Michael Gonzales / April 12, 2023
Tower Records on 4th Street and Broadway, 1984. Photo by Brandi Merolla
Having grown up in the 1970s, an era when record shops were a fixture in communities and often served as neighborhood social centers, I became obsessed with a small store located on 146th and Broadway. Owned by my father’s friend Mr. Freddy, I visited that record shop weekly to buy 45s to jam on my blue record player. From the Jackson 5 to Gladys Knight & the Pips, he carried all the latest soul records. There were promotional posters taped in the windows and tacked to the exterior walls, and packages of fragrant incense on the counter next to the register. If needed, Mr. Freddy, a sharp-dressed and kindly man, played the disc for me to make sure it was the right one.
As I got older and my musical taste broadened, I began spreading my wings throughout Manhattan, where I discovered other record stores, including Kappy’s in Washington Heights, Bobby’s Happy House in Central Harlem, and Bondy’s, which was across the street from City Hall. Often, I went alone and spent hours flipping through the stacks in search of old soul, new wave, early rap, free jazz, and on-the-money funk. I was a fiend for cut-out bins where I could find discounted records, mostly from artists I’d never heard of—but I liked the covers.
I dug all them shops, but I had no particular favorite until 1983, when Tower Records opened on Fourth and Broadway. Back then the neighborhood was rather bleak. With the exception of New York University and music venue The Bottom Line, there wasn’t much else. Recently, while watching the wonderful Tower Records documentary All Things Must Pass (2015), a senior West Coast employee described the location as “the bowels of the East Village” and claimed he saw a dead dog in the gutter. As the talking heads dropped Tower Records history and lore, I thought about the many hours I spent in that store as both patron and employee.
With their custom designed window displays that were done by in-house artists, Tower Records was bigger than most New York City record stores. They had large jazz and classical departments, sold cool import and rap singles, and carried an array of music publications, including British papers Melody Maker and New Music Express (NME). Inside the trademarked yellow bags stamped with the red logo, I often carried out lots of goodies. Additionally, Tower stayed open until midnight, which made it the perfect place to drift into after happy hour when some jukebox song was stuck in your head. I can remember my buddy Jerry and I going down there one night when my drunk self believed I needed to buy the soundtrack for Valley of the Dolls just to hear Dionne Warwick singing the theme.
Though I lived in Harlem and Jerry dwelled in Brooklyn, we often met in front of Tower when we planned on “hangin’ in the village.” We’d flip through racks of records for an hour or so, which was usually followed by smoking a joint in Washington Square Park while watching comedian Charlie Barnett. Back in those days, I had a bad habit of running late and, on one occasion, he befriended a guy begging for change in front of the store. An aspiring playwright, Jerry wrote a one-act about the encounter. Years later, I heard how fallen Grandmaster Flowers, a pioneering DJ from Brooklyn, used to shake his coin cup on that spot and I just knew that’s who Jerry had met. That same year I hung out with Jerry as he waited in line overnight to buy tickets for The Police’s Synchronicity Tour. That year we both worked as messengers in Manhattan, but we were ready to splurge our minimum wages on Sting.
In 1985, two years after Tower’s doors opened, I abruptly quit my gig at midtown coffee shop Miss Brooks after a transgression with a married older woman manager. After leaving, I went to Baltimore for a few weeks. I’d gone to high school there and my mom still called it home. For two weeks I bummed around with old friends and had a fling with a former classmate. When I returned to the Big Apple, I needed to find a new job. As a lover of books and music, my first thought was going to a favorite bookshop, but I was afraid I might get fired for hiding in the aisle reading the latest Harlan Ellison short story collection or a Chester Himes reissue. Instead, I went down to Tower Records the first week in September.
After being directed to the cassette department, I met with the manager, who had me fill out an application. During that era, when most Americans had tape players in their homes and cars, as well as the millions that carried Walkman’s every day, cassettes were a popular format. Tower also sold a variety of blank tapes, cassette player head cleaners, and carrying cases. There were numerous blank tape companies including TDK, Maxell, Fuji, and Memorex.
With his neo-rockabilly style, the manager was a few years older than me. I don’t recall much about the interview process, but when he asked who my favorite artists were, I went back to my old standards: “James Brown and Led Zeppelin,” I replied. He smiled and hired me. If I had said Lionel Richie and A-Ha I might’ve been kicked to the curb, but instead I was asked to report on Saturday morning at 8:00. As with most retail stores, Saturday was Tower’s busiest day and I was thrown straight into the fire.
Beastie Boys display window designed by Brandi Merolla, 1986. Photo by Brandi Merolla
That morning I was shown around the cassette department and, for the next few hours, restocked the shelves with co-worker Barry Walters, an NYU student as well as a music critic for The Village Voice. As an aspiring writer and music critic myself, I was both impressed and a little jealous. Barry was a soft-spoken white guy who helped get me through that first day. Later that morning he introduced me to Bryan Ferry’s smooth solo album Boys and Girls and the music of an English band called Prefab Sprout, whose second album Two Wheels Good (aka Steve McQueen) he was reviewing for the Voice. From the first listen I loved the songs (“When Love Break Down,” “Horsin’ Around,” and “Appetite”) written and sung by Prefab’s bitterly charming leader Paddy McAloon, with whom I connected as I pulled overstock from beneath the bins. With each repeated listening, the album only got better, richer, and more tragically poetic.
At noon my manager instructed me to go upstairs and work bag check. That was the area where, for security purposes, customers checked their various sized briefcases, duffle bags, shopping bags, and knapsacks. It was the most rowdy section of the store. Though there was a security guard a few feet away, that didn’t stop people from not making a line, barking orders, flinging their sacks, and basically treating me like a non-person. What made it worse was that I was alone for the first forty-five minutes—and I was a mess. People were throwing bags and yelling as I handed out numbers and placed the belongings in lockers. I felt as though I’d been jumped, punched, and kicked into a gang. Thankfully, one of the guys from the 12-inch singles section on the mezzanine saw that I was struggling and came downstairs to help. At the end of the hour I bolted to the basement and hid in the back. Later, someone told me that if I learned to work the register I could get out of the bag check nightmare.
I enjoyed running the register and was sometimes impressed with the people who popped up in line. Fourth Street and Broadway was still an arty hood that consisted of various galleries, artist lofts, recording studios, and restaurants. Jean-Michel Basquiat lived a few blocks away at 57 Great Jones Street. One afternoon film director Jim Jarmusch came to the counter carrying an assortment of musical genres. I’d seen Stranger than Paradise the previous year, a flick that inspired me to take a few film classes—until I realized it was cheaper to be a writer.
On another day, artist Keith Haring was my customer, and that time I got excited. “I saw you a few months back in the 145th Street subway station doing one of those radiant babies in chalk,” I said. “I love your work.” Keith smiled. “Thank you,” he replied. Before I knew it I blurted, “Can you do a sketch for me?” He looked at me and nodded his head. “Sure, no problem.” I got my notebook from beneath the counter and handed him a black marker. He drew one of his trademark men dancing across the page. Three minutes later he passed the pad back. There was a plain clothes security guard standing next to me. “Can you do one for me too?” he asked. Keith chuckled, but he complied. Later, the security guy regaled me with stories of catching guys shoplifting. “One was that crazy bassist Jaco Pastorius. He came in and tried to steal Weather Report albums that he’d played on. When I caught him he kept screaming, insisting that the records belonged to him.”
A few weeks after I was hired, New York City was supposed to be hit hard by Hurricane Gloria. I was recruited to be part of the Tower team to tape giant X’s across the windows. While goofing around with one of my co-workers, I saw an earth angel descending the stairs. Her name was Pauline and she was a beautiful black woman with long, curly hair and a full figure. Later, I overheard her Brit accent, which made her even more alluring. I went back to taping the windows, but I never released her from my mind. That night the winds were strong and the heavy rain lasted for hours.
As the King of Crushes, I instantly fell in love with Pauline, though she had no idea that I existed. Unfortunately, every time I ventured upstairs to play the Romeo role, I chickened out. One night I called Jerry and asked if he’d do me a favor. He agreed and the following day met me outside of the store. I’d written Pauline a secret admirer letter with a poem and bought her a dozen roses. In those days, I was always writing poetry, filling notebooks with words of joyful decadence as though I was an uptown Rimbaud. Jerry was assigned to deliver the package for me. Everything went as planned and the following day I introduced myself. Pauline and I stood in the front of the store next to stacks of Pulse magazine, Tower’s own music rag.
“So you’re my secret admirer,” she smiled. “The poem you wrote was very nice.”
“Thank you,” I said, nervous as a school boy. “I was hoping, maybe… can I take you out to dinner?” As Beaver Cleaver would say, I think I sounded creepy, but she was still smiling.
“You’re sweet,” she said, “but I’m dating someone right now.”
I chuckled to keep from weeping. “Of course you are,” I sighed. “It’s cool.” Pauline and I became friendly, and a week later she invited me to a get-together at the Rivington Street apartment she shared with her boyfriend. She scribbled the address on the back of a Pulse that had Stevie Wonder on the cover. The night of the party, “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” played at least four times. Outside, a couple of teenagers set fire to Pauline’s boyfriend’s motorcycle. From their fourth floor window, I watched the rising flames.
Preparing for Hurricane Gloria by taping up all the plate glass windows. Photo: Brandi Merolla
Back then “in-stores,” when artists came by for a few hours and signed their latest release, were a major part of the industry. Though I’d never attended any before, I was thrilled when word went around that Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam were coming to the store. The year before, when the group’s debut single “I Wonder If I Take You Home” came out, they’d been a sensation in the city. Radio played Lisa Lisa constantly and at the nightclubs, especially the Roxy and the Funhouse, that track was elevated to an anthem.
Hours before the band arrived, there were young girls of all races and nationalities dressed like Lisa, with hair swept over to cover their right eye. Thankfully, when the group arrived, they were just as excited as their fans. Lisa’s smile was genuine as she chatted with her fans and signed autographs. I was checking out the scene from the mezzanine with my security guard buddy, who decided to dis Lisa. “She sure has put on weight since the video came out,” he said. Mocking her song, he sang, “I wonder if I take you home if you’ll fit through my door.” I glared at him. “That’s rude,” I snapped. “Why is it always you fat, ugly dudes trying to call somebody unattractive?” Nervously, he chuckled. “Damn Mike, you act like she’s your woman or something.”
Everyone in the cassette department got along, but there was always a little tension when it was time to change the music. One person might want to hear L.L. Cool J or Mantronix while someone else might want to play The Smiths or Eurythmics; my choice was usually Prince or something he wrote, including “The Dance Electric” (André Cymone), “Screams of Passion” (The Family) or “A Love Bizarre” (Shelia E.). After a while it was comical the way people raced to the tape deck to (hopefully) jam their favorite joint.
Upstairs, not far from the employee bathrooms, was where the art team worked. Though not much of a visual artist myself, I’ve always been an aficionado—a fan of comics, commercial illustration, and fine art equally. If I’m not mistaken, it was mostly women working in the art department, and they were overseen by Brandi Merolla. Though I didn’t know her personally, her team’s work was seen throughout the store in the many 3D displays. In 2011, when writer/musician Greg Tate co-founded and edited the lit-mag Coon Bidness with poet Latasha Natasha Diggs, I contributed the short story “Daddy Gone Blues,” about fem-rocker Andrea Holiday, who works in Tower’s art department while trying to be a star. Merolla got to be creative with band posters of Tears for Fears, a-Ha, Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam, Wham!, Scritti Politti, Prefab Sprout, Aretha Franklin, and everybody else who put out a hit record in 1985.
Although Tower Records was a chain, the owners allowed staff to be as creative as they wanted to be and, personally, I never felt any corporate pressure to act or dress in any certain way. Our managers were cool folks who had our backs. One afternoon I went to lunch with my mother at a nearby Mexican place called Camambra where I drank three very strong frozen margaritas and stumbled back to the store with “cocktail flu.” After standing behind the register for a few minutes, the manager came over and whispered, “I’m not firing you, but you have to go home. I can’t have you drunk behind the register.” The following day I apologized. “Don’t worry about it, man, it happens.” If I was anywhere else, I would’ve been picking up my last check.
For struggling writers, visual artists, musicians, and future record company executives, Tower was the starting place for many creative souls who needed a job, but didn’t want to work around “regular” people. That 4th and Broadway store had many oddballs who went on to greatness, including bassist Melvin Gibbs, jazz producer Brian Michel Bacchus, A&R man Gary Harris, composer/conductor Butch Morris, and Burnt Sugar keyboardist Bruce Mack.
I was there for a year before I left to work at a homeless shelter the city opened in part of the psychiatric ward at Bellevue Hospital. However, eight years later, when I’d finally become a full-time writer, I was commissioned by Tower Pulse editor Marc Weidenbaum to write the Gang Starr cover story for the May 1994 issue. That relationship lasted for the next two years.
Days before my Tower Records closed down in 2006, I visited the damn near empty store and almost wept. To this day, I’ve never stopped thinking about that music sanctuary for the twenty years it existed at that location.
Michael A. Gonzales is an essayist/short story writer who has published fiction in The Oxford American, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. He contributes pop culture/true crime features to CrimeReads, Soulhead, and Longreads.
3 thoughts on “On 4th and Broadway: Remembering Tower Records”
Love your story! I was an only a patron, but visited religiously from 1984-1987 while i lived in the area. It was an amazing place with amazing people, and the windows were the cherry on top!
This just killed me. Thinking about my birthday in a couple of days and this story just brought me back. I worked there right out of high school for about 6 months then at the uptown location a year or so more. Even in the late 80’s that location was a madhouse. But it was home. Ieven had a similar mexican restaurant experience at Gonzalez and Gonzales on Broadway. And yes, staff was cool. I remember getting creative with displays and the fight over the music. It was where I felt like I was a part of something. An energy. Being a goth Dominican kid with a leather jacket that had David Bowie painted on the back and Prince buttons covering the front, I knew my first day working there that I had found my tribe. There and wherever there was cheap beer and whiskey (Alcatraz, King Tut’s Wh Wh Hut, Sophie’s, and Downtown Beruit). Thank you for taking me back. I needed that.
I visited the London branch of Tower Records at least once & was impressed by the range.