When Circles Records & Tapes closes its doors Saturday, a sentimental chapter in the lives of many Valley residents will also come to an end.
For 38 years, Circles has stood at Central Avenue and McKinley Street in downtown Phoenix. The neighborhood may have changed, but the store always remained devoted to pleasing people who cared about music.
“Record stores almost used to be kind of a cult thing,” said Angela Singer, who started the store in 1972 with her husband, Leonard. “People would go in and look at the album covers and read the liner notes. They would come in and just browse, which doesn’t seem to be what people want to do today.”
The world has changed since the Singers first got into the record-store business. The couple’s entry into the world of music happened in a roundabout way. Leonard owned Associated Distributors, a wholesale company that sold automobile accessories.
In the mid-1960s, that included tape decks, though few were manufacturing tapes. Leonard stepped in, signing deals with such labels as Motown and Atlantic to produce cassettes and 8-tracks.
By 1968, Associated Distributors boasted more than $2 million in annual sales. Circles opened as not only a record store, but as a way to distribute the Singers’ products.
“People were excited when we opened because there really wasn’t anything like this in Phoenix,” Leonard said. “It was something different.”
Tower Records had yet to arrive. Mass-merchandisers such as Borders and Best Buy didn’t exist. Circles, with its knowledgeable staff, deep catalog and late hours, was unusual and exciting.
“This was a music lover’s paradise,” said Rick Nuhn, who worked at the store when it opened. “At the time, this was the only place where you could pick up a lot of the records we were selling.”
The Singers staffed the store with people who knew music. It was Nuhn’s first job after graduating from Washington High School. He now lives in Los Angeles, where he hosts a syndicated radio show and works as senior director of promotion for the Concord Music Group.
“The ’70s were a different culture,” he said. “You’d go to Circles and talk to someone that you thought was cool to find out about cool music. “People can do that today through blogs and the Internet, but it’s not the same kind of connection.”
Circles gained local prominence and became an industry leader. In the days before Nielsen SoundScan tallied music sales, a select group of record stores would report top sellers to Billboard to form the magazine’s charts. Circles’ weekly reports tallied Phoenix’s hottest hits.
Recording artists often visited to sign their latest albums. One-hit wonders like Redbone (“Come and Get Your Love”) stopped there as did country stars like George Strait and Lyle Lovett. Angela Singer remembers a vivacious young Bette Midler meeting fans. Barry Manilow was there, as was Arthur Fiedler.
So many celebrities appeared that the Singers can’t remember them all. They used to have artists sign a door, but it was removed a long time ago – now tucked away in an upstairs storage room. It bears signatures of such acts as the Isley Brothers, Eddie Rabbitt, Michael Franks and David Gates from Bread. Bruce Springsteen’s signature also stands out.
“Oh, yes!” Angela exclaimed, her memory jogged. “He was here. He was quite pleasant, as I recall.”
Valley disc jockey Steve Goddard recalled escorting Natalie Cole to the store in 1988, when she was riding high the on the charts with “Pink Cadillac.”
“She was just delightful,” he said. “But that’s the thing with Circles: I’ve got so many memories there. Some are big ones like that, and some are just me getting excited at finding something there I couldn’t get anywhere else.”
One of Goddard’s favorite parts of the store was the “Wall of Hits,” in which every record that was on the Billboard Hot 100 occupied a spot.
“I’d go in there once a week with my list from Billboard, and I’d get every record that I was missing,” Goddard said. “It was awesome.”
All genres welcome
The building, a sprawling 36,000 square feet, is as distinctive today as when it was built in 1947 as an auto dealership. A huge front window curves around the side of the building, a reminder of days when it revealed the latest Studebakers.
Life-size posters used to fill the window; in the ’70s, one could see images of a beaming Helen Reddy or a brooding Patti Smith.
That was another thing about Circles: It didn’t matter what kind of music you liked. The store aimed to make everybody feel welcome.
“That was intentional,” said Nuhn, who once got an autograph from pianist Van Cliburn during a visit. “It wasn’t someplace that was trying to be hip. It was just about music. It didn’t matter what you liked. We would help you.”
The store stocked Latin albums in the ’70s, before they were easy to find. It carried polka music, religious tunes and became known as a haven for R&B fans. The selection of classical and jazz discs was equally extensive.
“Going to Circles was one of my favorite things to do,” said Sonia Moreno, a federal employee who shopped at the store since it opened its doors. “If you loved music, it was the place to be. You could find anything there, and if by some odd chance you couldn’t, they would order it for you.”
A digital demise
In recent years, the music industry has undergone massive changes. Tapes disappeared, and vinyl was turned into a cultish item when the compact disc took over. Now, CDs are giving way to digital downloads as chains such as Tower and Virgin have disappeared.
“We probably should have closed a long time ago,” Angela said. “It was just hard. We had employees that had been with us for years. You know people depend on you, and you don’t want to say goodbye.”
The Singers, who own the building, are hoping to sell it. The building will be vacant until it is sold.
The store remained devoted to its original goal. It sold a few music DVDs and some accessories as CD wallets, but it never strayed far from the original concept. It didn’t sell books or magazines or paraphernalia; it was always centered on music.
But as popular discs could be had cheaply at Walmart or Target, as well as online, it became harder to compete. And if you didn’t feel like getting dressed, you could download any number of songs to your computer. Circles became a dinosaur in the world of music retailers.
“Most music stores today do not sell exclusively music,” said James Donio, president of the National Association of Record Merchandisers, an industry group. “Because of the sheer dint of economic realities, they began diversifying more than a decade ago into doing other things.”
Revolver Records, just blocks from Circles, opened in downtown Phoenix last year. Co-owner TJ Jordan said the store has a different mission from Circles.
“I really love Circles because you could go in there and browse,” Jordan said. “But, if you deal with younger kids, these aren’t people that are used to going in and browsing. They have it all at their fingertips.”
That’s why Revolver emphasizes vinyl albums and used CDs and DVDs and relies heavily on social media like Facebook and Twitter. Circles didn’t focus on used products and never had a Web site.
“In reality, as great as Circles is, it’s just hard to have a record store like that in this day and age,” Jordan said. “It was more like something you’d see in the 1990s.”
The Singers seem to see the truth in that. Leonard said that once the store sells, the two plan to travel. Angela is active in the local arts scene. But he said their days in the music business are behind him.
“The business is so different than it used to be,” Leonard said.
“We sort of stumbled into this industry,” Angela added. “But, all the way through, we loved what we were doing.”