About a year ago I attended an outdoor screening of the film Empire Records. I hadn’t seen the film since long before I worked the final nine months of the Union Square Virgin Megastore’s existence and revisiting the film revealed an accurate portrayal of what that record store life was really like. Granted, things at Virgin were a lot more corporate and a lot less Zellweger-y, but all things considered it’s kind of startling to realize the day-to-day life of a giant music store is a narrative that now barely exists.
I applied to join the Virgin family in the summer of 2008. Two months later I was asked to come in for an interview, one unlike any potential hiring discussion I’ve had before or since. Before speaking with two of the managers, I was given a questionnaire to evaluate how much I knew about music, film, television and books, with the instructions that I was to answer as much as I could and if I didn’t know an answer, to leave it blank rather than guess. Twenty minutes later I handed it back with 48 of the 50 questions answered (fear not, I know now which band made the album Chutes Too Narrow) and answered a few questions about what I liked and disliked about previous jobs.
I called up my former manager George Flanagan, who plays in El Jezel, what he looked for in a new potential hire during this process:
With the application being the first indicator, I always looked for people that had some sort of creative element in their job/school history–be it they were a film major or they interned at a record label, anything like that would mean more to me than working at Best Buy for five years. U liked how the Virgin application had that line after your name that said “Other Names You Are Known By.” We never quite understood why that was there. I used it as a warning sign if someone put a terrible MC moniker in that line. Like, I’m not impressed that you are known in some circle as MC Crip. If you got the interview, the product knowledge quiz was definitely the gauntlet. If I came back and found only four or five things were answered I dreaded having to get through the perfunctory interview. It was a very hard and wide ranging quiz. Three pages! So if you even got 25% of it correct that was pretty decent. I hated people that just guessed to fill in the blanks. The one that really blew my mind was how few people knew the answer to was “what instrument did Louie Armstrong play”? I got tuba, guitar, saxophone, you name it.
One week later they offered me a cashier position in the DVD section. Game got real.
I’d been living in New York for four years already, so given how much time I’d spent at the Megastore, I’d already become quite familiar with the layout. But this was 2008, kind of an uneasy time to be in any corner of the music business, especially one primarily involved exchanging money for physical product. I remember when I first moved to New York in August 2004, I lived in the Washington Square Park area and counted 19 music stores within a 10 minute walk. By the time I started at Virgin, that number was down to seven. Today, that number is one.
Still, Virgin was more than a music store in more ways than one. Of course it also sold movies, books, video games and, at that point, phones and beverages. But Virgin’s location right outside the Union Square subway stop where so many trains connected made it a certifiable meet-up spot and hang-out for those of us who music, or media in general, still excited. Whether killing time, seeking out the perfect gift or checking out a band’s in-store, Virgin really emphasized the community aspect of music consumption. I know that sort of romanticism is usually reserved for the mom and pop independent music stores, who I also adore, but dare I say at this point Virgin offered such an experience too, especially then.
Tower Records had been closed two years. Circuit City was in the process of liquidating. FYE was seemingly nowhere near Manhattan, and Sam Goody had been long gone. At this particular juncture, the people who worked at Virgin were the last bastion of “record store people.” Whatever drew us to that glowing red emblem was a shared passion for music both mainstream and obscure, And while the only record absolutely everybody seemed to agree on was Fugees’ The Score, every type of listener who came in could be properly serviced by an expert in some field. It’s this shared dedication that I feel really was what bonded us employees in these dying days.
Of course, we didn’t really know these were the end times, not for quite a while. Following the announced closing of the Times Square location, we were assured that, because we were the top earning Virgin location, we were completely safe. Job security doing something you love is a wonderful feeling, so pretty much every day at Virgin consisted of hanging out with some of my best friends and discussing my passions with people willing to spend money on them. Given that Virgin had a lot of shelf space for independent and catalog titles, it was always a good feeling putting someone on to a record or an artist that would be brand new to them.
There would be challenging times, like during the holidays when we were advertising being open an hour early, usually leading to these hours having a total of one (1) extra customer right as doors opened to exchange his defective Lisa “Left Eye” Lopez documentary for a different copy, or near midnight on Thanksgiving where a fully grown adult confusingly asked where he could find “an instructional DVD on intercourse for adults” because he didn’t feel comfortable saying the word “pornography.” You would also get the homeless crusty punk spending $23 entirely made-up of pocket change for an import CD, the vacationing European couples buying every iteration of soundtracks from The Crow franchise, and the gentleman who would put on the headphones at the world music listening station and practice his martial arts on a daily basis. But the bulk of people who walked through those doors were mainly interested in purchasing music and movies, which was pretty cool. Even the apprehension of shoplifters, usually a tense moment in any business, was alleviated by the in-store DJ playing Jane’s Addiction’s “Been Caught Stealing” at the moment of capture, followed a few minutes later by Inner Circle’s “Bad Boys” when the police came to take them away.
We were finally told we would be closing a few weeks before Easter. The announcement came mere days before the Times Square location closed for good as we were fending off “Why aren’t you having a closing sale?” questions left and right. Once word got out, each day was met with new customers asking when the sale was going to start. Once it started, these questions turned to “when is the discount going to go up?” and so forth, until eventually “when are you guys closing for good?” That answer wound up changing frequently as, due to other Virgins closing early, we were sent their inventory to restock pushing our final day forward and passing the savings on to you, the consumer. If you’ve never worked a retail liquidation, it’s an agonizing ordeal. Along with the callousness of people knowing you’re about to be out of a job dying to save an additional 10% on their Scrubs Season 4 DVDs pestering you to no end, there’s the depression of seeing a place you loved slowly die around you. Even before working there I had so many memories of Virgin, from visiting it when first touring colleges to hearing the announcement that Ol’ Dirty Bastard had died, to just the tough times I needed to surround myself with miles of music to get over what was getting me down, this was hallowed ground in my life.
The last two weeks were exceptionally brutal. Not only was the place where I worked ceasing operations, but the last visage of one of my favorite pastimes was evaporating. Sure, New York has no shortage of thriving music scenes and locations to hear them, but this was a bustling monument to music. One bright spot of this time, however, was the final Virgin in-store performance where each of the employees who had a band/musical talent/interest got to perform a set over the course of the day. It was bittersweet to take that stage, wearing a now too-large New York Dolls shirt I had purchased from a Virgin visit years before I even moved to New York.
While the store is no more and has since been divided into a Citibank, a Nordstroms and a Duane Reade the aura of the Virgin experience is still pulsating in those of us fortunate enough to be there for that final run. Relationship-wise it was a fairly incestuous place to work, and of the many couples who were romantically involved during my year there, at least five of them are still together. One just got engaged last month. As social media indicates, several groups of us still regularly see each other almost as much as when we worked together. We’ve all had several jobs since, but there’s something about being brought together and going down with that same Virgin together that made us stick to each other. I’ve never worked at another job where, when it came to an end, a manager made a “Yearbook” that had everybody’s picture in it with stories from each of us about why it was such a great place to work.
In all likelihood, another generation is going to stumble upon Empire Records as a snapshot of a type of business that they hadn’t at any point shared a planet with. As much as I miss those Virgin days, I mostly feel fortunate I got to experience a taste of working at a record store before that experience no longer existed. Not too many walks of life would allow me to both spend my days entirely immersed in music while forging close friendships AND meeting the guy from the pool fight scene in Lionheart, and while I snagged the in-store promotional videos promising $10 CD sales in the event somebody hopes to open up a Virgin-themed restaurant, nothing will ever truly duplicate that Virgin sensation.