Friday, June 3, 2011

Tower Records: Tales from the past and a documentary

Friday is a perfect day to talk about this: weekends, off time, entertainment, having fun, good times. And so we bring you, "Stories from the past about MTS Incorporated."

MTS, Inc. the corporate name on my old paychecks for Tower Records. Tower Video. Tower Posters. And also, Tower Classics. Tower Plants, even. The Tower stores international. Russ Soloman. The Man. It was a dynasty or sorts, really. A culture, certainly.

And now a documentary is on the way.

Russ Solomon - USA Today

I've mention before that I worked at Tower in my college years. I was on VA college benefits from the Air Force. When in Viet Nam Era, came out somehow, Post Viet Nam Era. Strange how the government can change things like that at the stroke of a pen.

And so, I didn't need to work to afford college and to survive through it, but I needed some extra cash to make life just a little bit easier.

I had always wanted to work at a head shop, a record store, and a movie store (okay those didn't exist then, but still....).

So I was out putting in resumes all over town one day and I though, what the Hell and went to Tower Records store. I ended up talking to the Tower Posters manager, not knowing who she was at the time. She looked like a kind of hippy.

She interviewed me on the front step of the store. She must have liked me because she hired me on the spot. That started my Tower career that lead to some very interesting stories, some I can't tell here for possibly obvious reasons. But they were good times, fun times, but still, I didn't have much money to speak of.
Tower Records Tacoma 38th St, Posters, then Video to the left - photo by  Bill  Hansen

After she left the company, one of the women took over as interim manager, hoping to become manager. She was quite attractive and one day walked up to me and asked if I wanted to move in with her. I was a little stunned but said, "YEAH." She then said, "No, you don't quite understand, my sister is moving out of my apartment. I need to make up for her rent." To which I said, in front of the other employees, "Oh. I see. YEAH!"

Later, they demoted a really bad manager down to Tacoma from Seattle. He fired her, then found a reason to fire me. One day he called me into the back room. There was a little ceiling fan in the tiny bathroom that I swear, if you scrapped the fan, you could smoke the residue and get high. The manager offered me a snort of something white and powdery trying to be nice. Then he said, "If I did something to [your roommate], what would you do." I was now in a heightened state of awareness which he should have realized and didn't. I reacted appropriately as one would to a manager in a situation such as this one. I said, "Well, I guess I'd punch you out." He didn't react well to this and I noticed that.

So, I said, "Well, if you mean a work related matter, that's none of my business. On the other hand, if it's not work related...." He stammered quickly, "Oh, no, it's work related." (and yes, I could have kicked his ass, he saw himself more as a hipster than a fighter, basically as I remember him, and how others told me, he was simply more of a sleaze.). So I said, "If it's work related it's none of my business." He was greatly relieved. I told my roommate. He fired her the next day. He fired me that next weekend.

I happened to be next door and the Records manager asked what I was doing in his store rather than next door at work. He was being nice, just wondering why I was standing around by the register, talking to the guys there, looking dejected. I told him what happened. He immediately got angry and said, "Want a job?" I said, "YEAH!" He said, "You're hired." I said, "I don't think the jerk next door will like that." He said, "Oh yeah, well, send him back to me. I'll talk to him."  And he walked away pissed off.
"The Floor" at Tower Records Tacoma circa 1980? - photo by Bill Hansen

The next day I was working on the register. I was assigned to the tape section, working under the guy who would become my future Video Store manager, friend, and eventual roommate when we moved to Seattle to run the Tower Video store there. I didn't want the tape section, I wanted a vinyl section, not the silicon section. But that was okay, I was working at a record store. I was working at, Tower Records.

The jerk walked in and angrily said, "What are you doing here?" I said, "I work here." He said, "WHAT?" I said, "Kevin said if you want to talk to him about it, he's in the back." He stormed back there. Three minutes later, he stormed back out, past me, without looking, and out the double doors.

We all three at the register, started cracking up. I thought my new manager, Kevin, was God at that point. What a nice guy.

Eventually, I graduated from my two year college and got my AA degree. Now what? My girlfriend and I both graduated. She had started at Wazzu (Washington State University in Pullman, WA). But finished with me at WWU.

Washington State University logo

She got in so much trouble at Wazzu (read that as, DUIs), mostly drinking (a big problem there back then as people would cross the border to Idaho a few miles away and could drink at a younger age than Washington's 21). So she came back to live with me, stay sane and semi sober and did her second year at my Ft. Steilacoom Community College (now Pierce College). She didn't have a lot of money in her family either, but had scholarships I think. So she was thinking a BA degree. Luckily, it was rated the best Community College in the state at the time and has since gotten its accreditation as a full College.

We were both into Psychology as a major. Actually, I never expected to do college at all. I graduated High School saying "NEVER, I will NEVER go to school again." Bad experience, you see. But after four years of Hell in the Air Force (authority issues), I figured and had proved, that I could do almost anything. Surviving the mental duress of being stuck somewhere you hated (Spokane and the military) for four years, I proved to myself I could do pretty much anything. So I thought, "Maybe I'll get a four year degree; might as well, go where she's going." So I did. Big mistake. Best mistake I could have made, however.

My older brother (older by seven years) had talked me into college ("Look, girls, parties, a degree, better money when you graduate, it's all paid for by the government, where's the downside?"). I was also the first in my nuclear family to get a college degree of any kind, and so, I applied to all the state colleges and visited all their campuses. I liked WWU best in Bellingham. Beautiful campus and not just "rat counters" like the UW and others (strangely, though the UW turned down my app for education, I ended up working there for seven and a half years later on). They accepted me, happily, to my surprise.
WWU Miller Hall, Psychology Department Home
I got my degree, had a tempestuous relationship with that girlfriend, graduated, moved back to Tacoma (to my dismay, as I felt I was somehow going backward) and couldn't find a job. I was looking for a Psych job, but they all paid the same or less than my Tower job had ($5/hr or so). My friend and supervisor at Records said if I wanted a job, they were starting a new business, Tower Video, since Tower Posters had gone out of business. The thought was, it was just a bunch of stoners working at the posters stores (Head Shops) and they were robbing the stores blind. So I said okay, and after all, it was a movie store. Score!

I ended up a supervisor there, became Media buyer (blank tapes, cables, etc.) and developed a very good statistical analysis formula I learned in Psychology Statistics (the hardest most miserable class I ever had, and it was a requirement, and a two semester, year long class and the second semester had the Professor from Hell). So at least in my failed effort to avoid math like the plague, I had learned something.

Supervising one Thursday night, about 10:30pm. Female Emp. comes into the back to say there are two shoplifters, 1 tall, 1 short, both black. I went out front, they had just run out the door, I chased them down the store block, around, onto the street, I'm running down the street, nothing, no one. I'm standing there in the dark, two male employees still in the store. No backup. Me alone on a dark street after two guys. Uh huh. Okay....

I went back to the store, thinking how I could have been lying in the street dying about then. Over the next week I stewed over the fact that two guys stole from the store on my watch. Busting shoplifters was a stable at Tower. Not so much at Posters as they store was so cluttered it was nearly impossible to catch someone, but Video and Records got to be very expert in it.

The somewhat humorous end to that story is in the next week following. All employees showed up for an all night inventory at both Video and Records. Those two guys showed up again. Same night, Thursday, same hour. The employee came back and told the manager and I. He had me lock the font door, he went through the back door to the Record store and came around the front of the store with about twelve male employees. Record store employees were very professional in their apprehending shoplifters as it happened a lot.

So I nonchalantly breezed to the front of the store, passed the two guys and locked the front door, which, well, spooked them a little. I just said, "Sorry for the inconvenience, it's just for a couple of minutes." There was a tall black guy and a shorter one. As I had walked by, the tall one was doing a lousy job as lookout as he was watching the shorter guy (as was I) stuffing VHS video tapes down the back of his pants. After I spoke to them, he set the videos down on the rack again. I immediately picked them up and walked them to another employee as evidence.

Needless to say, we caught the guys this time. Once the manager showed up with the guys from next door, he unlocked the door. It was then that the small squirmy one tried to get out the door but one of our video employees, kind of a young, muscular Tom Cruz look a like, grabbed the metal framed bullet proof glass door (someone threw a crow bar through the door so we had recently fixed that issue), and slammed the door shut on the guy, repeatedly (we thought he was trying to cut the guy in half) until the guy had to back off and myself and another guy, got him into the back room.

He almost got away from us but I had just started Aikido as a college gym class and got a twisted arm, thumg grip on him and he had to give up. The guy's arm popped twice and he groaned and said, "Hey don't break my arm." I said, "I'm not moving, you are, stop struggling or you WILL break your arm."

They had chosen a night to rip off a Tower store when two Tower stores had all their employees working that night. Talk about losers. A little while later the police came and took the guy away. The other guy got off because he hadn't taken anything, which really annoyed me. But I had caught the guy that burned me the week before and got away with it; and I had caught the first shoplifter at Tower Video Tacoma.

Eventually my manager and I got an apartment on Seattle's Queen Anne Hill on the Magnolia side and moved to run the Tower Video store on Mercer Street. That was some interesting times. There were times when my dinner was an apple from the nearby CircleK store. Talk about poor. I got my supervisor keys though I was supposed to be an assistant Manger, but the Manager in Tacoma wouldn't let me go, she really screwed me on that, but she knew she had an employee that could run the store.

One night I was working during Christmas time and the place was packed. I was on break and when I got back the District Manger, Wayne, who had an office in the single brick building that contained Tower Records, then Video, then Classics with a long office way in the back, came up to me, very proud. He said, I just stopped two guys carrying a case of video tapes out the front door. I said, "Cool, good job. Where are they?" I was all innocent like not expecting his response.

He said, "I let them go." Incredulous and being from Tacoma where we dealt on a daily basis with thieves from the projects across the street from the shopping mall, and the Army training base Ft. Lewis, and local High and Junior High schools. Honestly, most our shoplifters were black, military, or kids, and no one was racist that I met at the stores, we dealt in demographics and those were the demographics). So my point being, in Tacoma, we had some tough customers.

Wayne got all defensive and angry and I got angry right back. But he won (District Manager, remember). He said, "This isn't TACOMA, this is SEATTLE. You don't take on two guys alone. I did good getting the product back." True. But, lame. Whimpy, cowardly even. From our Tacoma standards. In my book.

I told the manager/roommate. His comment was laughter. He said, "What?! He let them go!? He has no concept what it's like in Tacoma. Don't let it bother you." And so, I didn't.
Jeff Ament

At some point Jeff Ament (bass player, Pearl Jam, back then Green River) was our media buyer, the job I had in Tacoma.
Jeff (right) looking more as I was used to him back when
 Not sure if that's a "Mother Love Bone" or "Green River" (above) band photo.

When he decided to go get serious about playing music, he passed his job to me and I replaced him (as if that were possible). Using that formula I had made in Tacoma, I hit top sales one media and accessories one month, world wide. Not bad.

Eventually, I got a job at the UW working on computers. That lead to writing and IT work. And the rest is history.
Colin Hanks

Colin Hanks, Tom's son, is now doing a documentary on Tower Records and it's founder, Russ Soloman. I've met him, nice guy. When I met him, gold chain medallion, open shirt, bare chest but that was the 80s. It's called, "All things must pass, the Rise and Fall of Tower Records". Check it out. Maybe donate a couple of bucks. Tower was an icon, portrayed in film and now documentary. It gave its customers a music home away from home. It had its downside, especially if you worked there, but we made the best of it we could. I have fond memories of it now that life is far, far better.

And I'm never going to forgot those Tower days, or the people I met and worked with there. I'm still in contact with some of them on Facebook and some were friends all these years. That Video manager I worked for and lived with was eventually the best man at my wedding (one of them, the one my brother married us at and some Tower employees attended in Issaquah, WA) and I was best man at his wedding (one of them). 

Some of those people are gone now and I miss them, some I miss greatly. But most of us are still here and have some very fond memories of our years with Russ' stores. Some very fond memories, indeed.

If, you find any of this interesting, or especially perhaps if you don't, one of my dear friends who was one of those Tower people who has passed on, was Rose (ironically and unrelated, her ex husband, Ray, is also gone now; seems from what I hear, he left "Skinheads" a bar on the Tacoma waterfront with a couple of guys, and was found the next morning on the beach).

Rose was a very special person. Liz, was another, funny, sharp wit, attractive, who was lost to us too soon. They were friends, they were friends of mine. At times friends of mine together and at times when they were annoyed with one another, friends of mine separately. But I was very close to both of them. As close as I've ever been to anyone. I was pleased to be included in their inner circle of friends.

They had a falling out, the two of them, after I moved on from Tacoma. I know why, I understand it, and it saddens me, but that's really not relevant here. I found a page online about Rose and so I'll share that with you here and now. The guy that put that page up, came on the scene just after I left it. What he says is so true for me also.

What he doesn't know is Rose refused to bow to life, to her Diabetes. I told her time and again to stop partying along with us, she couldn't do it, but she would anyway. I told her it will kill her, and she looked up at me and said, "I don't care, I will live my life how I want to live it and if it kills me, so be it. But I will live life on MY terms!" I choke up writing this. But there it is. Nothing he could do would ever have changed that indomitable spirit.

If you hate feeling emotions, just move on and don't read this. But if you decide to, you will come to understand the side of Rose I knew. And everything this guy says on his page, from my own experience, was true. Rose had some hard times, especially later on before she passed on. But she will always be a very special person in my memories.

There were others lost to us over the years, like Leo in Seattle who was lost to AIDS, and other unnamed Tower friends,

But first and foremost, Rose and Liz, you are on my mind, forever.


  1. Actually, Ray left the OK Hotel in Seattle with four unidentified people that he met there. He went missing for two weeks (his story was on the local news). He was discovered in Elliot Bay. No serious investigation ever took place and no charges were ever filed.

    While Rose and Liz did have a falling out and never again were as close as they once were, they were on speaking terms at the time of Rose's death. I'm glad for that.

    I spent every day with Rose, either on the phone or in person (usually both)in the latter years of her life. We had a 21 year friendship, and one that touched me deeply. There is no one else that can fill the void that her death left.

    I still talk to Liz's ex-husband, Kevo, who now lives in London. They remained exceptionally close throughout Liz's life.

    Some of the dearest people I know came from my Tower Records career. I worked there from 1986 to 1993. Later I became a rep for Ryko Distribution, where Tower became clients. Lots of memories, some great, some not so great, but the former certainly outweighed the latter.

    Thank you for putting this blog together. It's nice to see the homage paid to such lovely ladies.

    Traci Kelly

    P.S. The photo is, indeed, of Mother Love Bone. :-)

  2. Thanks Traci. I got most of my info from Liz. Interesting that it differs about Ray. I wasn't quite updated on Liz and Rose toward the end. I hadn't talked to Rose for a while and Liz didn't really want to talk much about it.
    I appreciate the comments. Not a week goes by that I don't realize I miss them being there to talk to. I still run into Kevo online almost daily. He's the one that called me to let me know when Liz passed on. I was stunned to say the least. It's nice to know that so many of us are still doing well. :) Cheers! Have a great Christmas and holiday.

  3. Thank you. I'm not sure if we are acquainted. It would seem that we must have met, considering the commonalities. Are you a part of the Facebook pages groups? If not, you might find some people that you may want to reconnect with.

    Take care, and have a great year ahead!

  4. Yes, indeed. I sent you a message on FB. :) Happy New Year too!

  5. In that first picture of QARS-88, that's either Bob Akin or Steve Potter standing by the counter.

  6. Nice Post and m happy to see this post.