The Story of Sam Gutowitz
I once met Sam in his downtown Philadelphia store on Chestnut Street, when he came up and introduced himself to me. I doubt I was yet fourteen. “Hi…I’m Sam Goody”, he said extending his hand, and he asked if he could help me find something. I thought he was just a crazy old man and kind of shook my head while walking away. When I mentioned it to Lenny, who sold guitars and amps upstairs, he confirmed that it was indeed Sam Goody, the man whose name was on the front of the building in big red neon.
It was a multi-level unit with wall to wall racks of record albums lining the first floor, and an escalator that took you upstairs to musical instruments and electronics. There may have been a third floor, but I don’t think I ever went up there. Every week from the time I was about twelve years old until I was in my late teens, I’d travel from the Greater Northeast to downtown on the W bus, transferring to the Frankford El and Market Street Subway. Sam Goody’s would be my first stop. Armed with the full page advertisement in Sunday’s Inquirer, it was the place to go for new releases and to get information. In fact, at times it was more of a library than a store.
The brand name of the record retail chain Sam Goody will evoke different things to different people. Those of us who grew up in NYC or Philadelphia in the fifties through the mid-seventies, will remember the stores as giant depositories of music from around the world. All genres, full catalog and knowledgable salesmen in ties and jackets. To the rest of you throughout the US, and if your younger than me by at least two decades, you’ll recall the stores as existing only in your local shopping malls, being bland and behind the times, offering only the hits at an inflated price, nary any catalog items and an array of posters, t-shirts and the usual mall junk.
Sam Gutowitz, who later legally changed his name to Sam Goody, died twenty years ago, so this isn’t a eulogy. In fact, I haven’t thought much about him for a long time but today I heard that one of the last Sam Goody stores (Horton Plaza, San Diego) is closing down. It’s not an “end of an era” either, because the era really ended when Sam sold his chain to the American Can Company in 1978 for $5.5 million dollars. Ten years later, in one of those infamous eighties leveraged buyouts, it was merged and sold off to the Musicland Group for $330 million, and they were the first company of many to “mall it” to death. Later, it was bought out by Best Buy, sold off to Sun Capital Investments, eventually went into bankruptcy and the assets were acquired by Trans World Entertainment. (The Albany-based company that now has 450 stores under the name of FYE. In the past fifteen years they’ve bought up just about every national record retailer. They also closed them all down. Sometimes I don’t understand big business.)
Sam ran a toy and novelty store in lower Manhattan when in 1938 a customer came in one day and asked his help in finding some 78 recordings. He was able to track some down and soon began to offer a service in finding rare, out of print recordings. He found this to be a lucrative business, with a lot of profit potential. Eventually, he got rid of the toys and moved uptown.
By 1955 his flagship store on 49th street would get four thousand customers a day and it rang up 7% of the total record album sales for the entire country. One store. And he was a masterful promoter. In order to help transition people away from 45 rpm singles to full albums, he gave away 40,000 free turntables to anyone spending $25 or more. He was also the first known discounter, selling albums in the mid-fifties for $3.25 while everyone else stuck to the list price of $3.98. And he employed salespeople…not just cashiers or clerks…people who knew music to advise customers on which was more electrifying, a Eugene Ormandy recording of a symphony or a Leopold Stokowski.
As I was surfing on the internet this morning looking for some information, I came across amusi blog written by author Matthew Lasar. In 1974 at age nineteen, he got a gig at that 49th Street location and his memories and stories are well worth reading. Here’s a few highlights and as you read it, you might recall your own record store experiences. A nice walk down memory lane.
“I remember the New York Sam Goody record store at which I worked 25 years ago because it remains for me a symbol of a world that is gone. I’m surprised that I am still nostalgic for that peculiar moment in my life. Full of ridiculous quarrels and long, inexplicable feuds, “world” seems a pretentious description for the milieu over which Sam Goody presided (and in which I functioned) for a while. Approximately 20 Sam Goody stores existed when I first took a job with them in 1974, reaching as far north as New England as far south as Raleigh.I was 19. I worked at the first store, the one located at 49th Street, off Broadway, in Manhattan. It had a sacred reputation within the network, being Sam’s first operation.
I did not know at the time that this rarefied retail environment verged on extinction, but it did. The assumptions of the record retail business were about to be transformed by the same corporations that were buying up book chains and publication houses. The conditions that made Sam Goody’s 49th street store so precious to so many people, both famous and obscure, were about to be completely undone. I, in fact, constituted part of the undoing.
When I arrived at Sam Goody records in 1974, the store’s basic marketing strategy could be summarized as follows: provide the public with highly knowledgeable staff and a huge inventory. These components represented the two major capital costs of running a city wide record store. [The experienced salespeople] and others received relatively decent salaries. Everyone in the store, even part timers, received medical insurance, sick pay, vacation pay, and retirement benefits — a package that is inconceivable today.
The people who worked those floors were seasoned concert goers. They had sat in the front row at John McCormack concerts. They had heard Schnabel, Landowska, Schweitzer and Paderewski. They were voracious readers. They had encyclopedic knowledge and encyclopedic record collections. If you asked them a question like “What’s the difference between the playing of Walter Gieseking and Dame Myra Hess?” — they could tell you, simply and eloquently. They knew opera, chamber music, art song, everything.
People would call on them not just to buy records, but to ask what I always thought of as strange historical questions, to which they almost always knew the answer. The customers who came to Sam Goody’s came to talk to the experts, and would inevitably be talked into buying more than they intended.
A phenomenal inventory of records supported this retail staff. Back then we used to constantly complain that we didn’t have an adequate catalogue at any given moment. Now I remember with astonishment how much material we did keep at hand. We stocked everything. We had all the obscure, highbrow, independent and foreign labels. And when we kept a label, we kept the entire line. CRI, Opus 1, Oiseau Lyre, Argo, Telefunken, BIS, Soviet (not EMI) Melodia, Pathé, Hungaraton, plus a dozen or so teeny-weenie labels I can’t even remember. The business logic was that even if some of this material sat on the shelves for years, it sealed the store’s reputation as the place where you could count on finding what you wanted.”
Probably the highlights of Matthew’s blog are some of the stories he shares about the characters that worked at the store. While I’m afraid this post is getting a bit too long for most, I’ll leave you with just one tale about a salesman named Louis Weber.
“Lou would camp out on the northeast corner of the store, and hum to himself cheerfully, waiting either for his first coffee break of the day (9:15 am) or for some naïf to torture. An elderly lady might walk up to him with two recordings of Beethoven’s “Pathetique” in hand, one performed by Vladimir Horowitz, the other by Arthur Rubinstein. “Which one would you recommend, Mr. Weber?” she would ask respectfully. “Frankly madam,” Lou would reply, “I don’t think you could tell the difference.” He would then politely hand her one or the other album.”
Twenty years after the death of Sam Gutowitz, today Sam Goody has finally died.