Dec. 14 2011 02:29 PM

Incoming Downtown park spells the end for the music retailer

Photo by Peter Holslin

Once upon a time, the big-box music retailer was king. Corporate-owned chain stores were fixtures at suburban malls across America, selling CDs in bulky plastic cases at high markups, squashing the little shops that stood in their path.

But one by one, though, the chain stores fell. Tower Records and Borders went bankrupt. Wherehouse went online. Virgin closed its megastores in Britain and the United States. As the digital age dawned, iTunes ascended to the throne with the trusty iPod at its side.

Yet, the Sam Goody store at Horton Plaza in Downtown has miraculously survived this paradigm shift. Specializing in CDs, DVDs, video games and electronics, the sprawling store caters to a diverse mix of tourists, conventioneers, Downtown residents and military personnel, not to mention the occasional homeless person. The store also has a small vinyl selection and sells music downloads and mix CDs.

People often marvel that the store is still around. Even its corporate owner, Trans World Entertainment, seems to deny its existence: In 2006, the New York-based company bought all of the nation’s Sam Goody stores from their former owner, Musicland, and, by now, most of them have been converted into F.Y.E. stores (For Your Entertainment). With F.Y.E. being Trans World’s primary brand, Sam Goody doesn’t even get a mention on the company’s website.

But at Horton Plaza, Sam Goody is still Sam Goody. Trans World Executive Vice President John Sullivan says the company decided not to change the store’s name because Sam Goody is a well-known brand in the area. Also, he says, it was too expensive to replace the store’s big neon signs.

Alas, Sam Goody is not going to be around for much longer. The building the store sits in is slated for demolition as part of a City Council-approved project to expand the adjoining park at the corner of Fourth Avenue and Broadway. Construction will likely begin in late 2012, says Michelle Ganon, a spokesperson for the Centre City Development Corporation, which is overseeing the project.

Officials at Westfield Shopping Malls, Horton Plaza’s owner, say they hope to find space for a new Sam Goody store. But the new location will be an F.Y.E., Sullivan says.

Sam Goody’s critics welcome the store’s demise. To many music lovers, it’s a monument to banal mainstream tastes, overpriced and out of touch.

“I guess, in the end, Sam Goody was a store for people who didn’t know any better: the grandma looking for the latest Yanni CD, the haven for the Michael Bolton aficionado, the sonic arcade for a thirteen-year-old discovering his love for music,” Chris Maroulakos, managing editor of the music blog Owl & Bear, says in an email. “But for the rest of us, the store was useless and irrelevant.”

But the store’s fans bemoan the eventual loss of a well-known music store in Downtown.

“It will break my heart a little bit to see this store go away, because I think it is a landmark for a lot of people,” says Steven Mertzlufft, Sam Goody’s general manager. “For a lot of San Diegans, for a lot of historians, for a lot of people who are big, big music and movie buffs who have been shopping here for years and years and years.”

With its sprawling layout, bright lights and robot-angel statues, Sam Goody was built to impress. Opened in 1994, the 32,000-square-foot space originally boasted a café and numerous listening stations. In the classical-music section on the second level, a grand piano sat on display.

As the years went on, the store endured corporate turmoil. Musicland was once the largest music retailer in the United States, but Best Buy Co. bought the company in 2001 and ended up losing millions of dollars. In 2003, Musicland was sold to Sun Capital Partners, a Florida-based private-investment firm, which struggled to compete with digital downloads and rival big-box chains. When Musicland filed for bankruptcy in early 2006, Trans World Entertainment stepped in to save the failing brand.

But the future is grim for big-box music retailers, experts say. A recent study by market-research firm Strategy Analytics predicts that U.S. digital-music sales will surpass CD sales by 2012. The businesses most likely to succeed are small record stores with a niche focus and big-box chains that don’t depend on music sales, like Walmart and Target, says George Whalin, president and CEO of Carlsbad-based Retail Management Consultants.

Trans World has been steadily downsizing in recent years. For the third quarter in 2011, total sales decreased by 15 percent, the company announced recently. It’s closed 94 stores since 2010, with 440 currently operating.

The Sam Goody at Horton Plaza is showing its age. With music making up only about a quarter of its inventory these days, the listening stations are long gone. The second floor is now mostly devoted to DVDs; video-game racks stand where the café used to be. Some dilapidated displays are rigged together with packing tape or glue. The grand piano, which sits at the Fourth Avenue entrance, is badly out of tune.

Still, managers say business is steady. The turnout on Black Friday last month was the best that Mertzlufft, the general manager, says he’s seen since he started working at the store in 2006. (Sullivan, the Trans World executive, would not comment on the company’s Black Friday sales.) The store partly runs on nostalgia: Tourists who remember bygone Sam Goodys light up when they see the neon signs.

“They’ll come in just to buy something at Sam Goody,” assistant manager Zac Kennedy says.

On a recent Monday afternoon, as Christmas music piped through the sound system, a couple dozen shoppers perused the racks while a disheveled man napped in a plush chair facing some TV sets. Later in the evening, more than 100 youngsters showed up for an in-store signing session with Mindless Behavior, a popular R&B boy band.

As his 16-year-old daughter waited for the singers to show up, Orange County resident Richie Aguilar perused a rack of LPs and CDs. With his buzzed hair, black suspenders and Doc Martens—the telltale outfit of an old-school punk-rocker—the 39-year-old didn’t seem to fit the profile of a Sam Goody shopper. But it’s one of the only music stores he shops at, he says, partly because it has good deals on music and earbuds.

When CityBeat told him about the plans to demolish the store and replace it with an F.Y.E., he got a faraway look in his eyes.

“I don’t even like F.Y.E.,” he says. “I went in there a few times. The prices are high. They’re not as friendly.”

He gestured at the line of squealing Mindless Behavior fans.

“Look at this turnout,” he says. “I don’t think F.Y.E. is going to do something like this.”

Email or follow him on Twitter at @peterholslin.