The Austin Chronicle

Life After the Classical Section

With the closing of Wherehouse Records, classical expert Russell McCulloh has nowhere to sell Bach, Brahms, and Beethoven

By Jerry Young, June 27, 2003, Arts

Someone left a sign on the door of the recently vacated Wherehouse Records on Burnet Road in April: "Coming soon: Austin Breast Enlargement and Taxidermy Studio." Store regulars could guess the author: the classical guy, Russell McCulloh.

At a time when retail workers get little respect, and store owners think of them as tires to be replaced periodically, McCulloh had become a respected part of Austin's classical music community. Over his 20-year tenure selling classical records on Burnet -- through five different owners and three different store names -- he held court with an astonishing grasp of music and recordings and sterling repartee. Only Russell remembers exact timings of different recordings of Beethoven slow movements.

He misses his old job.

"There was a sense of community," McCulloh says. "Even with all of the changes in ownership and as Austin got bigger, you still had a sense of that -- it was like a small town within the store."

And he is missed. "I was heartbroken," says Austin Symphony Orchestra conductor Peter Bay. "Russell was one of the first people I met when I came to town. It is uncommon to find someone both as friendly and as knowledgeable, especially working for a national chain."

Classical record shops can be intimidating, especially to customers able only to hum a few bars of something they connected with. "I witnessed this firsthand," Bay says. "Somehow he would figure out what they were looking for, and he would find the best one and the least expensive one."

"I try not to be pretentious," McCulloh says, "but I can't say that in 20 years I didn't do something unprofessional." He tells of a woman who wanted background music for when she was reading. "I told her I would never have music on when I was reading because that would insult both the author and the composer. On any other day she wouldn't have gotten that from me; I shouldn't do that. They are asking me for advice."

Although it had the third highest classical sales in the national chain, when Wherehouse closed most of its 400 stores, the Burnet Road store was closed. "Customers felt they had let me down, that they hadn't bought enough, but it had nothing to do with my customers and my department. I know this, but still I feel like I let them down."

"I feel guilty not working. I should try to have fun, but I haven't been able to." He was one of the 500 to apply for work at the new Target in Capital Plaza. No matter what comes of that, Russell intends to find a way to work at least one day a week in a record shop. "There are other things I could do and do well, but I have an established clientele and customer base. It seems a shame not to be directing myself to it."

Bay wants him back selling classical records full time somewhere. "I would love to see him at a place like Waterloo -- a store I support a lot. I would love to see their classical offering expand, and he would be the ideal person to lead the expansion." end story

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