My Turn: Closing Shop—And A Life

I stopped going to Starbucks in 2003. It's not that I don't like the coffee. I stopped going because Erika was no longer behind the counter. It took some months of regularity, but it finally happened: Erika knew me. This corporate java behemoth actually employed someone who found the time to learn and remember my name and my order. Erika (not her real name) was a rock star to me. She knocked seconds, eventually minutes, off my waiting time. I'd walk in and, boom, a latte was in my hand. A minor thrill, but a thrill nonetheless. Once Erika disappeared from Starbucks, so did I. I just didn't have the patience to endure another hazing for an indeterminate outcome.

I learned a bit about Erika. She was a photographer, loved Italian food, listened to more punk rock than most people I knew, had a mutt named after the bass player from her favorite punk band and desperately wanted to move to New Orleans because "as much as I love New York City," she confessed, "I can barely afford The New York Times." I shared some information as well. I told her I had been married for more than 10 years, that I listened to music, including punk rock, six to eight hours a day and that moving to New Orleans was also something my wife and I desperately wanted to do.

Erika and I were friends. But she's gone now. No forwarding address. No e-mail contact. This bothered me. I wasn't really missing Erika. I didn't have a crush on her, but we did share something other than a love for New Orleans. For 13 years I owned a CD, DVD and record store, right around the corner from Erika's Starbucks. And for 13 years I was a rock star to many people.

Celebrities, musicians, journalists and, of course, the everyday people who lived in the neighborhood would frequent my shop and hang out at the counter as if they were in a local pub. We'd shoot the breeze about everything, not just music. Some would drown their sorrows. I served no booze, but it didn't matter. I had a duty, not just as a business owner and music maven. I was expected to listen. While a customer was in need of a Miles Davis recommendation, Larry, a neighborhood fixture who in 13 years had never bought a thing, relentlessly pined over his ship that still hadn't come in. It was double duty, and I loved it. " 'Kind of Blue'," I suggested. Both Larry and my customer said, "Yes."

People would rush in and bark questions that needed immediate attention.

"Sal. Saw you at the Tom Waits show last night. What was that song he closed with?"

"That was amazing, wasn't it? It's called 'Who Are You' from his 'Bone Machine' CD."

"I knew you'd know. Order me one."

"Sal, I'm looking for a song called 'Desiree'."

"By Neil Diamond or the Left Banke?"

"That's it—the Left Banke! Same voice as 'Walk Away Renee.' Sal, you kill me."

I was good at my job. Everyone knew that. The way Erika knew my order, I knew what my customers wanted and needed. I'd put avant-garde jazz on the side for Dan, Elvis Costello and power pop for Jules and any rare Clapton, pre-1973 only, for Tony. When I had to shut down in 2005—people just stopped buying CDs—it broke the hearts of many, but it really tore mine to shreds. How could something I love so much and am so good at just be removed from my life?

I disappeared … sort of. Unlike Erika, I left a forwarding address and an e-mail contact. But so many who relied on me during my tenure as the "retail rock star" seem to find little need for me now. People who used to ask about my life stopped asking. No more "How's the piece you're writing coming along?" "How was Jazz Fest in New Orleans?" "Having a BBQ this weekend—hope you and your wife can make it." Were those people wondering about me now, the way I occasionally wonder if Erika made the move to the Crescent City?

I was a rock star when my business was successful and I had something to offer. Now that I am unemployed, something I hadn't planned on being at the age of 44, am I just another schnook in the Big Apple? Everyone has a mom-and-pop shop he likes to think he discovered. Everyone has an Erika or Sal. And as long as retail shops still exist, people will find new Erikas and new Sals. But I don't think all the Erikas and Sals can say the same. We need another 15 minutes.