Local Current Blog

Twin Cities record store owners cultivate community

MPR photos / Leah Garaas

This Saturday will mark the ninth annual Record Store Day (RSD), and the web is rich in revelry round-ups. Online, shoppers can plan their outings and even browse this year’s exclusive releases. But something that can’t be understood so easily on the Internet is the relationship between record stores and communities. From decades-old shops to RSD first-timers, each store has a unique bond with its public. This week, vinyl sellers at Urban Lights, Flashlight Vinyl, and the Book House in Dinkytown shared their takes on records and their role within their communities.

Urban Lights

Just east of Pascal Street on University Avenue, Tim Wilson’s Urban Lights Music is a haven for hip-hop. The stereo booms artists like Jay Electronica, and vibrant posters line the store’s walls. Visitors can hang around, feeling free to talk about music or anything else; “It’s like Cheers,” Wilson said. “I’m Sam Malone.”

Though it can fly under the radar, Urban Lights is an institution of a record shop. Originally known as Northern Lights (the St. Paul location), it was a longtime favorite of Wilson’s. “I remember buying 10-15 cassettes a week,” he said. “I didn’t even care. It was just, ‘Give me all the rap cassettes that came in today.’” After hanging out long enough at the store, he ended up behind the counter—and when Northern Lights went up for sale, he was asked if he wanted to buy.

Some loan money and several years later, Urban Lights is still around. “Predominantly, people come here for mix CDs,” said Wilson, “which is a niche business. Nobody else carries them in town except me.” But mixtapes are an important part of the hip-hop ecosystem. After all, “If Young Jeezy puts an album out and it doesn’t do as well as expected, he can drop a mixtape [to make up for the lost buzz and sales].” It works for Wilson: “The only way you can get that is online or you come see me.”

In the era of self-music curation, Wilson’s expert advice is a luxury. And not only does he know of countless local and worldwide artists, but he’s also met leagues of huge names. A back-of-the-store section commemorates those days, showing off personalized records and photos from artists such as 50 Cent, Next, and Maple Grove’s own Sisqó.

“It’s so much history,” Wilson said while looking at the collection. But some stories stick out. “When Ja Rule came, he pretty much shut down the block. Literally, he was outside in the middle of the street like, ‘I love Minnesota!’”

“[The Fugees] bought a lot of vinyl,” he continued. “Then I became friends with Lauryn [Hill]. And then I became friends with Wyclef [Jean].” He pointed to a taped-up photo of him and the latter artist. “That particular picture, me and Wyclef were actually sitting there talking about [Lauryn] playing the guitar.”

Streaming and light rail construction have both changed the landscape of Wilson’s world, but Urban Lights soldiers on. “This is kind of my office,” Wilson said. And since he’s there “all day, every day,” he’s built a lot of client relationships.

He will have some special RSD materials, he said, but “Record Store Day, for us, is more a celebration of a lot of DJs coming in—getting together—and actually just getting to dig through the crates. We got a couple people who are going to be getting rid of their collections this year and bringing in a bunch of stuff, so it’ll just be cats hanging out all day.”

Flashlight Vinyl

In Raoul Benavides’s Flashlight Vinyl, boxes of records line the walls, ready to be set out on Saturday. Situated on Central Avenue across from Diamonds Coffee Shoppe, Flashlight is a relative newcomer on the scene.

At the store, inventory is a balance between Benavides’s personal taste and the taste of his clientele; the more that people come in and ask about records, he said, the better he knows what to stock. “It’s kind of like a call and response.

“I got people that come in twice a week,” he said. “I have these older guys that come in. And this part over here” — he gestured to some folk and bluegrass stacks perpendicular to the register — is set up for their convenience. “They asked if I could put everything in one spot for them, like, ‘We’re too old to look through everything.’” Benavides laughed. “And so I said, ‘Yeah, sure.’”

Benavides doesn’t sell online, at least not for now. “Not that I won’t,” he said. “I just don’t, because I built all of this for people to come.” In the same vein, he said, “Record stores and small businesses that you walk into are [automatic] hubs for community.

“The thing that makes me happy about this record store is accessibility,” he continued. “I want to have really good records for a dollar.” It’s part of the job: “It makes me happy to get people interested in records.”

For Record Store Day, Benavides will pitch a tent in front of the store; under the tent, earlybirds will find buzzy exclusive material (including a Soul Asylum Grave Dancers Union reissue and some 50th-anniversary Bowie rarities) plus a few hundred Bogart’s doughnuts.

Book House in Dinkytown

For some wild card records and a dose of Minneapolis history, the Book House in Dinkytown (1316 4th St. SE #201) is an ideal spot. Its multi-genre vinyl stock goes under the radar, since print gets the most attention. But in a corner of the store, records join relevant books to form an enticing music section. A print of Bob Dylan’s painted silhouette hangs in the window, since according to owner Kristin Eide-Tollefson, it faces Dylan’s old digs.

A little over five years ago, Eide-Tollefson wanted to do something about Dinkytown’s vanishing record store scene. She contacted local record vendor Chris Valenty (formerly of Know Name Records), and they started to fill the gap as best they could. On the record corner, Valenty said, “I like it because it’s a small area, and you can just fill it up with good stuff.”

Valenty finds some records when customers call in or bring them to the store, but his favorite way to buy is through house calls. The same goes for finding books, says manager Matt Hawbaker: Spending time with collectors is “a more interesting and personal experience [than buying at the desk]. A lot of people are selling because they’re in a situation where they have to get rid of their books, so it’s good to help them out with that.”

As transitioning collectors need to sell their records, University of Minnesota students often end up buying them. “When I sell records to people, I can sometimes tell it’s one of their first ten vinyl purchases,” said Hawbaker. “That’s pretty cool.” The store’s also sold turntables and sheet music, and they’re looking at buying local bands’ tapes on consignment.

As they’re still working through their relocation from one Dinkytown block to another, the Book House is focusing on organization instead of Record Store Day events. But the support-your-local-businesses spirit is strong with them, and staff welcome anyone who’d like to get to know their collection. Valenty adds that he’s an active vinyl vendor, and he says a call to the Book House (612-331-1430) is the best way to get in touch.

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