All Things Must Pass is director Colin Hanks’s documentary about the history of Tower Records, which in 1960 became the first store in America to sell records exclusively, and which incomparably shaped youth culture and music consumption until its bankruptcy in 2006. It came out last October in limited release, but it’s just started airing on Showtime and, this week, became the number one documentary on iTunes; I recently watched it and loved it, from the perspective of both a lifelong music fan and a former record store employee.
Hanks was born in Sacramento, where enterprising young store clerk Russ Solomon opened the very first Tower Records, an offshoot of his father’s eponymous drugstore. It’s clear from the director’s perspective that he’s both enamored of his city’s record store lore and deeply committed to getting the story right. The film includes every major employee, many of whom made their ways from store clerk to VP positions, and describes frankly and in great detail what essentially caused Tower’s demise—bad financial planning, overzealous expansion, and the overall lack of foresight that affected the entire music industry’s ability to deal with the shift to mp3s.
It’s a great film and I recommend it; but one of the key takeaways is that the specter of the snooty, condescending-to-women, male record store clerk—a stereotype because it’s true—has some roots in Tower’s nascent beginnings, at least from a historical perspective. Heidi Cotler, one of Tower’s first woman employees in the early 1960s and, by its end, the company’s VP of Operations at Tower Books, discusses copiously the misogynist culture that thrived in the early stages of America’s first record store.
“It was my second year in college and I didn’t like college. And I decided I needed to get out of the house and I wanted to get a job, I wanted to work. I wanted to go out and make some money,” Cotler explains about 15 minutes into the film. “I applied for the store on Watt Avenue, and they weren’t hiring girls that year because they’d already had one and she hadn’t worked out. So these two gentleman that were running the bookstore—and the bookstore opened in ‘62, so it’s had only been open for a few years—oh, and they wouldn’t let us wear pants, either. We had to wear skirts—so they could, of course, look up our skirts.”
Of course, this wasn’t a completely out of the ordinary experience in 1962, a year before Gloria Steinem worked undercover as a Playboy bunny for Show Magazine, and when misogyny in the workplace was so virulent that the feminist insurgence was inevitable. But Cotler’s statements, including many others throughout the film, struck me in this context because they amplified the undercurrent of the snotty record store dude trope, a category into which male record nerds also sometimes fall—the territorial and almost paranoid ownership over music knowledge and guardianship of obscurity, tied into a tenuous self-image that seems to shatter when confronted by a woman of equal or greater knowledge.
For what it’s worth, though, in my years of record store employment—as well as in my later and more numerous years of music criticism—the problem was never my fellow employees but the male customers/readers who felt I could not possibly know more than they did, despite the fact that I had/have the job/career and they did/do not. My colleague Anna Merlan had this same experience in her time working at a record store; she called her coworkers her “stupid ungainly brothers,” but recounted all the various and familiar ways she was accosted or condescended to by customers, ranging from being hit on while she worked the register because they knew she couldn’t leave, blatant assumption that she didn’t know the records she was selling, up to the more obscure experience of “a guy threaten[ing] to cut my head off once, but that was just Santa Cruz.” Surely any woman who has worked in a public-facing male dominated profession can relate, whether music related or not.
While the days of the tactile music shop always seem to be in a state of dissipation—even long-running Other Music recently dealt New York City a blow by announcing its closure—it’s still refreshing to get confirmation in a retrospective such as All Things Must Pass, some kind of historical root for a long-running male bias against women music nerds, and of course some evidence and confirmation that no, we’re not just crazy, even though a lot of people will try to make us think we are. And it’s to Colin Hanks’s credit that no matter how much he loved Tower Records, his film seemed committed to preserving that truth.