I had the coolest job on the planet ... at Tower Records

The entrance to a Tower Records store in Hollywood in February 2004.

Katia Hetter covers travel for CNN Digital. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)I was just 16 when I walked into Tower Records in San Diego in 1986 and showed them I could count.

I was a musician in those days, training on clarinet and sax to possibly go professional (newspapers later intervened.)
I was making all the mixtapes that tortured teenagers made in the 1980s before CDs and the Internet, and Tower Records was the coolest place to work on the planet. Who cared if their pay was dismal?
I had no resume besides babysitting the neighborhood kids, but Tower's manager invited anyone who wanted a job to come into the store on inventory days and count. Apparently, I did well.
    What I didn't know is that my lunch break from counting records that day would turn into a job interview. Over lunch with inventory workers like me at the bar next door, the store's classical music buyer chatted me up and learned I knew the difference between Bach and Beethoven.
    "She's smart," he told the store manager, who turned out to be hiring. "OK," she said.
    I got the coolest job ever by counting well and having a serendipitous lunch. I was hired for the summer and whatever weekend shifts I wanted during the school year.
    That's how easy Tower Records founder Russ Solomon, who died Sunday night at age 92, made it for me to enter his empire. I don't know if it was just this one store that had this chill hiring system or if this was Solomon's policy. I just remember that it was a lot easier to join his team than the grocery store down the street from my house.
    Tower came crumbling down in 2006, burdened by debt and the growth of the online music industry.
    But Solomon's impact on the world of music was profound. Unlike most corporate record chains, he gave local stores the power to order their own records and cassette tapes, and later CDs. Each major section of the store had its own buyer, who knew the local music scene and what people wanted -- and even better, what they might want if a trusted employee recommended it.
    Katia Hetter at her high school graduation.
    Long after I stopped working there, I could walk into any Tower Records, chat up an employee and discover a local or unusual artist I would immediately love. While it was the epicenter of cool, the employees wanted to share that cool, not hoard it.
    Solomon had created that welcoming world decades earlier, first starting the store in his home town of Sacramento in the early 1960s. When he opened a store in San Francisco in 1968, he told The New York Times, Tower took off, eventually expanding into an empire of nearly 200 stores around the world.
    The pay for kids like me was terrible, but it was a magical place to hang out with musicians, get early access to new releases and discounts on music and, later, movies.
    Solomon's store had a huge impact on my musical life, and on so many others who didn't fit into the perfect cheerleader/football player/surfer model of Southern California high school life in the 1980s.
    My friends hung out at Tower Records, mostly wearing all black, even in San Diego weather; and sometimes grabbing burgers with my discount at the bar next door.
    The music of my time wasn't necessarily any good -- at least the popular music wasn't. And Tipper Gore, the (now former) wife of former Vice President Al Gore, was trying to clamp down on the good stuff.
    "Is this new Madonna record appropriate for my 8-year-old?" one woman asked me. No, I assured her, it most definitely was not.
    Working at Tower introduced me to music beyond the teen hits: the blues artist John Mayall, Steel Pulse, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Robbie Robertson's solo album and the first sounds of the Gipsy Kings in the United States.
    It was the music of black and white, of the oppressed around the world, and of my family's Cuban homeland.
    Tower also introduced me to the real world.
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    The store's bestseller lists were full of fun music, but more often than not -- until computers came along -- it was obvious to all of the workers that the lists were manipulated by many of the record buyers at the store willing to take bribes from record label reps.
    The buyers always underreported country music sales to Billboard and the other music magazines that tracked sales and created rankings, because country wasn't considered cool. But it still sold like crazy, so the store's buyers always bought enough. Computerization of cash registers ended the manipulation of top-seller lists.
    We employees saw the bribes happen, usually outside the store's back door, the records, posters and concert tickets pulled out of a label representative's car trunk.
    Only the most favored employees -- the store's top buyers -- got records and tickets from the reps, but those same employees gave away the promotional records and tickets they didn't want to other employees. I got the occasional free album and once saw the Psychedelic Furs for free when a rock buyer didn't want to go.
    I knew that pot was smoked on the rooftop sofa, a place the adults would not let me go. I was still the sweet high school student, somehow protected by the senior staff from the ways of the world.
    When I got pneumonia that lasted for weeks, the company's district manager kept my discount going so my mom could rent movies for me for 50 cents apiece. He wrote me recommendations for a college scholarship.
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    The child of a single mom, I didn't act out much at work or anywhere else. I knew there wasn't much wiggle room to screw up.
    Just once, the main record buyer called into my high school to help my friend skip school with me, pretending to be her dad. In front of paying customers at the register.
    Another time, an extremely large male customer whose car had been towed started screaming at me at the register about his car. I was terrified and remember calling 911 but they never came. Customers eventually showed him the door, but it took a while. It was one of my earlier #metoo moments.
    During those summer months in high school and college, depositing my meager paycheck in the bank every week to buy music, clothes and go to the movies without asking my mom for money, I learned some things.
    I quickly realized that living on minimum wage was grueling and hard, that people who loved their jobs and knew a lot about music were not necessarily valued for that knowledge or experience in the larger world, and there was no "mom" safety net for most of them.
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    Tower Records was definitely a more fun place to work than the jobs my friends had at local fast food joints, where they dodged hot grease -- and rarely got free food.
    But it wasn't hard to see that a cool reputation and free records didn't pay the bills.
    That, more anything my mother or teachers said, persuaded me to keep those good grades up, to work hard enough to get into college and roll the dice that I wouldn't fall back into the low-income world that was part of my early childhood and that so-cool early work experience.
    I'm convinced that my co-workers came to my high school graduation to cheer me on to college, to a life they hoped would be more secure than theirs.