1987 Week: Walking into Tower Records at age 10 kickstarted a lifelong obsession

This week on Vanyaland we are celebrating all things 1987 with a look back at moments, trends, and icons in the worlds of music and film. Follow along #V87.

Do you remember the first time you walked into a room and thought, “This is the place for me?”

And then: “This place has such a palpable hold on me that I am simultaneously thrilled and frightened to be here?”

And then, perhaps, if your self-realization game is next-level: “This shit right here is not gonna let go, not for a long time — this is what people talk about when they talk about obsession?”

Ok, let me back up.

It’s the latter half of 1987, I’ve recently hit the ripe old age of 10, and I’m in Boston for the first time in my life. I’m the guest of honor at my aunt and uncle’s house, my older cousins have offered the relatable age-appropriate color commentary as we toured the Museum of Science and other spots. But right now: Right now I’m standing at the base of the escalator at Tower Records on Newbury Street, having just made my way through that magical portal of a revolving door, and there is loud music playing and adults who look like they wandered off a John Hughes movie set, and there are records everywhere.

Let me back up even further.

I grew up in Orono, a small college town in central Maine with a population of 10,000 — double that when school is in session — and one tiny independent record store. Our one-block downtown had all the staples: Grocery store, pharmacy, arcade, hardware store, clothing store, health food store, pizza joint, record store. Dr. Records, a 1000-sq-ft basement shop at the head of the downtown district, was a two-minute walk from my house and provided a gateway to real-life adult skills like poor time management and rote memorization of label names and liner notes. (That wonderful store, now around 35 years old, since relocated up the road to the big city of Bangor.) That was my one-stop shop to procure used wax copies of Huey Lewis & the News’ Sports and the Stand by Me soundtrack, a cassette copy of U2’s Rattle and Hum, and glean tips from the quiet yet wise owner. (Nothing could prevent me from being young and dumb: See my stubborn choice of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers’ Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough) over the owner’s recommendation of Damn the Torpedoes. Hey man, in ‘87 I wanted ‘87 Petty, ‘cause nothing was less cool than ’79 Petty.)

From an early age, the music moved me. The compulsion to collect that which moved me was second nature. I would wake up early on Saturday and Sunday mornings, walk around the neighborhood and collect empty bottles from college parties the night before, and take the returnable money directly to the record store. Allowance? Lawn mowing money? Paper route money? It may as well have been directly funneled to the record store. Sometimes a $3.49 purchase would be the end result of a full hour’s worth of flipping and analyzing. What is the purpose of record shopping if not a quest?

So there I am, rendered powerless at the base of Tower Records’ proverbial mountain, a spiritual retreat promising copious genre, sub-genre, and pseudo-genre — a place where Top 40 commingles with eyebrow-raising oddities. I am standing for the first time in a music megastore, shook with the realization that my small-town obsession has worldly potential. In late 1987, Tower’s Boston location was brand-spanking new: 39,000 square-feet of retail space spread over three floors of a seven-story building designed by Frank Gehry. It was the largest physical location in the company’s evolving chain of stores, and served as anchor for the Newbury Street retail district, then a glorious mash-up of high end and bohemian. It lasted, with its plentiful listening stations and super-long retail hours and signature music magazine, until the early 2000s.

Earlier that morning, while my Bostonian relatives were busy preparing for the day, I binged on MTV, another luxury that I had only heard about and had yet to experience under my own roof. The video for John Cougar Mellencamp’s “Paper in Fire” was in heavy rotation that morning. Mellencamp’s on the screen, looking an awful lot like Jon Bon Jovi holding court at a rural Indiana street party with black folks, white folks, kids, dogs, Lisa Germano playing the fiddle, and I think, “That’s what I’m buying at Tower Records today. Gee whiz, I hope they have a copy.” Don’t worry kid; they’ve got like 50.

Of course, there’s a phalanx of Mellencamp’s just-released The Lonesome Jubilee occupying a vinyl endcap at the head of the escalator rise. And of course, flowering out into the stacks and beyond, there are records upon records — most of which I’ve never laid eyes on, let alone heard of. The breadth of 1987’s offerings are here for the taking: Prince (Sign o’ the Times), Michael Jackson (Bad), R.E.M. (Document), and Guns N’ Roses (Appetite for Destruction); soundtracks for Dirty Dancing, Who’s That Girl, and La Bamba. Def Leppard, Eric B. & Rakim, the Replacements, LL Cool J, John Hiatt, Jane’s Addiction.

They have what I want; they have what I didn’t know I wanted.

I started a lifelong haunt of record store aisles. I rewired my brain to be a conduit between album art and release date, to collect the gratuitous junk trivia of producer credits, studio locations, writing and publishing miscellanea. You get to the point where you memorize records based on spine recognition alone, and then one day you find yourself browsing through the NRBQ section at a new record store you’ve just discovered — only problem is, you already own every record that NRBQ has released. So why are you there? What are you doing? See: Previous reference to poor time management.

Eight years later, in 1995, while attending Boston University, I trudged down Comm Ave through more than one raging blizzard simply to browse the stacks at Planet Records in Kenmore Square. I abstained from lunch to paw through bootlegs at Mystery Train, and squandered my money intended for food to snap up $5 promo CDs at Nuggets. Later still, I’d navigate the “aisles” of In Your Ear! with a sleeping infant strapped to my chest, incessantly driven by that formative moment at the corner of Newbury and Mass Ave all those years ago.

To this day, I’m still searching.

Featured Tower Records image via 2015 documentary ‘All Things Must Pass’. Follow Zeth Lundy on Twitter @zethlundy.