He’s opened a new CD and video store in Sacramento called R5 Records. But in this day of digital downloads, what drives Solomon to open a CD store at all?
Don’t call Russ Solomon’s return to music retail a comeback.
"I don’t think I ever stopped is really the truth of it. There was always an intention to keep on going, ‘cause I love this business. Maybe I’m crazy, probably am as a matter of fact."
Solomon opened his new R5 Records store at 16th and Broadway in Sacramento, the former site of a Tower Records store – and right across the street from the Tower Theater building. That’s where Solomon’s father used to have a drugstore and where Solomon first began selling records in the 1950s.
"There’s something kind of nostalgic about it and something righteous I think and it’s a nice place to kick off from."
Dressed casually in a loose-fitting polo shirt and black shorts, the grandfatherly Solomon walks through the store greeting customers and joking with staff – including a big, burly, bald man who looks like a bouncer. He’s the store’s classical music buyer.
R5 looks just like an old Tower store….rows and rows of all kinds of CDs and DVDs. Even the R5 logo resembles the old red and yellow Tower sign. Sitting in the store’s cramped back room office, Solomon says he wants to rekindle the qualities that made Tower special – and that means hiring people who are passionate and knowledgeable about music.
"We were always very, very sincere about what we did and the thing that, unfortunately in the last few years we got away from, I lost control and I couldn’t do it the way I wanted to, was that we cared about having the people who worked in the stores involved. It was their sense of ownership and their sense of being involved, it’s their store."
In Tower’s heyday back in the mid-1980s, the chain had more than 200 stores around the world. Tower was the dominant music retailer in the US. But facing tough competition from discount outlets like Wal-Mart and Best Buy and the exploding popularity of music downloads, Tower ran into trouble and filed for bankruptcy in 2004. The company stayed in business for two more years but Solomon sold off most of his interest. He says Tower became too corporate.
"The philosophy of the company got shifted from a local oriented stores all over the country, really kind of a family of independent record stores, mom and pop record stores if you will to a corporate machine of some sort."
Solomon wants to recreate that family of independent record stores with R5.
"I think that the music industry didn’t realize how much it was going to miss a place like Tower Records."
Phil Gallo writes about music for Variety magazine. He says Solomon’s latest venture is good news – but Solomon is going against the tide.
"This is a business that is disappearing by the hundreds every month, that the shelf space in places where CDs are sold is disappearing and you’re not seeing very many people who are willing to open the door and have that as the featured product."
So, is this just a nostalgia trip for Solomon or is it a bellwether for the return of brick and mortar music stores? Will the music industry be watching?
"(laughs) I think for sentimental reasons. I think it has a future in the niche marketplace."
Back at the R5 store, customer Jay Quintella is browsing in the hip hop section. He says for record collectors like him, Solomon’s new store is a big deal.
"I think he’s to be commended for taking another shot at music retail because I think they’re just ringing the bell on the death of music retail way too early. I think a lot of people still like to come in and physically touch the product and browse around and just the whole atmosphere of being in a record store instead of sitting at a computer for hours and hours trying to fill an i-pod."
An avid art collector, Russ Solomon says his decision to open R-5 goes beyond commerce. He says walking into a record store is like stepping into a gallery of pop culture.
"There is a museum quality strangely enough because if you go into a store like this where we really care about keeping this large diversity of different things in here and like to talk about it and like to feel it and touch it as well as to hear it, you get a sense of history that you can’t get visually that easily anywhere else."
Solomon says even at age 81 he has no plans of retiring.
"It’s a little like a painter or a writer or a musician even. You just keep doing it. Age doesn’t stop you and just because you’ve done it doesn’t mean anything you just keep doing it. So what I do is I like to run record stores. That’s my thing."
Russ Solomon hopes he’s forecasting the future of music retail by reviving his past. He says if R5 takes off, he’d like to open a chain of stores across the country, just as he did with Tower Records.