The sun beat steadily. Wednesday, July 11, was one of those summer days that catches Portland's sodden citizens off guard, making their nerves jump and skin itch. The oven-hot concrete on Northwest 23rd Avenue warped the air, and the sidewalks at midday could melt the soles of your shoes. If you weren't careful, the street itself could melt your soul and spirit.
And on that day, that's exactly what happened to a longtime resident of the shopping route. Music Millennium died on 23rd Avenue (first reported on wweek.com), and it was my job to find whodunit.
Little digging was needed to unearth the killers. Music Millennium, which opened its Northwest Portland store in 1977, was the victim of music's digital revolution and of a changing neighborhood. Music Millennium was slain in cold blood by iPods and yuppies.
"Music used to be the sexy thing people would do to occupy their time," says Millennium owner Terry Currier, who's keeping open the store's original location, at Southeast 32nd Avenue and East Burnside Street. "It went from people really thinking it was an art to people thinking it was a product."
Between August 2006 and last March, the Northwest 23rd Avenue store lost $90,000. And it lost $250,000 over the last three years. Currier says the losses date back to mid-2001. Apple's iTunes, the most successful online digital-music store, opened in January of that year. Within three years, the online store had sold 100 million songs for 99 cents a pop. Now, just six years old, iTunes has sold 2.5 billion songs, an average of a million songs a day since its inception.
"I've got three teenagers, and they've never bought a CD in their life," says Dave Allen, founder of pampelmoose.com, a local music and pop-culture blog.
Allen, bassist in the British post-punk band Gang of Four, now champions digital music. Instead of buying an album because it looks cool, Allen argues, people are more likely now to buy a song for its musical merits. Though he's quick to note that he feels sorry for Currier, Allen's equally quick to say Currier's business model has become outdated with the growing influence of online, digital music. "The customer is always right," Allen says.
Then there's the neighborhood. Longtime Northwest Portland resident Mike Ryerson, 67, says 23rd used to have restaurants, like Henry Thiele's and Quality Pie, as well as pharmacies, locksmiths, grocery stores and the like. "Where we had barbershops, we now have women's shoe stores," says Ryerson, who writes regularly for the neighborhood's community paper, The Northwest Examiner.
Currier agrees with Ryerson's assessment of a rapidly changing neighborhood. When Music Millennium moved in 1989 to its current spot on 23rd and Johnson Street, a year lease was $10 a square foot. Now it's $25 a square foot per year. For the music store's 6,000 square feet, this comes out to around $13,000 a month.
Both men ascribe the escalation in rent, as well as the changing face of Northwest 23rd, to the appearance of large national retailers such as Williams-Sonoma and the Gap. First surfacing on 23rd and West Burnside, the large chain stores have been slowly creeping north. The latest newcomer is Pottery Barn Bed and Bath, which opened between its sister stores, Pottery Barn and Williams-Sonoma, over Thanksgiving.
The man responsible for much of this change is Dick Singer, who owns real estate up and down 23rd. He also owns the building that Music Millennium occupies.
"Dick Singer did bring up the street with local businesses, to his credit," Currier says. But both Currier and Ryerson think Singer has a bigger game plan, which entails edging smaller businesses out of the neighborhood to make way for national chains.
"That's totally wrong," says Singer. whose family has owned property in the neighborhood since the 1930s. "Music Millennium is not suffering from anything more than my daughters, her friends, young people downloading music."
The Nob Hill Business Association says the street remins friendly toward small business. Association president Peggy Anderson says a recent study showed 75 of the 100 businesses on or near 23rd between Burnside and Lovejoy are independently owned with fewer than five employees. However, the rest are large stores that take up more space, require more parking and act as a consumer draw for different shoppers—hip young professionals more likely to have an iPod than a turntable.
And with that, I realized the crime wasn't done by one, but many. It wasn't just the evolving music industry or the changes on NW 23rd or even the landlord: Music Millennium was the victim, ultimately, of time.