Friday, May 7, 2004

Coworkers: Part 100 - Rumors‏

   Wherehouse Music had been acquired.
   That was the only FACT we knew.
   Bought by one of the leading music retailers.
   Operated primarily "mall" locations.
   Not the large concept stores.
   Thanks to file sharing, record stores had become endangered, big box meccas, lumbering dinosaurs. Tower Records was still around, as was Virgin Megastores. Independents carved their own niche, Waterloo, Amoeba and others.
   Camp Bowie was a Wherehouse outpost, yet we acted like a full blown independent. We scheduled our own in-store events. From Gangsta Boo to Three 6 Mafia to Jacob doing an Usher tribute to J D to the Toadies release party. We had rearranged the store beyond the suggested layout. Better to curtail thieves and feature stock. Our inventory was overloaded on Rap and Country and Tejano, catering to listeners who still bought heavily from us.
   Customer demographics had profoundly altered. An entire generation, aged 25 and younger, no longer purchased music. They downloaded for free. Who could blame them? Music labels had lost their minds. Twenty dollars for a compact disc that contained one or two decent songs? C'mon. The early 60's had resurrected. We also lost most afternoon businessmen. USED CDs, however, kept us in the game. Over two thirds of our inventory was now USED product. More than many other stores, we had embraced USED CDs and DVDs immediately and fully. That is what kept us profitable, quarter after quarter.
   The new owners weren't looking at individual, successful stores. They had purchased a chain. A chain, predominantly mall based, with strip shop locations as well.
   Not necessarily large stores.
   Locations, and inventory.
   Inventory was what the big stores contained.
   One other point. Many years earlier, the new owners had been court ordered to pay $2.5 million for using another chain's trademark.
   The other chain?
   Peaches. The lingering ghost inside Camp Bowie.
   To those who believed in omens and tea leaves, the forecast did not look good.
*

   Every new owner made their presence known. Blockbuster honchos visited all stores, introduced themselves, tried to integrate us into their structure with mixed results. Wherehouse simply performed inspections, told us how things were done, then shoved us in the pool. Our newest owners? Silence.
   I was one of the first to feel their hand, though. Shipments began to fluctuate. Back catalog product from vendors, then Tuesday New Releases, finally the weekly Distribution Center replenishment. The flow choked. Customers shopped, we had jack.
   Wherehouse suffered frequent cash mismanagement, for which I had developed a backdoor strategy. One of those situations The Boss "knew, but didn't want to know." I phoned Abbey Road and Southwest Distribution, and placed fill orders with those one-stops. One-stops were pricier, and had quantity limitations, usually five units per title, but our credit was always good. Their product would tide us over until Corporate paid their bills again.
   "Sorry, guy, no can do," the telephone agent sighed.
   "Are you out of stock? Do you have problems? Or is it us?" I asked.
   "Your new owners issued instructions: No orders - No stores - No exceptions."
   "Bummer."
   "I know. You were a good account, and I could use the commission right now."
   "Sorry."
   "Yeah," the woman signed off. I had spoken with her for five years. That was our last conversation.
   This was repeated across all my one-stop contacts. We were frozen out. I told Joe that all indie rap orders from Southwest and Gonzales Music were suspended. Our street cred would sink. Next, I appraised The Boss that my dodge had failed. He shook his head. All new product dried up. Not just for us, all of our sister stores. As always, the original Wherehouse locations were fine and dandy, thank you. The only ones affected were the later acquisitions. The old Sound Warehouse addresses. We were being starved.
   There were trickle down consequences.
   J D's major label appearance was on Texas Hood Connections. Joe and I told him we could no longer stock it. He shrugged, but this was a huge setback.
   Tim drifted into the store, just to chat with the few of us he knew. He was in Zac Maloy's band, having a blast. Their debut sold reasonably well. For the follow-up, they had signed an exclusive deal ... with Southwest Distribution.
   I felt bad telling Tim, yet the head's up might have been useful. I don't know.
   I admired Tim's perseverance and endurance. He had been plugging a long time. Yet his was a lonely path. He held an EP, Love Songs For The Very Low, unavailable at stores or online, just some personal songs. Tim smiled and gave me a copy. I felt very touched, and very undeserving ...

NOTE: Pause SoundCheck above before launching video.

*

   ... "What's going on with your new owners?" he asked.
   "What do you mean?"
   "I have some old contacts in the Midwest. Said operatives were sweeping house. Firing people."
   Once upon a time, he had been lead guitarist in a struggling band. As the group edged into fame, he stepped away. Yet he still shopped, and his contacts were real.
   "Aw, upper management always gets axed during takeovers. They'll get compensated," I argued.
   "No. It's store staff. Assistants, Backroom Guys, people like that."
   That was unsettling.
   The Boss confirmed the rumor. He had spoken with fellow managers who also reported emissaries from the eastern coast had visited and purged. Stores were also being closed, though corporate emails stridently reassured everyone that no stores would be closed.
   Berry was closed. Knight and Lemmon was closed.
   So what were we to believe?
   Hulen was closed. Mockingbird was closed.
   Promises or actual events?
   Greenville ... the old flagship location ... Greenville was closed.
   "Visitors are going to come here," he warned. "Couple of months. November. The Loss Prevention agent will be visiting stores."
   "Donut Bear?" I joked.
   "I wish. At least we knew him, but he's long gone," he muttered. "No, these guys ... they leave behind a trail of tears."
   "Thanksgiving! Christmas season, our busiest time, surely they'll -- "
   "I don't think they care. At our store, he asked to see Stacey and Joe. Others to be determined."
   'Hell. That could be anyone. That could be Pat or Mandy or Molly," I stressed. "Innocent people."
   "Yeah. And it could be you or me."
   "Fuck. Sounds like a witch hunt."
   "This is bad," he said. "I can't leave. If they close the store, and I'm convinced they will, I'll receive a nice severance package. I need that."
   I gestured emptily.
   "Is there anything you need to let me know?" he asked quietly.
   I pondered. If Stacey was the Hatchet Man, and Pat the Good Cop, I was the shadow worker. Scams and dodges, pushing gray areas. Stayed near guidelines, but definitely bent rules. Trying to help the store, though the ground might be shaky.
   "No," I answered. "You know me. Classic loner. All my stuff is mine alone."
*

   The Boss talked with everyone. No one seemed worried.
   I had a trip planned for end of October, The Boss went to the manager convention, overheard stories firsthand.
   Within the store, as the days shortened, individuals who had been carefree and unconcerned, began to worry.
   Waiting. Thinking. Wondering.
   It was a terrible time.
   October died away.
   And November went by so fast.
.

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