Russ Solomon, ‘High Fidelity’ and the Miraculous Beauty of a Record Store
I happened to be in a bookstore with our 14-year-old granddaughter Caroline last year when she asked if I thought she would enjoy Nick Hornby’s 1995 novel High Fidelity.
This was a rare moment, since Caroline is much better read than I. In this case, however, I happened to know well a book she had randomly plucked from the shelf because she found its jacket intriguing.
What I wanted to say was this: “Yes! Yes! It’s a wonderful book, beautifully written, charming and romantic. It’s a book you won’t want to end. Buy it! Read it!”
What I did say was more like this: “It’s a wonderful book, beautifully written, but you wouldn’t enjoy it as much as I did because so much of its charm lies in cultural references from before you were born.”
Many of those cultural references are popular songs from the 1960s through the early 1990s, You want to hope that today’s 14-year-olds will eventually discover the likes of Bob Marley, Dusty Springfield, Chuck Berry and Elvis Costello. That’s just not the musical vocabulary with which they have grown up.
Equally significant, though, is another cultural touchstone that wouldn’t mean anything to someone born in the 21st century.
High Fidelity revolves around a record store and the people who work there. That includes the owner, Rob, and his two employees, Barry and Dick.
Rob’s girlfriend Laura has walked out on him and Rob wants her back. That quest, alongside a music-infused retrospective of his other girlfriends, creates the traditional romance part of the book.
But equally romantic in its own way, I’d argue, is the record store and working in the record store. I further suspect Nick Hornby agrees, from the fact that’s the canvas on which he paints the rest of the story.
Whatever Nick’s views, I thought about Rob and High Fidelity when Russ Solomon died earlier this week.
Russ Solomon owned Tower Records, the highest profile record store in the last of the golden years when record stores were the place you went to buy music.
Under Solomon, Tower was a retail throwback: a big store that didn’t forget the little stuff.
Unlike Walmart, Tower didn’t mainly just stock the five best-selling, most affordably priced wrenches. While Tower could sell you the new Madonna or Michael Jackson LP at a reasonable price, that was only the starting point. Riffle through the bins and you could also find an obscure German punk import, a reissued 1950s jazz album or an obscure R&B indy cutout.
And wait, there’s more. Tower hired salespeople who roamed the aisles helping you find the cast recording from that closed Broadway show. They could listen to your fragmentary, off-key musical clues and figure out what song you were looking for. They could tell you whether you could buy Prince’s black album.
I don’t mean Tower was Utopia. For some street mixes you might still have to go to a specialty store, and not every Tower employee could tell you who replaced Paul Williams in the Temptations.
But Tower was a place that, as a music fan, you loved to visit. Not always, or not even usually, to buy some specific record. You just looked around to see what you could find, or get a tip on something you never heard of.
All good record stores, and there used to be thousands of them, were places you could do that. I can’t tell you how much of my youth I spent in record stores, and looking back on it now, the only thing I’d change is that I’d spend more.
I never worked in a record store. I had friends who did, and I always thought it was a wonderful that working in a record store was an actual job, something you could do to make a living.
I won’t overromanticize here. The pay was not overwhelming. There weren’t always a lot of opportunities for career advancement. You had to put up with the jokes about guys who are 38 and still live in Mom’s basement.
And so what. You grew up listening to music, loving music, absorbing everything you could about music. Then you reached the age when your parents told you that you finally had to give up all that foolishness and get a real job — and you discovered that what you knew about music could be a real job.
How long has this been going on?
There are still record stores today, and I’m guessing many are owned and staffed by people who like music the way Rob did. But there are a lot fewer of them, simply because most 14-year-olds today don’t buy music on an LP or CD. They download it, in their bedroom or under the desk in a history class, by tapping their phone.
Tower Records, and thousands of smaller record stores, were a tiny percentage of the casualties in the sweeping media revolution of the last two decades.
You just hope Caroline and her friends are having as rich and memorable an experience in their culture world as my friends and I had in Russ Solomon’s.