Four Crazy Retail Stories Remind Us Why Hi-Fi Is So Much Fun

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When Mark Knopfler famously sang about “money for nothing and chicks for free,” he might have over-exaggerated the glamor of working in consumer electronics, but not by that much. Never have I had so much fun going to work in my life than my early adventures in audiophile and high-end home theater retail. Be it in Philadelphia or here in Tinseltown, we saw and did some crazy stuff over the years. 

These are my stories and I am sticking with them. 

 

Burning Down the House at Bryn Mawr Stereo

When I turned 16 years old, all of the other kids at prep school got their parents to buy them a nice new car. Not me. I got to listen to Tom Hopkins sales training on cassette tape back and forth from my father’s home in South New Jersey to my house in the Chestnut Hill neighborhood of Philadelphia. On my birthday in ninth grade, I was given a gold bracelet—to my young and arrogant disgust. I lost the chain innocently while hitting golf balls in my backyard about a week after receiving the birthday gift. The gift that meant far more to me was the chance to “rent” my dad’s beige 1981 Mercedes 300 SD Turbo Diesel S-Class sedan. Possibly the slowest car ever made, but I was mobile and that was all that mattered. I just had to come up with $125 per month to pay him and find a way to keep it full of diesel fuel. I convinced the manager at my most trafficked stereo store to hire me for five hours per week on a pure commission deal. For some reason, he did. 

One of the other salesmen I worked with at Bryn Mawr Stereo in Abington was named Geoff Franklin. He was sent to our store from the flagship location in, well, Bryn Mawr – because he sold too much. I would later get fired for the same offense, which is amazing in a commission-only job. Go figure, right? Geoff would go on to become the biggest custom installer to all of the tech giants in Northern California these days. He’s a rock star today, but he and I were stereo salesman in suburban Philadelphia in spring of 1990. 

One Friday night, we were truly living the cliché and playing Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms on Compact Disc (buy at Amazon) through Mirage’s largest bi-polar speakers, the M1s. I think they retailed for $5,000 per pair. They were huge, black tower speakers that weren’t terribly easy to drive. The fact the Geoff and I wanted them to play at rock concert levels during the 8 o’clock hour only put more demands on the Nelson Pass-designed Forte amp that we had on display. 

With the lights dimmed and the music blaring, we sat there with stupid smiles on our faces listening like a bunch of total dipshits. Moments later, the Forte amp basically exploded into flames. I am not joking. Flames. I’m still amazed to this day that this isn’t what got us fired, but no—it was selling too much that cost us our jobs.

Is a S-VHS Machine Worth That Much?  

A vintage VHS machine
Even when they cost $1,000, stealing a VHS player is stone-cold stupid.

Back at the same Bryn Mawr Stereo store, I was told by my manager, Mark Platt, to “act calm” mere minutes after arriving to work on a Friday. I had no idea what he was talking about, but I was anxiously waiting for my first lead of the day to walk through the doors when I saw a number of cop cars show up dramatically, including some un-marked cars that covered both the front and back. Mark locked the front door and things got hella-weird. 

It turns out that one of the salespeople was stealing gear from inventory and Mark had realized what was going on. He had been working with the police, and this dumb-ass had stolen a $1,000 S-VHS machine from our basement storage room and hidden it in the back seat of his car. Mark knew what was going on and called in the authorities. The salesperson was carted off in a 100 percent realistic perp-walk right in front of my eyes. Even back then, I questioned the value of stealing anything worth a mere $1,000. If you are going to go to the dark-side of graft, perhaps you might want to do it for higher stakes, no? This guy ended up going to jail and getting fired. 

I Have Never Bought More Kenny G CDs in My Life

Roll the tape forward to my time in college here in Los Angeles: I was working for Joe Cali and Mark Levinson at Cello Music and Film, selling the world’s most expensive audiophile (and home theater) system at the time. Our showroom was about half of a block above the most storied part of The Sunset Strip. I could see Geffen Records from my office window. The Whisky a Go-GoThe Viper RoomThe Rainbow Bar and Grill – they were all within a two-minute walk from our location. 

Buying Every Kenny G CD was part of my job
Buying Every Kenny G CD was part of my job

It wasn’t uncommon to get A-list stars to come to the Cello showroom for a demo. I did a Vidikron and Faroudja projector demo for James Cameron a little after the Terminator 2 era. We had members of the Rolling Stones over. Jackson BrowneRod StewartJohn Fogarty, and so many others were clients. All sorts of fascinating people came by to hear what a $300,000 AV system looked and sounded like. 

One particularly memorable day, I had driven to work after classes at USC and was told by a very theatrical Joe Cali that I needed to make an emergency trip to Tower Records, which was just a few blocks to the east of our location. “Why?” I asked like the curious college kid that I was at the time. “Because Kenny G is coming!!!” I was told.

I nearly barfed in my mouth. People knew me at that legendary Tower Records, as I spend every red cent that I had at the time on audio gear and CDs. I was told in no unclear terms to get my ass to Tower Records and buy every Kenny G album that they had on the shelves… and to do it posthaste. 

Did I have a choice? No, I did not, so I endeavored upon the dirty deed. When I got to the checkout, the person working there started in on me. “Hey, Jerry, you like yourself some smooth-jazz?” Fuck you, dude. And I am not Jerry. I am not even here. This isn’t even my Amex Gold card. 

He kept busting my balls and I started fuming. I warned him that I was about to blow up at him and he finally backed off. I took the CDs back to the showroom and hid in my office for a while. BTW: I am pretty sure  Kenny G was an early investor in Starbucks and as such could afford literally anything and everything we had to sell. I was just being a college-level music snob. It was traumatic for me nonetheless, but a good learning experience. 

I Will Take Every LaserDisc (Yes, Every One…)

Joe Cali might be the best audio salesman ever. He somehow met a person named Kerry Packer, who was a both an Australian media mogul (long before lying-ass Rupert Murdoch was such a big deal), as well as the person who might have been considered the biggest “whale” in Las Vegas. This guy has some major money, meaning that if he went on a big roll, he could legitimately negatively affect the monthly P&L of a Vegas casino. 

Buying audiophile music at Tower Records in what looks be Japan
Yes, I will take EVERY LASERDISC (ever made)

Kerry was building a yacht in Malta that was on a nearly 400-foot-long converted ice-breaker ship. It was the mid-1990s and home theater was a trendy and much sought-after luxury. Joe sold him a full Cello Music and Film system, which came with full redundancy. If they were docked off of Phuket, Thailand, they couldn’t easily get new cards for a first-generation Theta Casablanca, so they had full replacement parts on the ship. Same with a backup Faroudja video processor, a Vidikron video processor, and multiple LaserDisc players. They had it all, and this was an amazing project that Joe closed around the time that I would leave to start my career in online AV publishing.

Before I resigned, I was asked by Joe again to go to Tower Records (Tower Video, if you want to be pedantic). My task wasn’t to buy every Kenny G record. This time it was to buy every LaserDisc.

Think about that for a minute. He wanted me to buy ever LaserDisc, period. So, like the schmuck that I was (and still very much am), I walked into the front door of Tower Video and went to the middle area of the store where the manager was. 

“How can I help you, son?” he asked. “I’d like to buy every LaserDisc.” He just looked at me for a while. “I’m serious,” I said. He followed up by asking me if I wanted every disc in the store. Nope. I want every LaserDisc in print. And I wasn’t kidding. And in the end, they sold them to us. Literally every LaserDisc in print, which came in hundreds of boxes and at a cost that would make most AmEx cards roll over and die. From Oscar-winning films to obscure fetish porn, we bought every LaserDisc known to man. Getting them to Malta was complicated, as they taxed/tariffed the hell out of them and didn’t want to let the adult content in. This project finished slightly after my era at Cello, but needless to say, all of the super-heavy and physically large discs made it to the shipyard. Decades later, I would better understand why someone with a super yacht might want a Kaleidescape server. In the mid-1990s, there was no such solution.

The point of all this is that crazy shit happens at the stereo store, and that’s more than half of the fun of working there. I’ve been a publisher and CEO of an online company for going on 30 years, but if anyone asks me, I tell them I’m basically a stereo salesman. Why wouldn’t I be? It was (and still is) a total blast. The crazy side of the business is part of why we all love it. We save every penny to chase the Nth degree of performance or collect a bunch of music. The others that chase the same dragon are likely as crazy as we are, and they come with some pretty colorful stories. We should never forget that this colorful history is a very important part of the hobby.


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Chuck Williams

Fun story, sounds like a great time. I certainly enjoyed my time in the biz.

Harris Fogel

I just want to say that I loved your article. I can only imagine what ridiculous goofy fun that was. I used to hang out at Leo’s Stereo, Henry Radio, Rodger Sound Labs, Pacific Stereo, etc., in So. Cal. and later when I went to grad school in NY, I hung at The Wiz, Crazy Eddie’s, Tower, and had friends who worked there. They were all goofballs, earning some money, often meeting girls, and just having a blast. And somehow, they always had concert tickets. Thanks for the great writing!

Last edited 8 months ago by Harris Fogel
Mark Alfson

Good stuff. To have been a fly on the wall…

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