musings on music, travel, books, and life from Southeast Asia

Retail Brethren

I’m apparently one of the dying breed of people who still enjoy shopping for real CDs in real shops, as opposed to those folks who buy pirated copies on the street or download stuff for free on the Internet. Shopping malls, at least here in Thailand, are as popular as ever, but shops that sell music CDs are sadly becoming hard if not impossible to find. And of course we know the reason for this: many people are downloading music for free on file sharing websites nowadays. Can I call these people thieves? I think that’s accurate. If the music “file” is something that is not commercially available, or offered with the blessing of the artist, that’s one thing, but downloading copyright-protected recordings for free, whether it’s music or movies, is nothing but thievery.


Illegal downloading is one issue, but the increasing shift to online shopping by so many music fans puzzles me even more. Sure, I understand the convenience and “better selection” of online shopping, but I don’t understand why so many consumers have seemingly abandoned “brick & mortar” shops altogether. For me, browsing for music — or books — in a proper shop remains one of life’s great pleasures. Perusing the aisles and the tactile act of picking up the “product” and examining it; the colorful merchandising and displays; the unique smells; actually talking with clerks and getting personal recommendations; nothing about online shopping can duplicate these experiences.

Luckily there are still many shops in Kuala Lumpur that still sell real music CDs, and not the knockoff stuff. In Kuala Lumpur I shopped at Tower Records (yep, they still have a single store here, although I doubt it’s any longer affiliated with the bankrupt US chain) in the Lot 10 Shopping Center, Victoria Music in the Amcorp Mall, and several branches of Rock Corner. Almost every branch of Rock Corner that I visited yielded multiple musical jewels that I’ve never found in Bangkok, or ones that would be more expensive if I had purchased them online (factoring in shipping charges, not to mention those nasty customs and import taxes that the post office sometimes surprises me with). The best stocked branches of Rock Corner that I discovered (and I still haven’t visited them all) are at KLCC, the Mid-Valley Megamall, and Bangsar Village.


There is definite bond that is shared by people that work in any type of retail establishment, especially ones that sell music. Call it a brotherhood — or sisterhood, in some cases — of tunes, but a mutual feeling of camaraderie definitely exists. You’re not going to command a high salary working retail, so you have to love the product you’re selling, and also to be able to share your enthusiasm with like-minded customers. And retail music junkies are able to do just that, and do it gladly. Just ask the guy behind the counter, the one wearing a Ramones t-shirt, what he’s been listening to lately and get ready to be overwhelmed.

I’m not a chatty kind of guy; I don’t automatically walk into a shop and strike up a conversation, nor do I need to pester the staff for recommendations on what to buy. But when I’m browsing the bins in a CD shop I inevitably end up talking to one of the employees working there. I always have interesting conversations with the guy that manages the Mid-Valley Megamall branch (one of these days I’ll remember his name!). Like me, he’s an incorrigible music junky and happy to talk about what he’s been listening to or has on order. This guy’s tastes lean more towards hard rock and blues, but we still found common guitar ground to talk about, in this case Thin Lizzy and UFO. I know baffled him with some of the CDs I bought at his shop. Seeing the titles I had picked (Green on Red, Clive Gregson, Tony Joe White, Freddie Hubbard, Albert Collins, Gene Ammons, Jackie Leven, the Bongos, Ian Matthews, Quincy Jones, Brothers Johnson), he shook his head and said, “I think you must know a lot about music. The things you buy are …” he seemed to be searching for the right words, “… very different.” Well, I’ll take that as high praise!


At Tower in KL a young man named Billy was very helpful. Aside from talking about music and our retail roots (I mentioned that I used to work for Tower in Bangkok), I asked one day him how long it would take to walk to KLCC, and which route would be best. He not only gave me directions, but to make sure I didn’t get lost, he walked me out of the shopping center, across the street and through another shopping center, and up another street until he was able to point out KLCC (and the distinctive Petronas Towers that mark the spot) a few blocks ahead. That was service above and beyond the call of duty! The young woman who manages the Rock Corner branch in Bangsar Plaza was also very friendly, played very good music in-store (and played it at a normal volume: Billy at Tower is one of those dudes who likes things loud and louder) and even offered me a discount when she noticed that I was going to pay cash for a dozen CDs. But even narrowing my pile down to twelve was difficult in this case; the selection at her branch was so good that I passed on a few things I now kick myself for not getting, the latest Joan Armatrading album being one example. Oh well, there’s always next trip!

And amongst the retail brethren, I can’t forget bookshop employees, or booksellers, as they are often called. In KL I stopped by my favorite bookshops and purchased more than a handful of titles. Book Xcess, located in the Amcorp Mall in Petaling Jaya, stocks an impressive selection of remainder books in a variety of categories. On my previous trip, I signed up for one of their membership cards, and when I returned this time, my discount card was ready for to use. In that same mall, on the floor below Book Xcess, there is a small shop selling secondhand books. Basically, it’s a disorderly mess, but if you patiently browse the shelves (and piles on the floor) you may find something of interest. Back in town, over on Jalan H.S. Lee, the Junk Bookshop, despite its name, has an impressive stock of titles. But once again, things are peculiarly organized and you have to look in every nook and cranny — and negotiate the scary upstairs “shifting floor” — to see what they have. Besides the haphazard way of organizing their books, the prices are a bit steep for secondhand titles, but usually if you buy more than a couple of books the owner will offer you a discount. I also did a sweep through the book offerings at the Red Crescent Society’s RC Shop. Slim pickings this time around, but I found a few goodies. While visiting the Rock Corner branch at the Ampang Point Shopping Center (the only branch where I wasn’t even tempted to make a purchase; their stock was a bit too generic), I was pleasantly surprised to find a special book sale taking place at the exhibit area on the ground floor. They had some interesting titles in both paperback and hardcover, and of course I had to buy a half-dozen of each. Too much is never enough!



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