I Worked For the Last Virgin Megastore in America

Courtesy of George Flanagan
Union Square Virgin Megastore Blueprints
About a year ago I attended an outdoor screening of the film Empire Records. I hadn't seen the film since long before I worked the final nine months of the Union Square Virgin Megastore's existence and revisiting the film revealed an accurate portrayal of what that record store life was really like. Granted, things at Virgin were a lot more corporate and a lot less Zellweger-y, but all things considered it's kind of startling to realize the day-to-day life of a giant music store is a narrative that now barely exists.

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I applied to join the Virgin family in the summer of 2008. Two months later I was asked to come in for an interview, one unlike any potential hiring discussion I've had before or since. Before speaking with two of the managers, I was given a questionnaire to evaluate how much I knew about music, film, television and books, with the instructions that I was to answer as much as I could and if I didn't know an answer, to leave it blank rather than guess. Twenty minutes later I handed it back with 48 of the 50 questions answered (fear not, I know now which band made the album Chutes Too Narrow) and answered a few questions about what I liked and disliked about previous jobs.

I called up my former manager George Flanagan, who plays in El Jezel, what he looked for in a new potential hire during this process:

With the application being the first indicator, I always looked for people that had some sort of creative element in their job/school history--be it they were a film major or they interned at a record label, anything like that would mean more to me than working at Best Buy for five years. U liked how the Virgin application had that line after your name that said "Other Names You Are Known By." We never quite understood why that was there. I used it as a warning sign if someone put a terrible MC moniker in that line. Like, I'm not impressed that you are known in some circle as MC Crip. If you got the interview, the product knowledge quiz was definitely the gauntlet. If I came back and found only four or five things were answered I dreaded having to get through the perfunctory interview. It was a very hard and wide ranging quiz. Three pages! So if you even got 25% of it correct that was pretty decent. I hated people that just guessed to fill in the blanks. The one that really blew my mind was how few people knew the answer to was "what instrument did Louie Armstrong play"? I got tuba, guitar, saxophone, you name it.

One week later they offered me a cashier position in the DVD section. Game got real.

I'd been living in New York for four years already, so given how much time I'd spent at the Megastore, I'd already become quite familiar with the layout. But this was 2008, kind of an uneasy time to be in any corner of the music business, especially one primarily involved exchanging money for physical product. I remember when I first moved to New York in August 2004, I lived in the Washington Square Park area and counted 19 music stores within a 10 minute walk. By the time I started at Virgin, that number was down to seven. Today, that number is one.

chazvirgintag560.jpgChaz KangasMy Proud Tag

Still, Virgin was more than a music store in more ways than one. Of course it also sold movies, books, video games and, at that point, phones and beverages. But Virgin's location right outside the Union Square subway stop where so many trains connected made it a certifiable meet-up spot and hang-out for those of us who music, or media in general, still excited. Whether killing time, seeking out the perfect gift or checking out a band's in-store, Virgin really emphasized the community aspect of music consumption. I know that sort of romanticism is usually reserved for the mom and pop independent music stores, who I also adore, but dare I say at this point Virgin offered such an experience too, especially then.

Tower Records had been closed two years. Circuit City was in the process of liquidating. FYE was seemingly nowhere near Manhattan, and Sam Goody had been long gone. At this particular juncture, the people who worked at Virgin were the last bastion of "record store people." Whatever drew us to that glowing red emblem was a shared passion for music both mainstream and obscure, And while the only record absolutely everybody seemed to agree on was Fugees' The Score, every type of listener who came in could be properly serviced by an expert in some field. It's this shared dedication that I feel really was what bonded us employees in these dying days.

Ellen Miller
Young Virgins at the End Awaiting Their Fate

Of course, we didn't really know these were the end times, not for quite a while. Following the announced closing of the Times Square location, we were assured that, because we were the top earning Virgin location, we were completely safe. Job security doing something you love is a wonderful feeling, so pretty much every day at Virgin consisted of hanging out with some of my best friends and discussing my passions with people willing to spend money on them. Given that Virgin had a lot of shelf space for independent and catalog titles, it was always a good feeling putting someone on to a record or an artist that would be brand new to them.

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There would be challenging times, like during the holidays when we were advertising being open an hour early, usually leading to these hours having a total of one (1) extra customer right as doors opened to exchange his defective Lisa "Left Eye" Lopez documentary for a different copy, or near midnight on Thanksgiving where a fully grown adult confusingly asked where he could find "an instructional DVD on intercourse for adults" because he didn't feel comfortable saying the word "pornography." You would also get the homeless crusty punk spending $23 entirely made-up of pocket change for an import CD, the vacationing European couples buying every iteration of soundtracks from The Crow franchise, and the gentleman who would put on the headphones at the world music listening station and practice his martial arts on a daily basis. But the bulk of people who walked through those doors were mainly interested in purchasing music and movies, which was pretty cool. Even the apprehension of shoplifters, usually a tense moment in any business, was alleviated by the in-store DJ playing Jane's Addiction's "Been Caught Stealing" at the moment of capture, followed a few minutes later by Inner Circle's "Bad Boys" when the police came to take them away.

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