Different Directions: Big Changes at Downtown’s Main Music Retail Outlets

In Music Stories, News by Jack Evansleave a COMMENT

AE_0813_prognotesHalf an hour after Ian Lawrence opens the doors of the Old City’s Hot Horse Records on a hot Saturday afternoon, he gets his first potential customer of the day. It’s an older guy—he looks to be nearing the tail-end of middle age—and he’s looking for something hard to find, a seven-inch cut by the mid ’60s by a Dayton, Ohio, rock band called Vicki and the Rest. Hot Horse doesn’t have the record.

“Stuff like that is really random, how it comes in,” Lawrence tells him. “For the most part, you have to wait for someone to come in and sell it.”

Lawrence, 34, says more and more people are coming into the store to sell the kinds of collections that might yield rare finds—Lawrence started buying records off the counter when he bought the store in March from Jason Boardman, who owns the Old City music venue Pilot Light and recently co-founded the Striped Light letterpress. It’s one of a handful of changes—less focus on consignment, new partnerships in the store’s vintage clothing section—that Lawrence has made in the months since taking over the shop.

But while Lawrence is on his way in, Josh Sidman—downtown Knoxville’s other purveyor of musical instruments, classic apparel, and other collectibles—is on his way out. Two and a half years ago, Sidman, 44, moved his music shop, the Parlor, into a storefront on the 400 block of Gay Street; the space had previously been occupied by Matt Morelock’s defunct Morelock Music. Now Sidman is preparing to move the store back to the former neighborhood grocery on Chickamauga Avenue in North Knoxville that originally housed the Parlor when he founded it six years ago.

“I’m excited about having everything under one roof and owning the building,” he says. Since moving the Parlor downtown, he had been renting the Chickamauga space out to friends at a reduced rate to keep it occupied. Now he’s eager to reclaim its convenient parking and garden space.

Sidman attributes the move partly to his own temperament. He’s naturally introverted, he says, and sensitive to crowds—especially when those crowds might include adults who have been drinking as well as small children, two groups that pose threats to the expensive instruments lining the store’s walls. But he acknowledges that the downtown location hasn’t panned out like he expected when Morelock moved to Hawaii.

“He offered to sell me the shop, and it seemed like a great opportunity to me to walk right into an existing turnkey operation on Gay Street,” Sidman says. “Unfortunately, the walk-in business has never really amounted to more than a small percentage of our overall sales.”

Lawrence came to own Hot Horse in a similar way. After nearly a decade as a sushi chef at Nama, he was looking to strike out on his own, maybe with a food truck. When he heard that Boardman was selling the shop, he decided buying it would be cheaper than opening a food operation.

Lawrence is pleased with the amount of foot traffic the store offers—in that regard, he says, Hot Horse has the best location among Knoxville record stores. He’s focusing on shifting the store’s music inventory from a consignment-heavy model—stocking albums from other local stores like Raven Records and Rarities—to a system that also offers his own curation.

“I still go through the thing where I’m juggling the shop to make all the vendors money and not myself anything, and you can’t really do that and sustain yourself,” he says. “Jason had that luxury for whatever reason. I don’t.”

He’s also come to some realizations about what sells best at Hot Horse and who it sells to. While Lawrence says Hot Horse’s customers range from middle-aged men to teenage patrons of the adjacent Knoxville Pearl cereal bar, he only has a core of 15 or 20 regular customers, and many of his sales don’t even go to locals.

“The people that buy the most records are out-of-town bands,” he says.

Lawrence says he didn’t get into the business to sell clothes—he knows a lot more about garage-rock records and guitar equipment than he does about apparel brands—but he’s working to rebuild that portion of the store’s inventory after the change in ownership left it depleted. He recently partnered with local vintage retailer Wax and Threads, which now curates the store’s entire clothing-dedicated back room.

Sidman, too, found that walk-in customers tend to lean toward clothing rather than musical artifacts. When Morelock owned the space, he partnered with WDVX DJs Red Hickey and Nita Dunn, who curated a vintage-clothing selection for the store. As Sidman took over, he noticed the few remaining items—hats, jackets, overalls—sold quickly, so he started buying random vintage clothing and collectibles. Through trial and error, he says, he discovered some items sold particularly well—notably, belt buckles—and he’ll continue to sell them at the Chickamauga location while also trying to pursue some other interests, including building instruments or amplifiers in-house.

The shopping climate of 2015 presents something of a paradox for these store owners: A consumer interest in the goods they traffic in—decades-old apparel, vinyl records, musical instruments—predicates their existences, but it also means more competition as websites and chain-stores jump in. Lawrence, who’s in the process of putting his inventory into an online store, thinks a business like Hot Horse would have thrived a decade ago because it would have been the only store of its kind in Knoxville, but he doesn’t see much threat in retail giants that have latched onto the vinyl boom, such as Barnes and Noble and Urban Outfitters.

“The funny thing is, they’ll have a reissue for $25 that we’ll have the original of for $5—and [ours] sounds better,” he says. “It’s usually better pressed.”

Sidman has a different outlook. Ten years ago, a store like his would have brought in even fewer customers off the street, at least in Knoxville. The Parlor’s overall business hasn’t necessarily tanked at the Gay Street location—online sales have always made up the bulk of their business, Sidman says, and he’s kept his employees busy lately by having them photograph items for their eBay store and fulfilling orders. He says he thinks there’s a place in the downtown area for a similar business—his store just didn’t quite fit in.

“Probably the reason for taking as long a time as I did to make that decision was that I felt badly for being the person who is taking this away from downtown,” he says. “I feel like this is a cool thing to have downtown. I feel like the community likes the fact that it’s here, even if they don’t spend a lot of money here, and I think people will be sad to see it go.”

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