USA: The end of an era as New York's last Virgin vanishes?
Bang goes another good reason for a trip to the States: as Virgin Media here announced the launch of its music download service, the last of the USA's Virgin Megastores, the flagship branch in New York's Times Square, closed down at the weekend.
That means the end of the chain, which at its peak had 23 shops in the States, but by last weekend was down to just two: the split-level New York landmark, its illuminated logo signalling a well-known meeting-place, and much more compact store in Hollywood, California, which had easy parking and a great selection of music last time I was there.
HMV, then Tower, now Virgin
It's the latest in a series of high-profile record store closures in the States over recent years: HMV pulled out five years back, and Tower Records' 89-strong chain bit the dust in 2006.
The latter wiped out one of my favourite record shops: the poster-covered Tower store on the way down to Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco, where you could park right outside and browse the slightly dusty bins for new releases and treasures alike, before crossing a busy intersection to the dedicated classical shop across the street.
Now gone, too, is the Virgin Megastore just off Union Square in San Francisco, where I spent too much time working out how many of the then brand-new DVDs I could fit into a suitcase already overburdened with new clothes, while my wife marveled at the range of Japanese pop music on offer in the world section, and hinted that a trip to the cafe at the top for iced coffees might be in order.
I used to like the ambience: the music was loud, there was an in-store DJ playing an eclectic range of tracks and – when you wanted a spot of P&Q – a soundproofed classical section which also happened to be the coolest place in the whole store.
Forlorn and empty
That one bit the dust back in April, and I gather the former Virgin Megastore now sits forlorn and empty on the corner of Market and Stockton, within the sound of the clatter and clang of the cable-cars. Sad...
The reasons? Well, they're all the obvious ones, really: the Current Economic Situation, and of course the falling sales of music. And it's not all to do with the demon iPod, although that's eating into the sales of physical media, or CDs to you and me. From a peak of 785m per year in 2000, US album sales had fallen 45% by the end of last year. but even now CDs account for over three-quarters of those sales.
Blame it on the markets
So is it down to online sales of CDs? Again no – the real villains of the demise of the huge entertainment stores are the major retail chains, with up to two-thirds of all CD sales going through the likes of Wal-Mart and electrical retailer Best Buy.
As the head of Virgin Entertainment in the States, Simon Wright, told the New York Times at the weekend, “It’s clear that the model of the large entertainment specialist working in a large space is not going to work in the future.”
So now it's down to the independent record shops in the States, with the splendidly named Almighty Institute of Music Retail reporting that there are still at least 2000 of those still in business across the nation.
Brings back memories of a rather enjoyable record-shop crawl from a press event out in the smart residential areas of Chicago back to the central hotel where I was staying. Hot afternoon, record shops seemingly on every block, and a bag, already carrying a bulky Harman/Kardon press-pack, growing heavier with each stop. That must've been the better part of 15 years ago...
However, my absolute favourite is still going strong: San Francisco's branch of the self-proclaimed world's biggest independent record store, well worth the long hike down Haight Street through what would be 'the former hippy central' if it wasn't still lined with shops selling Indian textiles, crystals, sandalwood soap and wholefood. You get plenty of time to admire the sights, sounds and smells as the traffic creeps along...
Amoeba Music is located in a converted bowling alley right down the end of Haight, where the street reaches Golden Gate Park heading toward the Bay.
It sells new and obscure, it sells mainstream, it sells CDs, LPs and DVDs, not to mention VHS tapes, 45s, 78s, Laserdiscs – in fact anything able to carry sound or vision, new and used.
It has live appearances, it has reproductions of classic concert posters – and it has by far the most enthusiastic and knowledgable staff you're going to meet in any record shop.
The rules of engagement are simple: shirts and shoes are required, so no ambling in from the park on a hot day, and if your bag's big enough to hold anything they sell, you check it at the desk on the way in.
Oh, and if you're going to find the best stuff you have to do more than just flip through the bins. Get yourself down on your knees and – no, don't pray, but start trawling through a whole stack more stuff on the floor.
The chain actually started across the Bay, in the university city of Berkeley, and since 1997 has had this second store in San Francisco, with another opened in LA, on Hollywood's Sunset Boulevard, in 2001. The LA one carries the 'world's largest' title.
These stores are huge, and the exterior has moved on a bit from the dingy premises I first encountered when I followed the buzz from a hi-fi show all the way down Haight, driving a carful of fellow Amoeba virgins, some half a dozen years back.
Kids in sweetshop mode
Inside, we went into 'kids in sweetshop' mode, and spent far too much time seeking each other out to show the treasures we'd unearthed – and far too much money.
This was real record-shopping: not some soulless clicks on a mouse, but down among the music, inhaling that unmistakable smell of pre-loved vinyl.
And you know what? Just sitting writing this has the bin-flipping fingers itching again. I'm off to click the mouse – but this time on Expedia, not iTunes.
I mean, look at the pictures below and tell me you're not tempted...