Then . . .

Matthew Lasar


very now and then I take a walk along Market Street in San Francisco. It is a peculiar mix of franchises, authentic old survivor restaurants, and bizarre expositions in corporate modernity --- particularly the vulgar Metreon, product of an alliance between Microsoft and Sony.

Most of the time I window-shop; I rarely enter such premises. But there is one outlet I always visit, for reasons that have nothing to do with the merchandise.

It is the Sam Goody records franchise buried in the basement of Nordstroms. I inspect the displays dedicated to the likes of entirely manufactured personæ such as Ricky Martin and Brittany Spears. I pick up some inexpensive but useful item-cassette tapes, a CD case --- and bring it to the teenager at the cash register, who invariably smiles and asks me how I am.

"Did you know," I say with a hopeful expression, "that I used to know Sam Goody?"

"Really?" comes the response, sometimes with interest, sometimes out of politeness. "What was he like?"

"He was a dreadful human being," I reply.

My clerk laughs. Sometimes she asks why I would say that, and I explain that Mr. Goody, who I really did know, yelled at me once. The person with whom I am speaking is not impressed. She has been yelled at by her employer, and it is something one survives. And there the discussion ends. The rest is too complicated for polite, over-the-counter conversation.

I remember the New York Sam Goody record store at which I worked 25 years ago because it remains for me a symbol of a world that is gone. I'm surprised that I am still nostalgic for that peculiar moment in my life. Full of ridiculous quarrels and long, inexplicable feuds, "world" seems a pretentious description for the milieu over which Sam Goody presided (and in which I functioned) for a while.

Sam Goody Records --- bought in the 1970s by the American Can Corporation and later merged with Musicland Incorporated --- was the first independently owned record chain in the eastern United States. Approximately 20 Sam Goody stores existed when I first took a job with them in 1974, reaching as far north as New England as far south as Raleigh.

I was 19. I worked at the first store, the one located at 49th Street, off Broadway, in Manhattan. It had a sacred reputation within the network, being Sam's first operation. In it you could find many of the salesmen (and they were all men) who had started with Goody shortly after the Second World War. By the mid-1970s, some of these individuals had worked in the same locale for a quarter of a century.

And yes, they were characters.

Louis Weber, for example, had long since gained a city-wide reputation as classical music's occupational equivalent of the insulting Jewish waiter. A short, stocky man in his early 60s, Lou didn't suffer fools easily. Actually, I think he enjoyed fools.

Lou would camp out on the northeast corner of the store, and hum to himself cheerfully, waiting either for his first coffee break of the day (9:15 am) or for some naïf to torture. An elderly lady might walk up to him with two recordings of Beethoven's "Pathetique" in hand, one performed by Vladimir Horowitz, the other by Arthur Rubinstein. "Which one would you recommend, Mr. Weber?" she would ask respectfully. "Frankly madam," Lou would reply, "I don't think you could tell the difference." He would then politely hand her one or the other album.

During the four years I worked at Sam Goody's, I saw scores of people patiently endure this kind of treatment, and come back for more. One afternoon a customer came into the store and asked me to show him the "male vocals" section. I took him to the classical male singers bin, divided into names like Dietrich Fisher-Dieskau and Tito Schipa. He looked unhappy. "No," he explained to me, "I mean, you know, like Frank Sinatra."

Lou observed this confusion and waved a chiding finger in my face. "Matthew, Matthew, Matthew!" he said, affectionately. "Can't you tell by the level of mental perspicuity on this man's face what kind of singers he wants?" The man laughed and thanked us as Lou led him to the popular male vocals section, from which he took three Mario Lanza records to the cash register.

Jeff Atterton ran the jazz department. A tall, wiry man, Atterton had served as a pilot in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War. I didn't know much about Jeff besides the fact that he treated me kindly and was, in my opinion, slightly barmy (as the British say). If you annoyed Jeff, as did Lou Weber, he would write obscenities on your locker in the employee room. Most of the time, however, Jeff simply walked up and down the jazz aisles offering commentary about Bix Beiderbecke or Fats Waller to various friends. "I used to know Fats, you know," he would mumble, as often to himself as to anyone else. And, of course, Jeff detested modern Jazz, which meant Charlie Parker and beyond.

I am grateful to Atterton for one favor --- an introduction to an especially interesting customer. One afternoon he nervously approached me, and asked if I might assist "a friend" of his with the purchase of some classical recordings. I looked at the friend. He sported a black, drapelike overcoat, and was, as I correctly guessed, by virtue of his sunglasses and long cane, blind. In addition to these objects, he wore a top hat with feathers sticking out, a wide variety of necklaces, rings and wristlets, and carried several musical instruments, including a clarinet and a soprano saxophone on hooks attached to his coat belt.

I looked at this customer, and glanced at Lou. He stood at the opposite side of the store, anticipating with horror the possibility that he might have to deal with the patron. I had clearly been assigned the job. "I would like to introduce you," Atterton began gratefully, "to Mr. Rassan Roland Kirk."

We shook hands and "Kirk," as his friends called him, explained that he wanted to check out some contemporary classical music. We walked over to the avant-garde area, and it soon became clear to me that my task was to pick out compositions that I thought au currant and describe them to him.

Kirk became my regular customer, and I quickly became accustomed to his tastes. He always wanted a complete rundown of the orchestration. If in my reading of the instruments we came across anything electronic, the jazz master would immediately nix the prospect. "No man, no," he would intone grimly. "I don't want any electronic instruments. Just acoustic." In this fashion, Kirk would accept a copy of Boulez's "Hammer Without a Master" and veto a just released version of George Crumb's "Ancient Voices of Children."

We would then march over the to the opera vocals section and pick out five or six Caruso, Chaliapin, or Kirsten Flagstad solo albums. Kirk loved old opera recordings. But the same rule applied. I'd have to scrutinize each record to make sure it hadn't been somehow remastered. "No remasters man," he'd warn. "Just tracks of the original acoustic tubes, you know?" After about an hour of this kind of research, I'd trudge up to the cashier's desk with 20 or 30 albums, a very satisfied Roland Kirk clanking along behind me.

For four years, I functioned as record and tape schlepper for the stars. Woody Allen would come in, and I would do what I had been sternly told to do: pretend not to notice him. Eventually, after much hesitation, he would ask me where something was, and I would respond in as few helpful words as possible. Allen --- a Stokowski fan --- always appeared grateful for this minimal response. Nureyev, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Tiny Tim, Renata Tebaldi and Elliot Carter would arrive, and I would again be summoned for assistance.

Management sometimes preferred me because I didn't irritate famous people by fawning over them. In part, this was because of my lack of knowledge. I really didn't know the significance of some of my more accomplished customers. One day Lou Weber had to rush home, and so he pressed me to assist a man named Peter, whom Lou introduced as a writer. Peter wanted to buy some Mozart recordings, he explained.

"What do you write about?" I innocently asked.

"Well," he responded, "I write plays. I just wrote a play about horses."

"Wow," I said, "and what are you writing about now?"

"Well, Mozart, actually," he replied.

"That's great," I replied, with ignorant enthusiasm, and with that, proceeded to fill the record list of Peter Shaffer, future author of Amadeus.

§     §     §

did not know at the time that this rarefied retail environment verged on extinction, but it did. The assumptions of the record retail business were about to be transformed by the same corporations that were buying up book chains and publication houses. The conditions that made Sam Goody's 49th street store so precious to so many people, both famous and obscure, were about to be completely undone. I, in fact, constituted part of the undoing.

When I arrived at Sam Goody records in 1974, the store's basic marketing strategy could be summarized as follows: provide the public with highly knowledgeable staff and a huge inventory. These components represented the two major capital costs of running a city wide record store. Lou, Jeff and others received relatively decent salaries. Everyone in the store, even part timers, received medical insurance, sick pay, vacation pay, and retirement benefits --- a package that is inconceivable today.

The people who worked those floors were seasoned concert goers. They had sat in the front row at John McCormack concerts. They had heard Schnabel, Landowska, Schweitzer and Paderewski. They were voracious readers. They had encyclopedic knowledge and encyclopedic record collections. If you asked them a question like "What's the difference between the playing of Walter Gieseking and Dame Myra Hess?" --- they could tell you, simply and eloquently. They knew opera, chamber music, art song, everything.

People would call on them not just to buy records, but to ask what I always thought of as strange historical questions, to which they almost always knew the answer. The customers who came to Sam Goody's came to talk to the experts, and would inevitably be talked into buying more than they intended.

A phenomenal inventory of records supported this retail staff. Back then we used to constantly complain that we didn't have an adequate catalogue at any given moment. Now I remember with astonishment how much material we did keep at hand. We stocked everything. We had all the obscure, highbrow, independent and foreign labels. And when we kept a label, we kept the entire line. CRI, Opus 1, Oiseau Lyre, Argo, Telefunken, BIS, Soviet (not EMI) Melodia, Pathé, Hungaraton, plus a dozen or so teeny-weenie labels I can't even remember. The business logic was that even if some of this material sat on the shelves for years, it sealed the store's reputation as the place where you could count on finding what you wanted.

The slow moving inventory represented an ongoing capital expense, compensated by the 35 versions of Pachelbel's "Canon" that sold themselves, without fail, on a daily basis. Could this obscure Baroque composer have possibly suspected that centuries later his little basso continuo tune (slightly adjusted around 1900) would accompany weddings, funerals, bank deposits, dentist's visits, and elevator rides throughout the western world? Every day people would walk into the store and say to Lou Weber: "What's that piece that goes: Dahhh dahhh dahhh dahhh dumm dummm dahhh dahhhh?" Lou would put on his best irritated expression. "You see that kid over there?" he would say, pointing to me. "He'll get it for you."

There was one other individual who could get it for you, and he was the one I remember best.

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