The Layoff Planet

Photo by Rich KaneThere was undoubtedly much instrument techie-talk to be found last week at the Anaheim Convention Center, where the majority of the music-retail world gathered for the annual National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) show. But in the cavernous confines of the huge Mars Music stores in Orange and Santa Ana, where the same kind of gearhead gab goes down year-round, the chatter among the employees wasn't about a new Fender or Gibson guitar model but rather about where their next job will be. The Florida-based chain announced the closure of eight of its stores—including all four outlets in the LA area (the other two are in Cerritos and Torrance).

"The company wants to pull out of California," said one rather disgruntled employee at the Santa Ana Mars, "but trust me, they make enough money with all their other stores that they won't miss these four at all."

(Employees interviewed for this story didn't want their names used due to fear of getting fired. Mars estimates that it will take two to three months to liquidate inventory, and employees who remain with the company for that duration will be given severance packages.)

The chain's first foray into California opened at the Block in Orange on Aug. 31, 2000; some 7,000 people showed up for the grand opening. The Santa Ana link bowed three months later. Both stores—which boasted 25,000 square feet of floor space and more than 100,000 instruments, recording and audio gear—debuted with much fanfare, with deep opening-day discounts, giveaways, live radio coverage and chances for customers to win shopping sprees. "Our entry into the LA area holds a great deal of symbolic significance for us as a company," Mars founder and CEO Mark Begelman said at the time. "We're very excited to be joining such a vital, internationally important market."

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But apparently it wasn't all that important.

"These guys from the corporation just came in last week, handed us a paper and said, 'Read this,'" said another soon-to-be-ex-Mars employee. "It was a pretty big shock. Not even management knew this was coming. The thing that kills me is that we all busted our asses during Christmas and the holidays, but we ultimately worked hard for nothing. It really pisses me off."

Mars Music chief financial officer Michael Yackira gave some by now rather predictable excuses for the store closings—namely, the floundering economy and Sept. 11. "We couldn't continue to absorb the cash losses," he said. "It took some serious, gut-wrenching decision-making on our part to close these stores."

This bodes well for Mars customers, at least. Banners are already up inside the stores heralding discounts on all the merchandise, discounts that are expected to get deeper as the date for the permanent shutterings draws closer.

But for Mars staffers, the impending loss of their jobs leaves a bitter aftertaste, especially considering the relatively brief life the stores had. Both the Santa Ana and Orange stores employed a work force of between 40 and 60, many of whom had left jobs at competing retail chains like Guitar Center, impressed with Mars' rep for customer friendliness and a welcoming, professional attitude. Transfers are out of the question for almost everyone getting laid off—the next-closest Mars store to OC is in Las Vegas. Many Mars employees are struggling musicians themselves who aren't exactly relishing the prospect of having to support their craft by taking an office day job, where such rock & roll accoutrements like tattoos and piercings might be forbidden.

"I did the work-behind-a-computer thing for a while, and I almost jumped out the window," said one employee. "Working here has been like working in a toy store for me. I certainly didn't complain about having to try out all the new Les Pauls we got in every month. And everyone here really got along with one another; we were all like a family. Now we're all out of jobs, and it sucks." (Rich Kane)

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