Penny Lane Records, Westwood – A Rememberance
Penny Lane Records of Westwood Village, R.I.P. You served the UCLA population admirably and will be missed, but truth be told, you hadn’t resembled your true self in years. Since moving from that traincar space on Gayley to a larger storefront on a less-trafficked east-west street, you hung on to retail life in an undignified coma, reduced to peddling porn rentals in a back room to maintain a pulse at the till. But before dwelling on the sad later years, let me look back to your glory days.
In the early 90’s, there were 3 record stores in Westwood Village for the student shopper: Tower Records, in a 3-story space on Westwood Blvd; The Wherehouse, first housed at the landmark Janss’ dome building (now Eurochow), then over at the space that is now Urban Outfitters; and finally, there you were, Penny Lane, in a plum spot on Gayley alongside Village institiutions Lamonica’s and Mongol’s. Out of this trio of options, it was easy for you to stand out as the student friendly alternative choice. After all, you had the novelty of a vinyl LP section and, more importantly, you bought and sold used CDs.
Your used bin became a favorite recycling depot for the local industry and new releases turned up early, often and discounted. Your used inventory was pared down to the essentials, an assortment not as vast as Aron’s, not as haphazard as Rhino’s–just the right size for a quick regular check in. Lazy Friday afternoons without classes were dawdled away there. We placed our meager offerings upon your alter of used CD buyback for the valued store credit. You usually rejected 90% of anything we brought in and shamefully we took back the rejects of our uncool high school tastes. In consolation, you regularly let us have some free promo posters to take back to the drab dorms.
All the UCLA area music nerds eventually found their way from the dorms down to Penny Lane eventually, in search of something a little more, well, more. The store was open til midnight and never more busy than on Friday and Saturday nights. With your clever method of opening new CDs while keeping the seal intact, you were among the early adopters of the in-store listening station, empowering the buyer in the pre-Napster wilderness. In 1992, A.N. (After Nirvana), we went to Penny Lane to find our copy of Slanted and Enchanted, and maybe a record by this new gal PJ Harvey. Strange, unexpected items would spring up in the racks–A Smiths 12″, a rare Tindersticks live disc, an LP of Bernie Purdie breaks. Over the years, The Wherehouse dwindeled to a Ticketmaster outlet before fading away altogether, Tower Westwood consolidated local operations down to the Sunset Strip (but not before an embarrassing reinvention as something called “Pug’z” that I can’t begin to describe here.)
And so Penny Lane, you served us well into the 90’s but your hasty reaction to the broadband era would begin your downfall. I suspect more than a little, you guys bitterly blame the downloaders, high rents, the intrusion of Best Buy and Amoeba into the area for the ultimate demise of your business. While they all surely play a part, look first to the poor decisions you made along the way. You hedged your bets on diversifying the merch away from your lifeblood music and watered down your appeal with a dumb foray into selling retro kitsch pop culture tchotchkes and DVDs. Valuable sales square footage was given over to an awful used vinyl that wouldn’t move at a Goodwill at a quarter per. (Just exactly how many Herb Alpert & Tijuana Brass LPs were pressed anyway?) In the larger space over on Kinross, you clung stubbornly to that unfriendly new CD filing system of cards with pictures of CDs instead of actual CDs. Any marketing guy will tell you to put the actual product in the shopper’s hand, or at the very least let them see the options in an easy layout. More than once on a given Tuesday, a new release would not be in stock with you guys, but would be available at Best Buy. Surely these were things something you could control. In your dying breath your owner admits he wanted the chance to sell Mexican wrestling masks in Westwood. He just doesn’t get it, even now.
With bland monstrosities such as something called Palazzo Westwood on the horizon for the Village, more than ever niche retailers are needed to bring back some of your neighborhood shop feel. If Flax Pens & Paper (pens & paper!) can maintain a presence here, and if Jay & Silent Bob’s comics can stay in business, surely a new focused music store can take hold in the area. Losanjealous is available for consultation for any brave entrepreneurs.