Wednesday, January 26, 2011
Zap & Co., BBC, Steve and Me.
One enormous exception to this was a vintage clothing store on the 300 block of North Queen Street in downtown Lancaster known as Zap & Co. Zap was opened in 1973 by Steve Murray, a man who cut a singular figure: 6’4” tall, with a huge walrus mustache and long, jet-black hair pulled back into a ponytail, Steve was usually clad in black jeans with a sharp blazer over a cool vintage print button down or, in the warmer months, shorts paired with a Hawaiian shirt. Zap (run at the time by Steve and his first wife) soon established itself as a fixture not just amongst hippies and later punks, but by Hollywood as well. Scouring the country for more than simply old stuff, Steve’s discerning eye selected only quality vintage clothing, jewelry and furnishings and he became known as a go-to guy for film and television set decorators and costumers. Woody Allen’s RADIO DAYS and BROADWAY DANNY ROSE, John Waters’ POLYESTER and CRY BABY, TITANIC, the third AUSTIN POWERS movie and TV’s THAT '70s SHOW are just a few productions that featured items purchased from Zap & Co.
In 1985 (or 1984, I’m not sure), Steve teamed up with two friends to open an independent record store in the building he owned across the street from Zap at 315 N. Queen. BBC Records (standing for Back Beat Corporation, but named as such to evoke a cool, import image) was run by British expat Paul Pendyck, a Lennon-bespectacled bloke with a sly wit. While I was at the time working at Sam Goody at the Park City Mall, I still did much of my record shopping at the independent stores downtown (Stan’s Record Bar being the other one) and BBC’s large selection of imports made it a frequent stop. I got to know Paul and Steve a bit more, and one day in 1986, Paul asked me if I’d like to work at BBC part time. Ironically, it was a case of mistaken identity, as Paul had me confused with another guy who kinda looked like me who played in a local band. Regardless, I got the job and soon quit my gig at the chain store.
Two years later, Paul was leaving BBC to open his own shop (it’s remarkable to note that this tiny town featured at one point as many as five indie record stores, three of them dedicated to non-mainstream music) and I had two options: Go with Paul and continue working part time or stay at BBC and take over as full-time manager.
The transition was not smooth; in fact, there was a ton of drama, but this is not the time nor place, so I’ll just say that for me, it was a no-brainer. In July of 1988, at the ripe old age of 23, I became the manager of BBC Records, a job I’d hold for the next seven years and eight months.
While BBC under Paul certainly leaned a bit left of center, there were still Steely Dan LPs (and a few CDs by this point) mixed in amongst XTC, Joy Division and the Smiths. I wanted to make BBC an all-alternative (even though that word wasn’t really the tag yet) store, weeding out the Springsteen and Beatles in favor of more stuff that wasn’t filling the endcaps at all of the chains (and back then, not only were there a handful of chain stores ala Camelot Music and Goody, but the big department stores still had record sections).
Now, Steve loved the Beatles. He came of age in the 60s and would tell tales of watching them on THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW and seeing them play live (he was very much a John guy, not a Paul guy). But Steve’s a cool guy, and he liked a lot of stuff that I did. He realized that my goal was to make the store appeal to a SMALLER clientele than it currently had, but he liked the idea of BBC representing something hipper.
And I swear, he never said it again. Steve gave me full reign of the store, never telling me what to order or how to decorate it or who to hire. He never asked for first pick of the promos that we got (oh, the cornucopia of free stuff I got in those years!). When I wanted to expand the store and turn the back room into a video rental space for cult films, foreign films and music videos, he said yes. When that venture didn’t work, I had the genius idea of giving the store a secondary focus on the genre of music that I had recently begun to love: Jazz. The worst-selling genre of music in the industry. And Steve said okay. He made me feel it was as much my store as his.
Of course, Steve’s ownership of the building meant that BBC’s overhead was relatively small, which gave me some breathing room in terms of ordering stock. If we had a good month, Steve would pay himself a small rent from the store’s account. In leaner times, that might not happen. And we had some lean times. There were days when the register would tally less than $50 and some weeks we had nothing to add to the new release wall in the front of the store. But never once did I receive a directive to bring in some Spice Girls and Billy Joel to balance our stock on the Cavedogs and Throwing Muses.
CHET ATKINS IN HOLLYWOOD. I had the record put aside, along with a bunch of others, to buy myself. But when Steve saw it, he claimed it. Now, I’m not sure whether it was for the lush guitar pickin’ or the luscious blonde on the cover…. Knowing Steve, it was probably the latter.
To say Steve has an appreciation for the ladies is an understatement, but no woman has been as consistent in his life as Hilda, the silver mannequin that stood sentry in various incarnations at the entrance of Zap over the decades. Steve’s distinctive usage of mannequins in his window displays over the years is legendary. One display created a bathroom scene in which a woman sat perched on an actual toilet. In Lancaster, this innocuous display caused a small furor, a perfect example of the parochial atmosphere in which the 300 block of North Queen Street was a haven for artists and misfits.
But Steve’s Hippie/Punk attitude wasn’t confined to his music and window displays. He was always politically active as well. In late October of 1988, vice-presidential candidate Dan Quayle (the proto-Palin) came to what the local news referred to as “the Susquehanna Valley” for rallies in York and Lancaster. While George Bush (the first) and Mr. Potatoe-Head were pretty much a lock in this very conservative hamlet, those of us who didn’t love the Reagan era and dreaded its continuation felt the need to let our minority voices be heard.
Which meant everyone who worked at all of Steve’s stores, including his third, DMZ, a foreign / domestic military clothing store with an ironic sensibility…. Two fake missile heads sat outside the entrance to the store, and much of the clothing was dyed black and blue. Since most of the time, Steve’s stores were staffed with one employee at a time, it wasn’t like we could draw straws to see who got to go picket the rally. So, grabbing our Dukakis / Bentsen signs (look it up) and making a few of our own, in the middle of the afternoon, we all taped “Gone to Protest Quayle” signs on the doors and closed up shop for a few hours.
Local new coverage was mostly fawning over Quayle and interviewing supporters who said things like, “He’s no Jawn Kennedy, he’s better lookin’, ‘at’s fer sure!” and “I’m against Duh-Diya-ka-kis cuz’ he’s for letting prisoners out on hol--- on weekends, and I’m uh, and--- killing babies. I am definitely against that.” Such is the discourse in Lancaster county. Philadelphia’s KYW, however, gave some airtime to the protesters including Steve, who declared, “Dan Quayle is unqualified to be vice-president, and everyone knows it!” Zap employee Douglas Campbell also got to air his opinion that Quayle espoused “a lot of high-blown bull.”
Words don’t seem sufficient to describe the atmosphere that Steve created for Zap, BBC and DMZ. All of us who worked for him felt like…. Okay, I’ll say it. Family. But with less anxiety. It was more like this small club where you really loved all the members and had three really cool clubhouses and amazing perks. When we would stay open until 9pm on Fridays (unlike the rest of the week when we were only open until 6), Steve would go around the corner to the Harmony Inn and buy six packs of beer for us, which we would sometimes share with customers who often just hung out at his stores as if they were a gathering place, not a mere retail establishment.
Christmas Eve in particular was a highlight of the year, and not just because we actually made money during the holidays. Early in the day, Steve would go to the liquor store down the street and pick up a few cases of champagne, which he would distribute to the three stores. The bubbly started flowing around noon, being offered to anyone who came through the door until by the time we closed (arbitrarily whenever business slowed down), we were all just soused enough to make the subsequent staff party a joyous affair (and then we would all somehow make it to our respective family gatherings).
Over the years, of course, life marched on. Steve got divorced. Steve got married. So did Rex. So did I (all in the span of one year). Employees came and went, some good, some not so good. The alternative boom that Nirvana begat helped business, but the recession really kicked us in the ass. DMZ closed. Steve and his wife Elizabeth had a daughter in 1994. From 1992 to 1994, my wife Erin and I lived in the apartment above BBC (following Rex and Adrienne’s residence there the prior two years). And starting in 1989, BBC Records became the setting for THE RETAIL ADVENTURES OF KALLI & REX, a monthly comic strip I did for Warner Bros. Records’ DIRT, a faux-zine their alternative marketing dept. sent to record stores and college radio.
After I left, BBC remained open for a while (with my friend Kris Margiotta taking over as manager), but by the late 1990s, record stores were in the beginning of the death throes, and Steve eventually decided to close up shop and relocate Zap from across the street into the much larger space at 315 N. Queen. Over the past decade, Steve filled the new Zap with so much vintage goodness that you could eventually barely squeeze through the clothes, jewelry, shoes, books, posters, housewares, barware et al…. but it was always worth the squeeze.
I still dropped by Zap frequently when I’d return home to Lancaster for a visit. Stopping in on Christmas Eve for a champagne toast remained a tradition, one that I don’t think I missed the entire 14 years since I left. And I was always greeted with a hug and a smile by my former boss, who still let me go behind the counter, even though it hadn’t been my privilege for many years. It just always felt like home. In 2007, I was excited to bring my girlfriend Lysa to this place that meant so much to me and introduce her to Steve. And, despite quite a bit of gray streaking through his ponytail and ‘stache, Steve was still Steve, as vital as ever.
Steve has always been a champion of downtown Lancaster. He spent many hours (as did another former boss of mine, Rich Ruoff of the Chameleon Club) fighting an uphill battle against the migration of many businesses to the ever-burgeoning strip malls surrounding the city proper. He’s worked with the Merchant’s Association, fought to keep a landmark downtown building that housed the Watt & Shand department store from being demolished by a developer, and stubbornly refused to give up on the idea of downtown Lancaster as a cultural destination. All of Steve’s hard work has contributed to a remarkable resurgence of the city in recent years (spurred on greatly by the construction of a minor league baseball park on the edge of town).
In 2008, Steve and Elizabeth opened a sister store, the Zap Home Collective, a huge space around the corner from Zap, devoted primarily to larger furnishings that the original location simply didn’t have the room to display (when the marriage came to an end last year, the store was renamed Hinesight, but it remains). Over the years, many of them inspired by Zap & Co., other alternative businesses opened on the block (and elsewhere downtown). Some have stayed, most have gone, but Zap was a constant that its followers always counted on. We needed it to be the anchor of Lancaster’s hipster cognoscente, even if we’d moved far away. It was just good to know that it was there.
On Thursday, January 20th, a fire tore through 315 N. Queen Street. Zap was destroyed, its vast inventory, carefully collected over almost four decades, gone. Doug Campbell, who had been living in the apartment upstairs wasn’t home at the time, but lost everything. And Steve, who, since his divorce had been living in the loft apartment behind the store in the back of the building, suffered third degree burns over 30% of his body as well as severe smoke inhalation and other injuries. As I write this, less than a week later, he is in a medically induced coma, where he’ll remain for the better part of a month while his body fights to heal. This morning he had the first of many skin grafts to come.
The community outpouring was instant and emotional. A prayer vigil turned into an impromptu testimony to Steve’s impact on the city and its people. Facebook exploded with groups trying to gather donations for Doug and Steve. Overseeing much of it has been Katherine, Steve’s 16 year-old daughter, who has shown remarkable maturity, strength and resolve through this tragedy.
At this point in time, we can’t know what’s going to happen. Anyone who knows Steve believes that he’s going to get better. He’s too much of a force of nature to let any stupid fire take him down. As for the future of Zap & Co., well, that’s going to be up to Steve. While many have dug through their closets for vintage items to donate for a rebuilding, it seems premature (taking nothing away from the sincerity of the gesture). Selfishly, we all want Zap to rise from the ashes because we can’t imagine Lancaster without it. I’ll admit it, I hope that Steve DOES rebuild. And if he does, I’m going to do whatever I can to help. But the only person who can decide that won’t be able to tell us what he wants to do until he wakes up.
If Steve doesn’t want to rebuild, if Zap & Co. is now just a memory, the devastating tragedy of its loss is outweighed by the measure of its staggering legacy. This was not just a store, this was an oasis, a haven for not just punks and hippies and set decorators and actors and architects, but for anyone who cared about making life in Lancaster PA seem just a bit… not just cooler, or more stylish, but, in every single way, better.
Anyone wishing to make a contribution to help Steve, please go here and thank you.
In addition, here's a link to an album on Facebook of my time at BBC (you don't have to belong to Facebook to view)