Two months ago, large red posters started appearing in the windows of the Virgin Megastore in Manhattan’s always jam-packed Union Square. “25%-50% off on everything,” one shouted. By May 18th the sale increased to “30%-50% off” and a sign arrived announcing the furniture and fixtures in the store were up for grabs. Even casual passersby got the news: New York City was losing its last major record store.
The Union Square Virgin Megastore will close on Sunday, June 14th. When Tower Records folded in 2006, Virgin earned the dubious honor of being the only large store devoted entirely to music retail remaining in Manhattan. After the 14th Street shop vanishes this weekend there will be no more Virgin Megastore locations in the United States. (Virgin’s founder, Richard Branson, sold the Virgin brand to the real estate companies Related and Vornado in 2007; the Times Square Megastore closed in April, after clothing chain Forever 21 purchased its property.) The Denver, Orlando and San Francisco locations all shut down in recent months and the remaining Hollywood location will also close this Sunday. It’s hard not to regard the closing of the behemoth-sized stores as a physical depiction of the decline of the music industry.
The loss of the Union Square Megastore will be major for residents of the city, but in the days before it shutters its doors for good the scene inside is heartening: people are rushing to the store and buying music — albeit it at rock-bottom prices. Entire racks are empty. The Virgin Café has been turned into an extra register zone. Customers who want to look through the bargain bin need to squeeze past the other searching shoppers and throw some elbows. The Megastore DJ, who has an elevated private booth that looks over the whole store, rambles like a TV salesman in between songs. “Everything’s on sale people. No refunds. This is it. The Virgin Megastore is closing. This next song’s an oldie but a goodie.” The entire bottom floor, which is nearly twice the size of the main level, is empty and has been blocked off. “All that’s left in the store is now on the top floor,” said a sales employee who was busy restocking the shelves to meet the great demand. Despite the gloom, there is a bizarrely convivial nature to the fire sale.
Most popular albums and titles are already sold out, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a Pink Floyd, Bob Dylan, Depeche Mode, Santana, Green Day or R.E.M. disc in the remains. The racks are stocked with best-of albums, and books, clothes, Vinyl records and DVDs are still available to those willing to pick through the bins.
At night, when the store approaches closing time, a huge line gathers behind the register, often trailing into the CD racks. After the Megastore closes, where will people line up to buy music like this again? New York still has a thriving indie-record-store scene, but many smaller shops have also fallen victim to the recession and consumers’ changing record-buying habits. Even the giant Kim’s Video on St. Marks Place recently relocated to a far smaller store. “There’s still Best Buy and J&R, but at those places they just tell you what’s on discount and where to find what you’re looking for,” said one of the floor managers. “It’s sad to lose a place like this where you can just talk about music and hang out. We need a place like this.”