Armagideon Time

Mall wall fall

May 11th, 2016

Like many people,I’d always assumed that mall record store prices were based on a randomized process dictated by arcane franchise agreements and the need to pay a monthly lease.

Little did I know that the process was actually handled by some of them new-fangled com-pew-tors, running some variant of this sophisticated string of code:

160 PRINT “COMPETITOR’S PRICE FOR ITEM”
170 INPUT G
180 LET N = G*1.5
190 PRINT “OUR PRICE”
200 PRINT N

On a slightly more serious note, seeing “Camelot Music” reminded me of the short, sad existence of its northeastern sibling chain “The Wall.” There was one in the Burlington Mall, on the second floor facing a now defunct bookstore whose equally defunct name I can’t recall.

The store filled the small temporal niche between the old Music Land store where I blew all my eleventh birthday money on an Atari 2600 port of Mr. Do (which could’ve been picked up for a fiver two months later, but that’s a lifetime when you’re a kid) and the F.Y.E. where I once bought a new PS4 controller out of desperation when the mall’s EB Games didn’t have any in stock.

The Wall was a weird place, done up in a geometric minimalist moderne style somewhere between a Playmobil playset and a Montreal subway station. It felt less like an actual place than a mock-up of a music store made as a set for an art-directed late Eighties/early Nineties flick. Everything about it was designed to scream “WE ARE SERIOUS ABOUT MUSIC,” a message that was in direct opposition to its standard issue array of Current Hits and Proven Favorites.

The chain’s special gimmick was the royal blue “lifetime guarantee” sticker they’d affix to any cassette or CD purchased there. There’s still one, faded and peeling after twenty years, on the jewel case of the only thing I ever purchased there: a Men Without Hats “greatest hits” CD I picked up for Maura even though she was really looking for a digital reissue of the band’s Folk of the 80s LP. (I finally found one in Canada a couple of years ago. I don’t think she has even removed the shrinkwrap from it.)

The “lifetime” part of the guarantee only extended as far as 1998, when both Camelot and The Wall were bought out by F.Y.E’s parent company and their locations either rebranded or shuttered.

From the late Eighties through the past decade or so, any music chain doing business in the Burlington Mall had to contend with the harsh reality of having both a Newbury Comics and a Tower Records shop within walking distance at the plaza across the road. They had cheaper prices, wider selections, more space for affiliated merchandise, and a Taco Bell drive through anchoring the plaza the occupied. Why spend fifteen bucks for a “Nice Price” CD of London Calling when you could the the album *and* the newest issue of Starman *and* some Nachos Bellgrande for the same amount of coin?

At least until Tower filed for Chapter 11, Newbury Comics mutated into a Urban Outfitters/Hot Topic clone (and eventually relocated to the Mall), and Taco Bell moved its operations to a KFC in Woburn’s Four Corners district. A sad end to an era, but I’d switched to buying my music online by that point, anyhow.

5 Responses to “Mall wall fall”

  1. Chris Wuchte

    When I was a kid, every time we went to Chicago I’d end up in Tower or some similar chain. I’d be in awe of the selection, and then I’d be in awe of how over-priced everything was. I’m not sure that I ever bought anything, since I could usually find it cheaper at one of the non-chain stores that were closer to me anyway. But I would always think “One day, when I’m grown up and working, I’ll have enough money to buy whatever I want here.”

    By that point, my earnings went toward deep discounted CDs at Best Buy, or used CDs at one of the used CD stores that proliferated in the ’90s, I can probably count the amount of times I actually bought something at Tower on one hand. I can better recall the feeling of being a sucker for having spent so much.

    By the time I moved to New Orleans in 2001, Tower was charging 20-25 dollars for a single CD. It’s no wonder they went under.

  2. Eric L

    How FYE manages to survive in this era is a complete mystery. They always overcharged for everything and most of the time there’s another store in the very same mall that sells the item you want for cheaper. It’s amazing.

  3. bitterandrew

    We offset Tower’s prices though the giant piles of coupon books that would get dumped at the campus entrance every couple of weeks. They always had a $2 to $5 off one, which made midlist and sell-through albums cheaper than the big box places.

    They also tended to go long on imports, which always resulted in a giant bin of 75% off unsold stock after a few weeks. Got the Gothic Rock Book comp and the Japanese Strawberry Switchblade reissue for $5 each thanks to that.

    But, yeah, I’m not surprised the chain went under.

  4. Bill the Splut

    I was First Assistant Manager in a Sam Goody/Suncoast in the early 90s. There was a Musicland in the mall, but we were at opposite ends, so there was no rivalry between us. They had better sale prices, but we had twice their selection, plus a Suncoast filled with VHS tapes. There was a Strawberries in a nearby strip mall, but I think they were just laundering Mafia money or something, because they barely tried. They always broke street dates–selling on Monday CDs that couldn’t contractually be sold until Tuesday–until the distributors cut them off. They’d get new releases 2 weeks late, which is past the point anyone would wait to buy them, so they entered the dustbin of history.

    Then I was the music/video department manager for Lechmere, which was one of the best jobs I’ve ever had. I could just pick up the phone and call the higher-ups, and they’d answer the phone themselves. “Hi, Bill! You had a great weekend for sales! What can I do for you?” “I don’t know who this Alanis Morrisette person is, but I need 2 cases of her cassingle before the weekend.” “Huh. I’ve never heard of her either. I’ll overnight it.”
    (Ha ha! Remember cassingles? Remember Lechmere? I think it’s still the name of a Boston stop on the T)
    And then we were bought by Montgomery Ward and everything went to hell.

    My main problem starting out in our brand new store was the closest Lechmere. Their CD department was staffed with withered crones who had apparently had never heard of this crazy new thing called “the alphabet.” They just jammed the CDs in anywhere. Our regular prices were $2 cheaper than the next closest chain’s sale prices, and our department-wide sales were $2 cheaper than that. And we had a 15% employee discount, so we could buy below cost. I’d go to the other store, knowing they had discontinued product (as you can’t return it to the vendor if you can’t find it). I had to start at one end and work my way through the entire department. I remember flipping through them when a shriveled harridan came up with a cart full of new product. Instead of saying “Excuse me,” she repeatedly rammed me with the cart until I moved. 2 years after our opening, people would come into my store and be shocked that we had actual standards. “You can find things here, and you help the customers!” The company did a remod, and laid off all the old ladies with the reason “It’s going to be a self-serve department now.” Then they hired people younger than Methuselah, and sent me there to set it up and train everybody how not to suck.

    Okay, long comment. Also, nice Numan ref, Andrew!

  5. DensityDuck

    Oh God, The Wall! I remember being inordinately excited about putting the little blue sticker on the CD after I unwrapped it 😀

    Didn’t know that was a regional chain.

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