Inside the forgotten Piccadilly Circus Tower Records store that was once the coolest place to buy music
For many of us, a trip to Piccadilly Circus meant only one thing: a chance to head straight to the utterly fabulous Aladdin’s cavern that was Tower Records and spend hours lost in a reverie of sounds.
The iconic store was a paradise for music lovers. The 25,000 square foot flagship outlet at 1 Piccadilly Circus was brimming with everything from the latest hits to the most obscure items from the back catalog of a barely-known folk singer.
You might feast on vinyl records, rare seven-inch singles, and hard-to-find box sets. There were wanted posters and music videos, rows and rows of tapes – and later CDs. Not to mention the t-shirts, books and posters on offer.
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Depending on your musical tastes, this place meant the world to many people for different reasons. I remember browsing the shelves and being stunned when I discovered an obscure tape from a Scottish band’s catalog that I literally couldn’t find anywhere else. These moments of discovery really made you vibrate.
We asked Londoners about their memories of the iconic shop over the years and, as expected, we were blown away by the response. Matt Parker said, “I remember Piccadilly Circus Tower Records, and going there and buying half the Status Quo discography on Cassette!”
Nigel Kendall tended to go there after a night out at the pub. He told us: “It was open until midnight, an hour after the pubs had closed. I would frequently wake up on Saturday mornings surrounded by records or CDs that I had no memory of having bought.”
Gadsby Gadsby remembers helping him find comfort for a broken heart with a little help from Star Trek. He said: “The main attraction for me was that it was open late. I was a little lonely after being dumped and bought a load of Star Trek VHS. I met a woman in the section Soul doing the same thing. We went back to mine to watch Captain Kirk and listen to obscure ’60s albums and lament our love lives.”
Kieran Smith only remembers the coolness of jazz. He said: “Jazz! My family has the genre that crosses the family tree and the jazz selection was arguably the best in the country. My dad was so disappointed when it closed. I also bought my first CD there during teenagehood.”
Stephen Manship said he used to visit Tower Records as part of an amazing London record store tour. He recalled: “I would start at Berwick Street visiting Sister Ray, Selectadisc and Reckless Records, then up Oxford Street to sift through the Virgin and HMV megastores, then up to Tower for the last stop. I would visit all the floors – World/Folk/Classical was on the first floor and Alternative/Dance/Electronica on the mezzanine level.
“The basement had DVDs and games. There were often rarities that other stores didn’t have – mostly imports.”
There were also much more practical memories of the store from people who worked there. Paul Slater told us: “I worked there in the mid-90s. I started out on rocky ground before moving on to the art department where I worked alongside Mark Heffernan. Honestly, I had more fun there than anywhere else I’ve worked. I really miss the place. and the amazing people who worked there.”
Philip Dwyer added: “It was my last delivery when I was a postman at WDO W1”. Meanwhile, Tracy Huddleson has some fascinating insight into the first Tower Records that was founded in the United States. She said: “I live near Sacramento, California, where Tower Records was founded. I’m enrolled in a graduate program in public history where I learned about archival.
“I had the opportunity to view approximately 100 video tapes donated by Russ Solomon, the owner of Tower Records and his staff, all of whom recorded oral histories and the opening festivities of all the Tower Record stores at the foreign. I made it an archive for the city. of Sacramento.” Incredible stuff.
Hasnain Khalid has a beautifully bizarre memory of a London Underground passenger who used the store as part of his journey. He recalls: “My father worked in Regent Street (in the building that is now Burberry). He took the Northern Line every morning from West Finchley, changing at Leicester Square, for the only stop at Piccadilly Circus.
“He would then walk up the escalator and through the basement of Tower Records before taking another escalator to Regent Street. He did this for ten years but never realized they were selling records there- down (he wasn’t interested in music!)” Next, Tammy Hollick had a classic ’90s memory of the place. She said: “I met Westlife there. They had released Fool Again, my mom let me skip school.”
Ricky Johnson echoed many of our thoughts, writing simply, “I miss it. Us too John, us too! Of course, the good times were not to last.
The first Tower Records opened in Sacramento, California in 1960 and spawned many flagship stores in major US cities and then around the world. Its first London store opened in Kensington High Street in 1985 before the store at 1 Piccadilly opened the following year.
However, with difficult trading conditions in the UK market, the company closed its stores in the UK. The London stores were sold to Virgin Group in 2003, and they traded under the Tower brand on the old site until the store could be fully refurbished, while the other stores were closed.
The store was later renamed Zavvi in September 2007 after a management buyout from Virgin Megastores. Zavvi also went into administration at the end of 2008, and administrators closed the Piccadilly store on Wednesday January 14, 2009.
The good old days of huge London record stores are now all but over, but how many happy days have we spent as teenagers browsing the shelves of HMV, Virgin Megastores, Our Prices and Tower Records? The grief of losing them makes those memories all the sweeter!
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