Bye Bye Virgin

Okay, I know it’s 2009 and most of the world shops online for CDs or downloads music and plays it on iPods, computers, cell phones, etc. I do that too, but for me those things will never take the place of walking into a music store.

So it really sucks to hear that the remaining six Virgin Megastores in the States will be gone by summer. And they’re not closing for the most obvious reason.

Simon Wright, chief executive of Virgin Entertainment Group Inc., told the Associated Press even though declining music sales played a part in the decision to shutter the stores, that wasn’t the bottom line.

Apparently Related Companies and Vornado Realty Trust, the firms that bought the U.S. chain together in 2007, decided they could make more money renting out the real estate now occupied by Virgin stores.

A slowing economy took its toll. To buck declining music sales, the chain broadened its offerings in the last few years to apparel, books and electronics. The six remaining stores took in about $170 million in revenue a year, down from the $230 million from 23 stores at its peak in 2002.

The lack of expansion plans and a recent decision to close the Times Square location in New York, which had been on track to make $56 million last year until the financial collapse began in September made supporting the rest of the chain untenable, Wright said.

“Our six best stores from a retail point of view are also our six best stores from a real estate point of view,” Wright said.

Just a minute. Isn’t there a ton of commercial real estate sitting empty right now because of the economy? So doesn’t this seem like a risky move? After all, some money is better than no money, right?

Photo: AP Photo
If Marilyn and Elvis want to browse the aisles at a Virgin Megastore, they’ll soon have to travel a lot farther than Hollywood and Highland.

So how much time do you have to beat a path to the nearest Virgin Megastore before they bring down the big metal gates forever? The Times Square store closes in mid-April and the remaining locations – a second NYC outlet in Union Square and stores in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Denver and Orlando, Fla., will all disappear by June.

Very sad indeed. And the end of an era.

Granted, there’s more to choose from when shopping at Amazon than there could ever be at any brick and mortar music store. Obviously you could never build a store big enough to compete. But something’s missing from the experience.

Who out there hasn’t discovered a lot of great music by spending an hour or two wandering around in a store like Virgin or Tower Records, flipping through racks of records or CDs?

And both places did some pretty cool things to promote artists (and themselves) over the years. Like Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson showing up dressed as the Mad Hatter or Axl Rose. Or the dozens of acts who launched their latest project with an instore signing or concert.

Yeah, in the end you were just there to buy an album, but those things made doing it an event. Let’s see Amazon do that.

I hear the commenters warming up out there to rant about the evils of big box chains and how they killed small, independent stores. Yes, to some extent that’s true. But plenty of small stores survived by finding a niche.

Places like Waterloo Records in Austin or Dusty Groove America in Chicago are still in business because they provide a unique shopping experience, one you can’t get online. (Although both of them do have an online presence.)  Fortunately for those of us who like to do our music buying in person, there are stores just like them all across the country.

Even if they don’t have the selection of Tower or Virgin, let’s hope they stick around.