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Russ Solomon, R.I.P.

03/12/2018 | By John Cumbelich

The world of retail lost an inimitable icon last week with the passing of Russ Solomon, the founder of Tower Records, at his home in Sacramento. While Solomon was well known to the worlds of music, retail and real estate for achievements and innovations that were quite literally towering, I remember him best for a personal encounter that took place during the infancy of my real estate career in the 1980s. But I’ll get to that later.

Simply put, Russ Solomon was the Sam Walton of music. He personally invented a way of selling music and an entire retail category that had never before been imagined, and that was never matched. If you haven’t done so already, I urge anyone and everyone whose career involves retail, real estate, shopping centers, or anyone who simply loves a great story to watch the documentary about Solomon’s life and career by filmmaker Colin Hanks, All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records  (Watch Trailer). The film brilliantly uses Solomon and Tower Records as the lens through which a story is framed not so much about music, but about the changes in our culture, our country, in retailing and in business, that took place between the 1960’s and early 2000’s.

From humble beginnings selling LPs in the back of this father’s drug store in Sacramento, Solomon and his team built a business with blockbuster locations from Tokyo to New York to London, and beyond. His real estate choices were instinctive, over-sized and unorthodox. But perhaps like the man, they could best be described as iconic. The legendary locations at Columbus & Bay in San Francisco, on Sunset Blvd in LA, and in New York’s Greenwich Village were the retail theme parks of their day, both tourist attractions for travelers and a regular shopping trip for locals that rivaled stops at the grocery store in frequency. The world of music retailing was Solomon’s field of dreams, where he invented the retail real estate version of if you build it, they will come.

Much more than a visionary music retailer, Solomon was a maverick in business and in life. He ably took on the powerful music industry, and with Sinatra-esque style, did it his way. His company grew how, when and where his instincts told him it should. He was a cowboy who grew the Tower Records brand in the constantly changing, ever-new music industry, with old-school gut feel, and a cocktail in hand.

As Hanks’ documentary vividly illustrates, Solomon was gifted raconteur, unafraid to call it the way he saw it, with no regrets…which brings me to my story.

In the late 1980’s I was a newly minted college grad employed by the biggest commercial real estate firm in the world. I was stationed in a brand-new office that opened in the central California town of Stockton. I quickly observed that Tower Records was one of the cool retail spots in town, and I learned that the firm was based in nearby Sacramento. In this pre-internet era, rookies like myself didn’t have handy access at our desks to information about the sales that a retail chain achieved, how many stores it operated, or what its plans for growth might be. My “technology” was limited to land line telephone at my desk, which I was trained to use exhaustively, asking for meetings and pitching real estate.

After scoring one of my first major leasing listings at a Kmart anchored shopping center in the nearby town of Lodi (1988 pop. 48,000) I dutifully began calling every retailer under the sun to inquire about their possible interest in opening a store next to the Lodi Kmart. I’m guessing that I called Tower half a dozen times, leaving messages for Mr. Solomon each time, before he took my call.

When he finally picked up, I quickly summarized my well-rehearsed pitch about the exciting opportunity to open a store next to the Kmart, since Tower had no current stores in the market. It probably took me thirty seconds.

Russ Solomon spoke to me for about three seconds.

Lodi?!? I want to be in Paris!” click.

I had never been hung up on so memorably, or so well. He had a Tony Soprano swag that frankly left me with the feeling that I had just had a brush with fame, a moment inside the rope line to greatness, before I was sized up as peon and quickly ushered out. He did it his way. He didn’t give a damn. And I thought it was awesome.

I still do.