Virgin Territory

The day after Thanksgiving is traditionally the busiest shopping day of the year. For the thousands of eager consumers who’ll flock to that upscale strip mall known as the Magnificent Mile, it will also be the first opportunity to check out Chicago’s biggest record store–which, not surprisingly, also claims to be its best.

With 40,000 square feet of CDs, videos, cassettes, DVDs, and books and magazines, the Virgin Megastore at the corner of Michigan and Ohio is about 30 percent larger than Tower Records in Lincoln Park. But at the “mega” level, does size really matter? Is displaying 1,000 copies of the new Celine Dion album better than displaying only 100? Depth, not square footage, makes a good record store–the ability and knowledge to stock both chart toppers and obscurities, new releases and what’s known in the industry as “deep catalog.” Chicago has a few great specialty stores, like Jazz Record Mart and Dusty Groove, and if you’re looking for the latest major label releases you have your choice of where to buy them. But Chicago doesn’t have one location–like the Bay Area’s Amoeba or Rasputin’s–where you can find, say, the Japanese-only DJ Krush CD and all 15 volumes of Smithsonian Folkways music of Indonesia series and every album in print by Bob Dylan, Al Green, Loretta Lynn, and Charlie Parker. And while Virgin can claim a few advantages over what we’ve already got, it doesn’t necessarily come any closer to the ideal.

According to senior product manager Kristen Frederick, who stocks each new store and trains its buyers, Virgin’s capacity to display those Celine Dion CDs is precisely what will allow it to be the great general-interest store Chicago lacks. “Selling hits allows us to be creative and keep the catalog in, even if it sells only twice a year,” she says. “We very rarely ever pull a title.” Frederick claims that Virgin will keep an unsold title in stock for two years if “it’s important to our integrity to have it.” But while Lincoln Park Tower manager Joe Kvidera doesn’t wax so eloquent about it, his store also makes a point of carrying the back catalogs of bands with some history, and hangs on to releases by even zero-selling bands for about a year before returning them to distributors to make room for the next batch.

In fact the size of the Virgin store doesn’t translate to more records, either. Promotional literature claims the Virgin store will stock more than 150,000 music titles in all genres, but Kvidera estimates that Tower already carries about that many. Virgin will devote special attention to imports–but when Tower started, it too had an impressive imports section. Kvidera says he eventually eliminated it because most people just looked for imported records under the artists’ names.

I worked up a diverse list of 30 titles I thought should be in stock at any decent general-interest store; Tower had all but six of them: Bob Dylan’s Hard Rain, Blind Lemon Jefferson’s King of the Blues, Arto Lindsay’s Mundo Civilizado, Tom Waits’s Bone Machine, Graham Parsons’s Grevious Angel, and John Zorn’s Bar Kokhba. Some of those may have been on back order. I couldn’t personally check Virgin’s shelves, since the store wasn’t open at press time, but according to Frederick, all but the Lindsay and the Jungle Brothers’ Straight Outta the Jungle were in stock.

Christopher Sherman, who’s the Virgin Megastore marketing director for northern California and has helped with the Chicago opening, claims one way Virgin distinguishes itself from competitors is by breaking bands. “The Cranberries was one of our biggest success stories,” he says. “Before they broke, before they were played on MTV, when nobody knew who the Cranberries were, they did an in-store at our store on Sunset Boulevard and we had 500 people turn up.” But Tower, says Kvidera, hosts at least 100 in-store performances and signings annually.

One category where Virgin does have Tower beat is in listening posts: Virgin shoppers will be able to preview 600 CDs on any given day, about three times as many as at Tower. The store will also boast a full-time DJ who’ll take requests and back-announce his selections, 75 video monitors, and–in the grand old tradition of megastores–a cafe.

For local record shoppers, none of this may be able to compensate for Virgin’s “prime” location. Frederick says Virgin had been scoping Chicago out “for a number of years, and when this space opened up we grabbed it.” But given the congestion of the Michigan Avenue area (unlike the Lincoln Park Tower, Virgin won’t offer discounted parking) it may require something more special than an espresso machine to lure the average Chicagoan into the bottleneck on a regular basis. “On the weekend we’ll get the usual business,” predicts Sherman. “In our other stores, like in San Francisco’s Union Square, we usually get the locals to check us out during the week when it’s not all crazy tourist people. We know that a good chunk of our business will be tourist business, but we’re going to try to be a local player, too. We’re trying to be the best of both worlds.”

Although the store opens to holiday shoppers next Friday (and will stay open 365 days a year, from 9 AM to midnight) its official debut won’t take place until noon on Wednesday, December 2, when Richard Branson, founder and chairman of the Virgin Group–which includes, among other things, the V2 record label, Caroline record distribution, a publishing house, a wholesale clothing company, a line of financial services, a skin-care line, an airline, a hotel chain, a cola, a vodka, the modeling agency that launched Kate Moss, a professional rugby team, and a Caribbean island that can be rented in its entirety for as little as $12,000 a day–will preside over a ribbon-cutting ceremony.


The Art Ensemble of Chicago, once one of the most daring groups in jazz history, has been slipping in my estimation for some time, but I still didn’t see this one coming: Production of Coming Home Jamaica (Atlantic), the Art Ensemble’s first new album in six years and its first without founding member Joseph Jarman, was funded in part by California’s Odwalla juice company, which is actually named for the hero of an Art Ensemble song-poem. In return, several of the group’s pleasant but thoroughly unadventurous tunes have been given embarassing titles like “Grape Escape,” “Strawberry Mango,” and “Lotta Colada.” Wouldn’t a simple “thank you” in the liner notes have been sufficient?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Virgin store photos by Dan Machnik.