With the arrival of a float filled with red lobsters, cheerleaders in drag, lots of champagne and Virgin Entertainment Group founder Richard Branson dressed as the Mad Hatter in a purple-sequined suit, the 22nd North American Virgin Megastore officially opened in Boston last month. The British-based chain, which first invaded these shores in December 1992 with the opening of a Virgin Megastore in Los Angeles, has kept store openings to about two a year in the U.S. and one in Canada over the intervening decade. But along with the news that Canada will get a second Megastore in Toronto in 2003, came the announcement that openings will be speeded up on this side of the Pond. There will be 13 more Megastores by 2007, according to Dave Alder, senior v-p of product and merchandising for Virgin Entertainment.

"We're one of the few entertainment specialists expanding at this time," Alder told PW. "We think the Megastore concept will last." Although Alder's responsibilities include content on the Virgin Megastore Online site (www.virginmega.com), for him there's no contest between online shopping and going into a bricks-and-mortar store. "It's all about engaging the customer. We love people browsing, the tactile feel of shopping." The whole idea behind Virgin Mega, he explained, is "to make shopping fun," which is one reason why all 22 stores are set up like entertainment playgrounds, with lots of live music and book events each month.

If price matters, then the $10 million that Virgin paid to renovate the Frank Gehry building at the corner of Newbury Street and Massachusetts Avenue in Boston's Back Bay, which formerly housed Tower Records, could translate into megasales in the months ahead. The three-floor store was entirely renovated and the offices moved back to create 40,000 square feet of selling space. Listening posts programmed with 2.4 million CD tracks are sprinkled throughout the store like jimmies on an ice cream cone, and there are numerous kiosks that, with the swipe of a barcoded DVD, will bring up one of 10,000 movie trailers. The store also has five sound systems, a deejay station, a dance room, a video games area, a café and a book section.

Graphic novels, music-related books, gay and lesbian titles, erotica, travel and art books dominate the book department, although the store also stocks such standards as Harry Potter and David McCullough's John Adams. Additional book displays are placed strategically on every floor. "Our audience is primarily 15 to 44," said Alder, who acknowledged, "books aren't an easy product to retail. We have honed our book selection, and in this store we've broken the books up throughout the store. Film books are with DVDs, rock biographies are with rock CDs." He estimates that the store, which is the third largest in North America, stocks close to 15,000 titles. By buying centrally in Los Angeles, but replenishing locally, Virgin Mega tries to target its mix of books and music for each community. The Boston Megastore, for example, which is just a block from Berklee School of Music, donated the proceeds from a silent auction at the store's grand opening to a Virgin scholarship fund there.

It seems unlikely that Boston's Virgin Megastore, with its eclectic inventory of hip and cultish books, will steal business from two long-time independents—New-Age—oriented Trident Booksellers and new and used bookseller Avenue Victor Hugo Bookshop—which are both just a few doors down on Newbury Street. However, book and music competition in the area could definitely pick up the beat with the opening of a Barnes & Noble superstore later this spring.