An Die Musik. It's chic, European, slightly funky, mostly mellow and abundantly stocked. And above all, say those who created and love it, it is vastly different from all of its competitors.
The competition is all of the record store chains that occupy space in nearly every mall and strip shopping center. Their speakers blare Top 40 hits and their windows are cluttered with life-size cardboard cutouts of rock stars like Rod Stewart, Lenny Kravitz and REM.
Not so at An Die Musik, a homegrown entry into Baltimore music retailing of the slightly avant-garde variety.
Starting with its name (culled from a Schubert selection that means "to the music") and location, a Towson commercial building where it is the only retail establishment, An Die Musik has a penchant for being different.
What it offers is a minimalist approach to music merchandising, with a social conscience and customer service focus to boot.
The store itself is cavernous, almost like a warehouse. With 8,000 square feet of space -- more than twice the size of most other music stores -- An Die Musik boasts a stock of more than 20,000 compact discs and 3,000 cassettes. The stock also includes a large selection of laser discs and specially pressed audiophile recordings.
It's a place where the proprietors say people can find today's chart busters in popular, jazz and classical recordings, or yesterday's obscure selections in all three.
"It's a purely music-lover's playground," says Henry Wong, president of An Die Musik, who along with seven partners,
opened the store in January after two years of planning.
Wong himself is something different in the music retail business.
A former biochemist who conducted neurological research at Johns Hopkins Hospital for eight years, Wong said he abandoned science for retailing to create something he thought people would appreciate more.
"Research is very rewarding if you are finding wonderful discoveries," explains Wong. "Otherwise, its very mundane."
Saying that music has always been a passion, Wong likes the idea of helping people find music that is right for them.
Music "is a form of therapeutic treatment for people," he says. "They buy music when they're happy. They buy it when they're not happy. We try to accommodate them however they come in."
Wong says he and his colleagues -- all of whom formerly worked for Baltimore area record stores -- painstakingly planned aspects of An Die Musik to emphasize relaxation and to encourage browsing.
To that end, the store abandons the claustrophobic feeling of many smaller music retail establishments. Windows surround the sales floor so that shoppers can look out over Dulaney Valley Road and the store's neighboring mall, Towson Town Center. There are no cardboard cutouts in these windows.
Inside, the walls have been painted gray. The high ceiling with exposed pipes and air vents is black. The lighting is subdued. The music, says Wong, is always low-key New Wave or jazz, which is pumped through "tower" speakers that surround the showroom.
But there are still more striking differences between at An Die Musik and other American music retailers.
Adopting a practice still common in some European music stores but long abandoned here, An Die Musik allows shoppers to actually hear the music before they buy it.
Seven "listening areas," outfitted with compact disc players and earphones, line one wall of the store where patrons can listen to preprogrammed recordings. Customers are allowed to listen to any of the compact discs sold in the store as long as they do not handle the merchandise themselves. The compact disc is then repackaged for sale.
Packaging is perhaps the most unique feature of An Die Musik. Unlike other stores that sell compact discs packaged in long boxes that are mainly cardboard and cellophane wrapping, An Die Music has abandoned the box.
Joining an ecologically minded group of musicians, Wong's store repackages all the discs it sells so that only the small "jewelry" box that surrounds the disc remains. The discarded box is turned over for recycling, says Wong.
"What if someone buys 20 CDs and they have 20 CD boxes?" Wong asks incredulously. "What are they going to do with all those boxes? They're not going to use them for wallpaper."
Robert Mathews, retired senior executive editor of the Afro-American Newspapers, who wrote a jazz column for more than 40 years, is a regular at An Die Musik. Mathews, who spent more than $170 at the store last week, says he likes shopping there because of the selection.
"Plus the fact that they listen," Mathews says. "If you tell them there's something only available in Japan and its serial number is X, Y and Z, they can get it for you."