Pavane Pour Un Dealer Défunt Page 2

Our hero found that the original store wasn't big enough to suit him. He needed six showrooms at least. The smaller, less intimidating systems would be situated near the front door---Rotel, Nakamichi, Luxman, Paradigm; in the middle, a McIntosh room; across the hall, Celestion, Superphon, B&K, Well-Tempered. Each room would be more exotic than the last. One could move from McIntosh to ARC to Rowland to Krell to FM Acoustics. Venturing deeper into the store would take one to higher and more rarefied levels of experience and expense, a retailing ploy akin to that used by adult boutiques featuring special rooms to be entered only when accompanied by a salesperson.

Krebs decided that he needed two buildings, and leased a second one a good 80 yards across the parking lot. The first would be built out as a group of audio showrooms; the second would include warehouse space, offices, a home-theater/corporate media room, and a stand-alone service shop. The vision was coming into focus.

He now began to play fast and loose with his checkbook, giving Jackson carte blanche to take on any line in any quantity which might tickle his fancy. He gave Jed Brown, a malcontent technician and lifelong toiler for substandard pay, the title of Service Manager and the authority to purchase any test equipment he wanted. Jackson and Brown took him at his word and ordered hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of precious electronics. Krebs bought several mahogany office desks and four computers, which because of differences in operating systems could not communicate with each other. He paid his building contractor cash up front to renovate two buildings, which he did not own, then paid the electricians, carpenters, and plasterers a cash bonus to work overtime.

He bought furniture (antique and modern), artwork (paintings and sculpture); he bought plants and sconces and halogen lighting. He hired the city's most sought-after cabinetmaker, a guy with a two-year waiting list, and paid him extra to put his other work on hold. Cabinetry of exquisite craftsmanship was created for the Mac room and the home theater/media room, which was then filled with a huge teak table surrounded by 12 plush chairs, such as might grace the board room of any of the Fortune 50. Krebs flew to half-day meetings with small manufacturers. He took out full-page ads in Stereophile and The Absolute Sound. He consulted marketing experts of every variety. He lunched with designers and trendy architects. He wangled a write-up in Xanadu Magazine. He sucked up to builders of custom homes at the Annual Xanadu Home Show. He purchased mailing lists of lawyers, dentists, and doctors. He made friends with influential patrons of the Xanadu Symphony. He set up sweetheart deals with luxury-auto dealerships and exclusive athletic clubs. He hired a hot ad agency to put together a slick 16-page brochure. Krebs, Jackson, and their sales staff hoped and believed opening day would resemble the Oklahoma Land Rush.

In anticipation, they stocked to the ceiling every high-end product conceivable. The offerings of the Xanadu Emporium read like a Who's Who in Hi-Fi. Many names which ordinarily compete head to head sat side by side, the elite from a typical CES all proffered under one roof. In a list too long to enumerate were at least three of each of the most expensive archival turntables available at the time. (This was a scant three years ago, when the CD format was very well established.) Krebs and his crew worked 'round the clock during the last weeks before opening, as if they were putting on a Broadway play.

The mailers were sent. The silk-and-satin wallpaper was hung above the walnut wainscoting, the framed pastorals and florals were artfully arranged, the brass handles on the beveled-glass doors lovingly polished. The lighting was carefully adjusted, the video converged, the colors balanced, everything audio aligned and tweaked and anointed and prayed to. The Titanic was fitted and christened for her maiden voyage.

Day One was a catered affair. It was quite a bash. The very air sparked with excitement. The circus had come to town! Local glitterati turned out en masse: professional athletes rubbed elbows with architects, cosmetic surgeons schmoozed with designers, lifestyle gurus waxed effusive with the media. The Emporium of Wonders was beautiful. Its ostentatious Mark-Levinson-meets-Ralph-Lauren decor was truly gorgeous: Hi-Fi in a Dream Home. The Wife Approval Factor had attained an all-time high. And that was merely the sales floor. The service department had been transformed from an industrial afterthought into a sparkling state-of-the-art laboratory. Factory representatives and wealthy customers in utter amazement strolled across its black-and-white marble-tiled floor. "We can maintain your investment in peak condition," Krebs would say, waving a magnanimous hand toward his white-coated technicians.

Perhaps the ultimate thrill for the true cognoscenti was to venture into the warehouse: to bask in the silent aura of heavyweight hi-fi neatly stacked 10, 12, 15 high; an audiophile's fantasy: a million-dollar inventory all in one room. It was certainly the pinnacle of Ira Jackson's career, who sometimes could be found just standing there, cooing to himself, "Wow, look at all this stuff."

Murray Krebs had an unswerving conviction that the best way to serve the customer was to make sure that for every item he offered, there was at least one to show and one to go. His salesmen joked that he stocked three Versa Dynamics in case more than one wild-eyed and shaking customer came in some Saturday afternoon with an unquenchable thirst for a $13,000 turntable.

Enticed by hype and hubbub, the public came to the circus but went home without buying many souvenirs. Word spread quickly through the audio underground: "You've got to see this place while it's still in business." From the beginning was the feeling that something wasn't quite right; perhaps this guy had overestimated his market, maybe he was way out on an extremely tenuous limb. In the nouveau riche market of Xanadu, Krebs's education program was failing. Most people apparently felt it absurd to pay huge sums for apparatus and accoutrements which merely played music.

The fabric of the façade began to unravel less than three months after opening day. Krebs found himself facing a rent in excess of $14,000 monthly, which he had hoped to pay with profits from his service department. Gross billings in service fell far short of projections. For this Krebs held Jed Brown personally accountable, although Brown had nothing whatever to do with advertising or marketing service. The retail picture was similarly bleak: sales were not merely less than hoped for, they were well below break-even. Vendors began to demand payment on opening orders. Krebs, in frustration, would stand near the display case and browbeat his sales people. "You're not salesmen," he would scream, "you're clerks! Ordertakers! Losers! Losers! Losers!"