will be a countertop, a half-refrigerator and a sink” … “That to me is a kitchenette.”
And he said that miamirealestatetrends.com was not authorized to represent the Trump Soho condo-hotel, so any inaccurate information on the site was posted without permission. “They are not authorized to be soliciting on our behalf and we sent out letters to everyone who is doing it who is not – other than our site, which is trumpsoho.com, because that’s our site. And we have sent out letters asking them to stop immediately.”
If the community thinks that the Trump Soho condo-hotel is anything but a hotel, they are mistaken, he said. “This is, in every respect, a hotel … It is designed as … an ultra-luxury hotel, with 12,000 square feet or so of … conference rooms, which are needed downtown. You know, large lobby areas, restaurant, 24-hour room service, everything you would expect in a white glove service hotel is there … And you know, if it looks like a hotel and smells like a hotel, and it acts like a hotel, it’s a hotel – and that’s what this is.”
Crescent Heights, which sold 246 Spring to Trump and his partners, also planned to build “a large condo-hotel there,” Schwarz said. One thing people aren’t getting, he said, is that a condo-hotel is “a financing tool” that serves as a way of paying down the debt a developer incurs from construction, costs that these days are staggering. “A condo-hotel is a way for the developer to … pay down some of that debt by selling the hotel rooms.”
Schwarz said the Trump Soho will benefit the neighborhood economically because it will bring jobs and attract “a lot of shoppers and buyers and customers.”
He described the hotel as “ultra-luxurious” and the buyers as “people that want to … have a room in New York to use from time to time, and when they are not using it … get the benefit of having it rented as a hotel room and capturing some of the income … they essentially become buyers of a portion of the hotel.”
David A. Reck said that he and others who want to prevent the tower from going up are already talking with an attorney about the possibility of suing the city, should it be completed, on the grounds that the development is illegal under the current zoning.
The long term solution, he said, is to rezone so that the floor-area-ratio (FAR), which is used to determine a building’s bulk, of all buildings in the area, is reduced to 6 (roughly the equivalent of ten to eleven stories high) from its current FAR of 10.
Reck also thinks that new zoning should allow residential buildings. The reason the opposition has not been able to legally challenge the height of the Trump Soho is that Trump is calling it a nonresidential building – and under the current zoning, 45-story non-residential buildings are allowed, however distasteful they may seem to certain community members.
And he doesn’t think the current zoning, light manufacturing, has done anything to preserve local manufacturing industries.
Occupancy considerations (residential hotels versus transient ones) and noteworthy skeletons aside, some of the strongest concerns opponents of the Trump Soho have are the disappearance of more skyline, the precedent it could set for other developers who want to embark on similar types of projects, the effect they say it could have on remaining manufacturers, the additional strain it will place on Holland Tunnel traffic, and the effect it could have on security in the event of another terrorist attack.
But perhaps their overriding objection is what they say is a lack of oversight and public review with regard to the building’s construction.
In a telephone interview, Andrew Berman contrasted a zoning change he is seeking with the approach The Trump Organization has taken. “Unlike Mr. Trump, instead of trying to get around the zoning, and circumvent a fair and above board process, we are trying to get the zoning [changed] so that in the future, 45-story buildings can’t be built here … [It’s] a process that everybody – developers, communities, businesses, residents, all get to participate in, all get a fair hearing on … We’re trying to address that issue in the right way. He’s trying to get what he wants the wrong way.”
Talking about the marketing materials that listed the condo-hotel units as residences, but were then changed by the Trump organization, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer said in a telephone interview that “it is very important that responsible developers and responsible community leaders are able to have honest discussions. Even if there’s disagreement there has to be a level of honesty and being up front.”
One community member who is not opposed to the Trump Soho is Jeff Woodward, General Manager at 1-800-Postcards, which is located across from the site on Varick Street.
“I don’t like to see a neighborhood stripped of local businesses, but there are a lot of junky run-down buildings in Lower Manhattan, and I don’t mind seeing old ugly warehouses torn down to bring residential properties to this neighborhood,” he wrote in an e-mail. “I’m not aware that there is community review, but it’s not like it’s a sewage treatment plant … It’s a hotel/condo tower with Trump’s name on it in a very dead area of town,” he wrote in another.
Unlike many others contacted for this article, Joseph Lovett, a filmmaker who lives on Vandam Street, in walking distance to the site, spoke in detail about his aesthetic concerns with regard to the Trump Soho. “I’m certainly not opposed to all building. But to do something that blocks out so much light … is a real problem … when you drive into Brooklyn, when you drive to Harlem, you are very aware of the amount of light, of the amount of air, that you do not see in Manhattan. And it’s a real commodity. And the idea of choking Manhattan, that much more is … ill thought out.”
He acknowledged that a 45-story commercial building would be legal, but said it would not necessarily be in the community’s best interest, and that a civic-minded developer would recognize that.
This building is “another vanity production” for Trump, he said. “There has to be a level of seemliness … I mean he’s old enough now to have a sense of public service. He shouldn’t have to … just be into vanity.”
But Lovett’s biggest worry is security in the event of another terrorist attack, having lived through 9/11, close to the World Trade Center. “We saw it, we breathed it … for days.”
There will be no parking at the Trump Soho and Lovett fears that it will make an already congested area even denser – blocking access to the Holland Tunnel in the event of another attack. “The city gets very narrow down here and the flow is important.”
Joe King, a professor in John Jay’s Security Management program, who worked in counterterrorism for U.S. Customs in New York, and then for the Department of Homeland Security, said in a telephone interview that “the problem … is that the whole area is choked with traffic.” While “public interest buildings or high visibility” buildings would be likelier targets for an attack than a hotel would be, the surrounding streets were “built for horse and carts. They were not built for traffic flow.” He says that it is “a public safety issue more than a terrorist threat issue,” but said that if something were to happen getting out of the city via the Holland Tunnel would be a problem.
Julius Schwarz, an executive vice president of Bayrock Group LLC, which is developing the Soho project with Trump, said security concerns are off-base because for one thing, the front of the hotel is on Spring, not Varick, “which is in the main artery for the Holland Tunnel.”
And the lack of on-site parking is actually good for security, he said. There will be off-site valet parking instead and “[that’s] an argument that it’s more beneficial in that kind of situation,” since cars will be parked “further away from the Holland Tunnel.” The location for this lot has not yet been selected.
Sean Sweeney, who directs the GVSHP, is encouraged by Wednesday’s findings. “Americans are very touchy over hallowed ground, especially when associated with a church,” he wrote in an e-mail. “The five-year controversy over a suitable memorial at Ground Zero has delayed work there. Remember initial predictions that these buildings would be completed within a few years?”
In a statement issued in response to the bones found on the site on December 13th, Schwarz said that “75 percent” of the excavation work was already done and that “up to this point the discovery of human remains [has] been limited to the northeast quadrant of the site, where there is to be an urban plaza open to the public and for the public benefit.” Schwarz says an archaeological firm has been retained by the developers.
“Findings of this nature are not uncommon on New York City construction sites, and we will be handling this situation in an appropriate and respectful manner.”
The Trump Organization is hoping for a grand opening on New Year’s Eve 2008.
-- Matt Elzweig
Tuesday, December 12, 2006
Playing at:The Angelika Film Center
Run Time: 96 minutes
Director, Screenplay by: Darren Aronofsky
Audiences last heard from filmmaker Darren Aronofsky in 2000, when he brought Hubert Selby, Jr.’s novel “Requiem for a Dream” to the screen. Through its the story of a junky couple struggling to breathe, the dark, addled quality of the young director’s work up to that point, was evident. But the characters in his latest film, “The Fountain,” are more like the seekers in “Pi,” his 1998 breakout indie. They are obsessed with deciphering the same kinds of cosmic riddles, desperate to unlock their personal universes and the universe at large with the same kinds of secrets.
“The Fountain” has already been slammed by enough critics as a self-indulgent, pseudo-intellectual fragment of one auteur’s ego to declare it Dead On Arrival. But to dismiss it out-of-hand, just because its flaws give its ambitions a run for their money, would be a mistake.
To describe it in three-act terms would be simplistic, but at the same time, it would be fair to call it a variation on the quest for the Holy Grail.
It is three stories in one: Tommy (Hugh Jackman) and Izzi (Rachel Weisz) are a couple, who in several incarnations, over ten centuries, search for the Garden of Eden, but most importantly, for the Tree of Life – whose sap offers eternal life to whoever drinks it.
The dilemma is always the same. Whether it’s Tommy as a conquistador to Izzi’s Queen of Spain, or Tommy as a research biologist, searching desperately to find a cure for his wife, Izzi’s, cancer, or Tommy as an astronaut in the 25th Century, traveling through space to find the highest realm known to man – he must drink from the tree in order to save her.
The abstract visual effects alternate between the stunning and the bombastic, and make for easy snark fodder. The Tree of Life is a mind-bending sight to behold, but when Tommy is floating through space in lotus pose, with his head shaved, inside some kind of amniotic sac, it’s hard not to get the giggles. The same goes for his dialogue with the ether, on the exalted planet, or the Garden of Eden, or…whatever it is; in those moments it’s hard to decide whether you’re watching an incredibly imaginative exploration of some parallel world, or one of those old school “Obsession” commercials.
Similarly, the otherworldly panoramas almost make you forget you’re sitting in a springy movie seat for blips of a second, but often look like a dorm room poster that mixes M.C. Escher with J.R.R. Tolkien, and evoke whatever the local dealers were selling at the time.
Whatever’s going on in Aronofsky’s head, it’s dark in there. And interesting.
Ellen Burstyn, who was in “Requiem,” is back in another strong supporting role as a kind of mother figure to and fellow doctor of Tommy’s. And that’s significant because one thing about Aronofsky, love him or hate him, is that once you see his movies, you know they’re his. He’s likely to use her again and that’ll be a good thing. But regardless of who he casts, or where he gets his stories, he’ll retain the intense and somber, but hopeful quality that is beginning to mark his work.
“The Fountain” is not without melodrama or grandiosity, but it’s not without merit either.
What are the most popular items?
The shirts that have a unique illustration are doing rather well. (T-shirt designer) Paul Frank continues to be good for us, and any new licenses, like Borat, do well.
Where do most of your customers live and work, if you know? Downtown? Midtown, outer boroughs…?
We have a loyal and beloved neighborhood following as we’ve been here since 1985. We do get editorial, which brings people in from other places. We have had stores in different neighborhoods and after these stores have closed, people continue to shop on Avenue A or at our Greenwich Avenue location.
Do the people who work in the store have any specialized knowledge or interest in this type of business? Or could they work at any given retailer (regardless of what’s for sale)?
I think our employees love the atmosphere in the store as well as the merchandise.
How are the products selected, and if you can tell me, where do they come from?
The products are carefully selected by myself and a colleague. We travel to shows around the country and, of course, attend the trade shows here in New York. We also import from England and Mexico. Our sources for these products are proprietary. We have over a thousand vendors.
Are any of your products original, (created by you or the staff)?
We create some of our own t-shirts and we’re currently working on a line of clothing that we are branding under our own name. This will be ready for spring 2007.
What’s your background? How did you end up doing this?
I grew up in a small California town and the Sunnyvale Shopping Plaza was in my backyard, right behind the apricot orchard. This was all very pre-NASDAQ. From an early age, I loved stores. I have a fine arts degree in painting. I worked for many years in display and visual merchandising for Saks Fifth Avenue. When I moved to New York City in the early 80s, I owned a restaurant called “The Pharmacy,” now Doc Holliday’s. While I was doing this, a small store came available on Avenue A and it was irresistible. I just had a flash: ‘I’m going to open a store called Alphabets and fill it with cards and all the retro toys I enjoyed as a kid.’ In six weeks, with the help of friends, I built the first store.
Has anyone had a particularly memorable reaction after giving someone one of your items?
Many of the products we sell are fun and/or hysterical, or cool or beautiful. We’re always hoping that the gift someone gives from Alphabets will delight the recipient in a major way.
You’re located in a pretty progressive area, but have you ever been asked to censor an item? If you have, did you do it?
I have never had a customer on Avenue A shocked by anything we sell. The Upper West Side was a different story. People were upset by nudie playing cards, penis pasta, and, oh yeah, gummy boobs! We did not take them off the selling floor. The Rudy [Giuliani] voodoo doll (pre-9/11) was highly controversial and a best seller. It was on TV and the radio. I couldn’t keep them in stock.
Do you have any regulars or neighborhood characters that frequent either shop?
We have many regular customers in the neighborhood. This is a super colorful area and our customer base reflects that diversity. I wouldn’t single out any one customer. We just love em’ all!
What are your favorite items?
My favorite items in the store are the full-color lawn gnomes from France, the life-size powder blue ceramic bull head from Mexico, the Answer me Buddah (like a Magic 8 Ball), the high heel shoe door stopper – [the] little wind-up plush bear that tumbles, [the] giant diamond ring that’s a paperweight, and a build-your-own catapult set.
-- Matt Elzweig
Monday, December 04, 2006
Bye Tunes: Tower Records changed the East Village for music lovers. It will be gone in about two weeks.
December 4, 2006
About a week and a half ago there didn’t seem to be anything worth scavenging at the Tower Records liquidation sale in the East Village.
In early October, Tower, which went bankrupt due to a combination of mismanagement and rising real estate prices, auctioned off most of its assets for $135 million. Tower Records should be closing their doors for good just before Christmas.
I walked in twice during the sale, to look for a handful of titles by artists my Yahoo! Music station turned me on to this year, and some others I liked long before that. Most of “When It Falls” by Zero 7; “Beautiful Brother: the Essential Curtis Mayfield,” especially “Little Child Runnin’ Wild” (track 8); and “Brushfire Fairytales,” Jack Johnson’s first album, especially “Inaudible Memories” (track 1) and “Fortunate Fool” (track 7).
These CDs weren’t a list of things I had to buy. But they were resting on my mental dashboard and they popped into my consciousness once I saw the crates and the mark down signs.
But I couldn’t find those or the Barrington Levy album with the original version of “Under Me Sensi” on it. Yahoo! kept playing some bad remix of it instead.
There was little elbowroom on those first two visits, but on Thursday in the late afternoon, the crowd at Broadway and East Fourth Street was slimmer, and so were the pickins’. Up in the makeshift used-CD section, which was in a corner room on the top floor, there were 26 copies of “MET.A.MOR.PHIC.” by someone named Dalvin DeGrate; 33 copies of “Ride” by Boney James; and 56 copies of “Music From And Inspired By Light It Up The Movie” (starring Usher).
The signs in the street-level windows explained why bargain hunters swarmed in the earlier days of the sale. “Every CD is now 1/2 off” was one. “70% off all rap and singles” was another. Perhaps the most succinct was this one: “Everything must go.”
Even the fixtures were for sale. There was a section sign lying behind an aisle of jazz CDs, on the floor: “Americana and Roots.” There were stools and office chairs near the revolving doors. One cashier even said that a woman wanted Tower shopping bags so she could sell them on eBay.
But back upstairs,a salesperson in the classical department seemed to quietly insist that the essence of the store was still in tact and that the deforestation going on around him wasn’t real. “Can I get the cart out of your way?” he gently asked a young customer who declined, but asked for help locating a CD.
The salesperson was sitting on a chair, facing the crates. He had long hair, a long whitish beard, glasses, a t-shirt with suspenders over it, a fanny pack around his belly and clogs on his feet. There was a hole in the back of one of his sweat socks.
Billboard’s Ed Christman, who covered the Tower closing, said in a phone interview that the company “probably had one of the most unique corporate cultures in the business world…you could have blue hair or orange hair and [you’d] still be taken as someone who’s credible, who still has a chance for advancement in the company.”
When the closing was announced, there were about 60 employees, and before cuts in the 90s, when the store was at the height of its success, there were over 200, said Jim Kaminski, a manager who’s been at the store for almost ten years, and was the pop rock buyer for almost seven.
According to Kaminski, departing members of Tower’s 2,700-person workforce, nationwide, are in high demand in the music industry, and many have already secured jobs.
Before Tower Records began to decline, due less to industry-wide trends than internal tone deafness, this specific location was a neighborhood institution.
It was known as a place where customers could get just about any recording they wanted, and quickly, since Tower managers didn’t have to go through the chains of command prevalent at other music retailers. It was known as a place where the staff was just as obsessed with music as many of the customers. “We were not people who said ‘okay we’re gonna go work in a retail store. What should we sell, CDs or taco sauce?’…We love music and that’s why we’re here” Kaminski said.
It was known as a place where the selection was in touch with local tastes because store managers made choices based on the customers’ input rather than receiving their products from higher ups in an offsite, corporate headquarters somewhere far from the community.
“The store manager was definitely the master of his own universe,” said Kaminski, until outside corporate management with no background in music, was forced on the company when it was struggling.
The store was also known as a place where artists came to showcase their latest music. The long list of artists who played and often previewed their music in this Tower location goes back three decades, and reads like a musical thermometer. In the 80s it was Hall & Oates, Prince, Ray Davies, Public Enemy, and New Edition, Kaminski said. In the 90s, it was Jeff Buckley, and Nirvana – before “Nevermind” came out.
Madonna performed here for just 275 people, which she did, he said, for the “street cred” that was part and parcel of playing at the store.
When artists weren’t playing at Tower, they were shopping there because of the knowledgeable staff. “Whether it was Cyndi Lauper looking for old soul records or Nick Valensi from The Strokes looking for post-punk albums, or Lou Reed looking for kung fu movies, there was always somebody here that could help even the most cultured connoisseur find something” Kaminski said.
Russ Solomon, who founded Tower Records in Sacramento, inside his father’s pharmacy in 1960, opened the East Village location in 1983, swayed by real estate developer David Walentas, and music industry friends.
The Fourth and Broadway location “really changed the face of retail” in the East Village, Ed Christman said. He remembers what the neighborhood was like before the store, which built its reputation on catalog (having all of an artist’s records), rather than hits, came to town. “There was all warehouses and factories, and flophouses. I mean it was really like the Bowery…and at nighttime it was deserted.”
“It was known as a place to come and score heroin…If you listen to the…Johnny Thunders & the Heartbreakers songs and the Ramones and things like that—this area was…not a desirable area” Kaminski said.
But once the store opened, it attracted a steady stream of customers to the neighborhood, and other retailers.
“That was the store where Russ Solomon showed that he can make real estate,” and it started even before NYU became active in the local real estate market, though NYU “takes credit for reviving the neighborhood” Christman said.
In a phone interview, Russ Solomon spoke about the store’s “overnight” success. And after Tower arrived, he began seeing rents go up.
Though in recent years Tower was trailing big box retailers like Wal-Mart, Best Buy and Circuit City, who could afford to sell music for less, Ed Christman said that a bigger nail in Tower’s coffin was its decision to create new overseas shops that were mostly money losers, instead of modernizing its existing stores.
But while all these were factors, it seems safe to assume that had Russ Solomon been allowed to retain real control of the company (he lost control to the bank and then to bondholders during the earlier stages of restructuring), Tower could have survived.
In a phone interview, Stuart Jamieson, a managing director at Radius Equity Partners, which tried to save the company, said that another huge mistake the new management made was to sell off properties to stay afloat. “You need to fix your problem. Don’t just burn through your assets.”
And while Tower’s demise was due mostly to company-specific problems, its sales were affected by industry trends, as well, perhaps the most obvious being the high price of CDs.
Online retailers like Amazon, and the advent of CD-burning, also took away a sizeable chunk of the catalog business, which Tower depended on.
Christman said that industry-wide, “the main thing [hurting retailers] is CD-burning” from person to person. Downloading, legal and illegal, is a smaller factor, he said.
But the huge response Solomon said Tower got from New Yorkers from the beginning was youth-driven.
Christman, Solomon and Kaminski all painted a picture of an industry that’s losing that base of young music lovers.
They cited a move away from a model in which artist development and catalog were emphasized to create lasting customers drawn in by a single or two, to a reliance on quick fix hit singles on albums that are overpriced, here today and gone tomorrow.
Kaminski, who noticed a drop in young customers between 2000 and 2003, often tells the story of how he got into Led Zeppelin as a kid to illustrate the way the record industry is losing the kids it counts on. A big fan of Def Leppard in the early 80s, he read an article that quoted the guitarist Steve Clark as saying that, “growing up I loved Led Zeppelin.”
“‘What’s Led Zeppelin about?’ asks a young, ten-year-old kid. And he goes to his local record store, sees ‘Houses of the Holy’ for $3.99. So I buy it. A year later, I’ve got all nine Led Zeppelin albums.”
Fast forward to 2004: “A younger kid in the suburbs is listening to The White Stripes, and Jack White says ‘I was always a big fan of Led Zeppelin.’ Well he comes into a store, he sees ‘Houses of the Holy’ for $18.99. He doesn’t buy it. He goes and downloads it illegally, and maybe in a year he’ll have downloaded all the music illegally. And he’s into the band, and is a fan, but Atlantic has not sold another Led Zeppelin catalog.”
The industry is “sick” and is having a lot of trouble deciding whether the future musical product will be digital or physical, Solomon said. “And they’ve mortgaged their own future by their lack of paying attention to the development of new customers, meaning kids.”
Rachel Katz came out empty-handed on Thursday. Even at 50 percent off, she didn’t think the sale was a great deal. And though she doesn’t have any real attachment to this particular Tower, she can appreciate the sadness many feel about its closing. “I guess it’s also my fault cause I buy music online. But I feel CDs are overpriced.”
The model has shifted for artists too, whether they know it or not. Now, when musicians ask Kaminski what they can do to make it, he tells them to stop looking for a record deal and hit the road. Dave Matthews, who focused on touring and producing his own CDs, is a prime example, he said. Other recent bands like The Strokes and the White Stripes did the same thing. “The record industry has not broken them. They’ve chased them.”
Russ Solomon just registered a new corporation and hopes that if he can get the money together somehow, he can open a store early next year in Sacramento.
Sitting in the newly barren, underground warehouse at Tower, Jim Kaminski told me one of the “funniest things” he ever saw at Tower. Lou Reed was shopping and a woman came up to him. “She was obviously from out of town.” She told him how much she loved him, and how much his music meant to her, and what a great surprise it was to actually see him in the flesh. “Lou Reed, probably the king of New York rock … put his hand over her mouth and said ‘honey, this is New York. We don’t do that here.’
And that pretty much described the culture of this store.”
The Tower Records Kaminski and Solomon described was a major chain with an independent spirit. Kaminski hopes that with Tower gone, its customers will support independent music shops rather than the big boxes, and thinks that stores that cater to a niche market have the best chances of success.
When I asked him whether a myth I heard about Tower employees snarling at customers who made less than hip requests was true, he smiled, but said he had no comment. I wondered what he would say about the titles I was looking for. It’d probably be best not to mention the Jack Johnson, I figured.
We walked back upstairs and he suggested I take advantage of the 50 percent discount on CDs.
“All the good stuff is gone,” I said.
“There are some nuggets.”
On my first two visits the sections seemed well organized, so I looked for everything in exact alphabetical order. But this time around, encouraged by what he had just told me, I looked for albums that may have been misfiled by their second or third letters. And after just a short amount of digging, there he was—a soaked Jack Johnson on the cover of “Brushfire Fairytales” staring me in the face from under the hood of a raincoat.
Music aside, the great allure of records may be the thrill of the hunt.
-- Matt Elzweig