What was this weird thing they used to have in music stores?
March 11, 2012 8:03 AM   Subscribe

Can anybody fill in the gaps in this memory I have of shopping for cassette tapes in the mid to late eighties? Memories involve a plexi glass wall and conveyor belt contraption used to prevent theft.

This morning, I woke up thinking about an experience I had while shopping for music with my parents in the Boston area sometime around 1986-1989. I was eight years old at the time. The memory of this particular store has come back to me a few times over the years. Any help in providing facts would be very helpful.

The way this store sold cassette tapes was odd, and I can't ever remember ever seeing anything like this before or since.

Cassette tapes were placed on these little shelves on the wall of the store. There was a big piece of plexiglass with holes big enough to put your hands in front of the wall separating customers from the tapes. In order to get the tape you wanted, you had to drop it onto a conveyor belt that ran at the bottom of the wall (perhaps there was some kind of packaging around the tapes that made them too big to fit through the holes?). This conveyor belt perhaps lead to the cash register where they would receive your tape and ring you up. This odd set up was supposed to prevent theft.

I believe I bought a Technotronic tape, but I may be wrong. It would seem that this happened sometime around 1986 or 1987, before Pump Up The Jam came out. This music store may have been a Strawberry's located inside of Boston Garden, or it may also have been located in Chestnut Hill mall.

Can anybody tell me about how common this method of theft prevention was? Was this popular all over the country? When did it start being used? When did it's reign end? Why didn't they just put those big plastic things on the tapes to make them too big to put in your pocket? Why didn't they just have them behind glass? Why did they stop doing this? Wasn't this an incredibly expensive method of theft prevention to implement? It must have taken a ton of work to install, then a ton of work to get rid of. Are there any 80's movies where people buy tapes from these things?

Maybe everyone remembers this and there's a name for it. Maybe nobody remembers this and I dreamt it. Any help would be appreciated.
posted by shushufindi to Media & Arts (7 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I've only ever seen this at the Strawberries in Kenmore Square Boston in the mid-to-late 80's. So it's definitely not a dream, but I have no idea how widespread it was.
posted by FreezBoy at 8:57 AM on March 11, 2012

At the local, chain variety store where I worked (early90s) at we had this system for cassette tapes then later vhs tapes then dvds. But! without the conveyor belt. The holes were covenient only so that one can pick up the tape and flip it to the backside for browsing then placed back into its slot. They did have some sort of plastic bumper for the cassettes. If a customer wanted to purchase one, then a clerk had to come by with a key to unlock the plexiglass and get it for you.
This was Seattle and some of the stores had them as antitheft measures. I know that some of the shoplifters caught from my particular store easily stuffed the cassettes that had the huge plastic bumpers into backpacks, strollers and even just in their jackets when the tapes were just in the open.
posted by tipsyBumblebee at 9:31 AM on March 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Wow. Nice memories. Like you I've thought of that system many times but also come up low on factual information. I can, however, chip in a few thoughts.

Many record stories used the *ahem* "glory hole" method of product security in the 80's, I think it was standard for mall stores and was part of the whole 'mall shopping' experience. So, of course, when that big mall retailer (Trans World) bought Strawberries and became part of a big distribution machine getting product from Albany it was only a matter of time before they showed up. I had more than a few conversations with Strawberries employees about them (as in "WTF? Newbury Comics doesn't make me shove my hand through a porthole to see what tracks are on the damn tape?") and was always assured no one liked them but management.

I cannot specifically remember the conveyor belt anywhere but on the 5th floor of the Strawberries in Downtown Crossing. You're damn right it must have been expensive - that belt system required some customization and maintenance. The automated belts always struck me as an experiment by a budding Frederick Winslow Taylor who had a vision of the Record store of THE FUTURE but couldn't try it out in mall for fear of pissing someone off. I say experiment because a system like that makes sense when the margins on the product are high but that didn't fit with the location where I encountered it.

NOTE: I had too much time on my hands after high school and often chatted with the clerks on the 5th floor and eventually made friends them and one of the security guards who watched the elevators when we realized we lived in the same neighborhood. The factual nature of this information is questionable both in the sources and my ability to recall details perfectly... but this is about hunting for music in the 80's and that's a sweet spot for me.

The 5th floor of the Strawberries in Downtown Crossing was my first exposure to the insane world of corporate music companies and the glories of liquidation. Trans World regularly bought out small competitors or bought huge lots of music wholesale and pushed them out to places like Strawberries as the 'bargains' to lure people in. In other stores those tapes and records were probably sprinkled in but in Downtown Crossing they were all up on the 5th floor in a scene that was a mix of Terry Gilliam, Rube Goldberg and Carl Stalling.

The floor was well-lit and generally well-staffed but the huge plastic walls of cassette and limited space to move around could turn the place into a little slice of hell. You'd bump elbows and arms as you tried to reach in through the holes and angle your arm to the tape you wanted. The well-lit floor also played against you because the glare on the plexiglass made it hard to see the tapes, which were almost always plastered with multiple "MARKDOWN!" stickers obscuring the title. (Could be 'The Godfathers.' Could be 'Godspell.' No one knows!) The fact these lots were bought from companies all over the US also meant you could find albums not normally available at Tower or Newbury Comics. At one point they must have bought the inventory of a mail-order house that specialized in BBC titles because tapes for every sort of BBC radio drama or series appeared next to the classical and other random 'spoken word' titles. Nothing in those towering walls was ever more than a few dollars and many were at the magical "99 Cents" price point. The selection rewarded the persistent and the lucky but you were never going to be spending a ton of money so the return on the investment for the belt system never made sense.

BUT that floor may have been a perfect petri dish for testing. It was a downtown location that saw a strong cross-section of customers as the afternoon adult shoppers gave way to hordes of school kids in the afternoon and lord knows who in the evenings. If you could make a razor-thin margin location like that make money then you'd have a heck of a model for your prime locations. It was also a purely secondary location for music shoppers - it had no loyal following to piss off by trying out such a system. (Unlike Kenmore Square.)

The fact that repeated searches over the years for the story of that system and what happened to it lead me to think it was a failed experiment that never went further. I gather a number of factors (the arrival of the CD longbox, better attention to security mesures, etc.) helped make sure it never went further.

Good times. Well, when you didn't spend a week nursing a nasty cut from the poorly cut holes in the plexiglass. Still, good times.
posted by boonerang at 10:29 AM on March 11, 2012 [5 favorites]

I started reading the description to my husband, who reports seeing the same sort of system in place in the eighties in a place called Harmony Hut, in Northern Virginia.
posted by PussKillian at 12:14 PM on March 11, 2012

At least one of the Strawberries in Worcester, Mass. had that contraption as well.
posted by Sidhedevil at 4:54 PM on March 11, 2012

Holy shit I totally forgot about those! At least one record store in a mall in the Natick/Framingham area had that system. Probably Strawberries. It's possible I'm remembering one from somewhere else (Downtown Crossing, Watertown, etc) but I'm pretty sure it was local to me.
posted by bondcliff at 6:38 PM on March 11, 2012

I remember that system at Strawberries in the 80s as well. And similar belt-less systems at quite a few discount stores.
posted by kaszeta at 5:18 AM on March 12, 2012

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