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Regardless of the fact that you shopped there for Nirvana swag 10 years ago, by your mid-20s, Hot Topic is off-limits—the place for your poseur mall-punk kid brother.
But look past the faux-torch-and-stone-wall façade, and there, between the Slipknot tees and HIM tanks, are a smattering of items that might still appeal to your now sophisticated tastes. Though Hot Topic's main customer base is the 12-22 crowd, there's a reason that Fall Out Boy shirt takes up wall space near the Fugazi and Clash tees. Or why you can buy a Stewie doll and a Princess Bridekey chain. Company spies are constantly on the lookout: at Coachella, at the Chain, watching Fuse, dredging MySpace. They also set up employee panels to figure out what's hot in anime, film and television. You think that Napoleon Dynamitetalking pen just happens?
"We rely a lot on our store employees. They can pick up the phone and call us directly and tell us about a band they like," says Cindy Levitt, Hot Topic's general merchandise manager, who joined the company in the early '90s when it was still based out of founder Orv Madden's Pasadena home.
Founded in 1988, Hot Topic now has 678 stores nationwide—76 of them in California. The chain earned $656 million in revenue in 2004 and this year landed itself on Fortune magazine's list of the 100 Best Places to Work For.
"You can teach them all the technical stuff, but we look for talent," Levitt says, flanked by an explosion of band posters—everything from the Specials to U2—behind her. "You must have a passion for the music. We do everything to make it part of their lifestyle—they're in the heart of it."
Company headquarters is a testament to that in-it-togetherness: one floor that everyone shares—even the CEO. There are dead rock star shrines and themed conference rooms (including the autopsy room, with its cold steel conference table and walls lined with backlit x-ray films of skulls outfitted with piercings and mohawks); and their employees—pierced and sleeved—look more like Motörhead roadies or a Glass House audience than office workers.
"We're here because music is our life. We're not some 40-year-old men standing at the top of skyscrapers. We're there at the shows with them," says music accessories buyer Jason Shelby, who joined the company in 1992 as a sales associate and never left. "It's required that we be in the lifestyle of our customers." Jay Adelberg agrees; now saddled with the corporate title of associate buyer of regional music and paper goods, he booked shows for a decade before joining Hot Topic.
"You gotta always have a finger on the pulse," he says. "I'm doing the same thing now, but just here. I love that, at 32, I'm working for a company that wants me to go to punk rock shows. I love music more than anything else in the world."
Knowing that people like Adelberg get paid to share the love makes Hot Topic—for all its 10th-generation Ramones paraphernalia—less evil an empire. And because this is a company that earned its mall-rat rep selling us what we wanted, it's all for you, from those Belle & Sebastian LPs to InuYasha action figures, and if there's any blame to be found in its success, we all share it equally.
So next time you go slumming to buy your cousin an "I Heart Tom" MySpace tee, face up to the reflection in the store mirror—and get a little Inigo Montoya key chain for yourself.