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As a lifelong music lover, I hold record stores near and dear to my heart. Ever since I purchased my first cassette at the age of 8 (Genesis’ Invisible Touch), the record store has been the place where I discovered new artists and dug deep into old ones. In high school, half the money I earned working the register at the local pharmacy went to buying gas so I could drive to my favorite store, In Your Ear in Providence (now Warren), Rhode Island, and the other half went to buying records there. Even now, when every song ever recorded can be found with a click of a mouse, the record store remains a cultural center for music fans. And, seeing women in charge of such a sacred space? Inspiring.
Owners: Brenna Gentry and Calvert Gentry McMahan
Location: Franklin, Tennessee
Year Founded: 2015
Owners’ Current Ages: 39 (Brenna) and 43 (Calvert)
Before founding Luna Record Shop, sisters Brenna Gentry and Calvert Gentry McMahan had both worked in retail and always talked about starting a business together. “I’d wanted to have a record shop since I was a young girl,” Brenna says. “In 2015, I was trying to get back to the happiest version of myself. This led me to realize that something I believed was impossible a few years before was no longer that way.”
So, she sold half her own record collection to help fund the business, created a website, and launched an Instagram account. After hosting a single pop-up event, Brenna and Calvert decided to open a permanent store, and within five months, that dream turned into reality. “We’ve had such lofty goals from the very beginning,” Brenna says. “I had fantasies of what artists I wanted to stock and what I didn’t. We are still pretty curated, but we make sure we are covered in all the other areas as well. Learning and maintaining your market is a must.”
The pandemic shut the store down for two months, so the sisters began doing Facebook auctions to sell more inventory online, and they plan to continue growing that business going forward. “It was terrifying, but it gave us the motivation to shift some things,” Brenna says. “You need to have clear goals and have someone help you with any tasks that take you away from those goals.” Brenna adds that adhering to your own vision is also important. “Don’t try to copy others or even compare yourself to them,” she says. “Maintain your own vibe, and people will take note.”
Owner: Marketta R. Rodriguez
Location: Houston, Texas
Year Founded: 1991
Owner’s Current Age: 54
Marketta Rodriguez launched Serious Sounds, Etc. in Houston’s South Park neighborhood 30 years ago to fill a need in the community. Most businesses in the area had shuttered due to the crack epidemic of the late 1980s, and the only local record store didn’t have a great selection of Black music. “When I returned home from college in 1990, my parents told me I’d have to leave the neighborhood to find a record store,” Marketta says. “That infuriated me. Why should I have to leave my Black neighborhood to purchase a record by a Black artist? In that moment, a small voice said, ‘If you’re upset about it, then do something about it.’ So I did!” After spending hours doing research at the library, talking to other record store owners and saving the money she earned at her “Corporate America” job, Marketta signed the lease for a strip mall storefront on her 25th birthday—with the help of her father, who had to co-sign because of her age.
Three decades later, Serious Sounds is still going strong, thanks to the support of the community. Marketta reflects, “When the pandemic first hit and the city issued stay-at-home orders, I had several customers buy gift cards and send money as a ‘credit’ for their accounts to be used at a later date. A year later and I’ve literally only had one come to redeem their gift card. All the others continue to shop, and every time I ask if they want to apply their credit they decline. That’s mad customer love there!”
She also started a coalition of local independent Black-owned stores, which allows them to place bulk orders at lower prices and run advertising programs together for increased visibility. Despite the difficulties of running a small business, Marketta urges anyone seriously considering the idea to go for it. “I would highly encourage other women to follow the ‘small voice,’ if that’s what it’s whispering to them,” she says. “I’d also remind them that the music business is still male-dominated and can oftentimes be an extremely toxic male environment. But if they have the passion, then the pursuit is well worth it—everything else will fall into place.”
Owners: Lolo Reskin and Emile Milgrim
Location: Miami, Florida
Year Founded: 2005
Owners’ Current Ages: 38 (both)
While attending college in Miami, Lolo Reskin—who co-owns Sweat Records with lifelong friend Emile Milgrim—saw the need for an independent record store. “I was working in corporate music retail and DJing at indie clubs, so I already knew that South Florida had enough people to support a shop like what I had envisioned,” she explains. At 21 years old, she started making plans by compiling a series of to-do lists, researching how to structure the business, and figuring out what it would take to stock the initial inventory. “I think all together it was 170 steps,’” Lolo says. The original funding was around $50k raised through a combination of personal savings, promissory notes from friends and family, and a tiny small business loan.
Over the years, Lolo has supplemented record sales, which have relatively small profit margins, through alternate revenue streams like hosting events and promoting shows. Luckily, the web store launched in March 2020, and online sales kept the shop afloat for the three months it was closed during the pandemic. Donations, grants, and contributions through Withfriends, which is like Patreon for alternative event spaces, helped close the gap. Lolo believes that record stores will continue to thrive by engaging local communities, being creative in regards to promotion, and offering a customized personal experience. She advises potential small business owners to make sure the market is there for what you want to do, to look for local programs that provide assistance to entrepreneurs, and to keep your monthly expenses, such as rent, low. “As a joke, one of my original store to-do lists has ‘Stay Open Forever’ on it, but we really didn’t have any long-term plans when we opened,” Lolo says. “Everything has evolved organically and we trust our guts to make sure we’re making the right decisions as we go forward.”
Owner: Brittany Benton
Location: Cleveland, Ohio
Year Founded: 2018
Owner’s Current Age: 33
When Brittany Benton opened her namesake shop in Cleveland in 2018, she already had experience in retail ownership under her belt. She and a business partner had purchased a record store called Young Kings, which sold everything from classical to country, and kept it going for about a year before closing the shop. “I knew that the new store had to be a reflection of me and my relationship with the music that I loved,” Brittany says. “I named it after myself so there would be no question about who’s running the shop. Before I opened, it was impossible to find hip-hop, funk, R&B, and reggae in Cleveland. I wanted to change that.”
The first store helped her understand what she shouldn’t do as much as what she should do. “I had to figure a lot out for myself, but that was part of the fun,” Brittany says. “I am also a working DJ so I always had a feel for the kinds of music that people liked and what it could represent on an emotional and social level. The curation aspect was the easiest.” The hardest part is hiring good help. “My shop is my baby, and finding someone to mind it in my absence is like parents finding a decent babysitter for their infant,” she explains. As someone who makes her own beats and is constantly learning about artists new and old, Brittany loves being surrounded by music all day. “People come to me every day for recommendations and information,” she says. “I think that it is a blessing and a great responsibility.” After spending three years in a shoebox shop in a “sketchy” part of town, Brittany is moving her store to a newer, larger space in the museum district of Glenville. “It’s like night and day, but in a positive way,” she notes.
Brittany advises anyone who is thinking about launching their own business to start at a manageable scale, but frequently reassess your goals and look for ways to expand whenever possible. She also recommends holding your plans close to the vest. “If you have friends and family who aren’t supportive, don’t tell them anything,” she says. “When it comes to some people, you have to just keep them out of your business because they can sabotage your progress.”
Owner: Kimber Lanning
Location: Phoenix, Arizona
Year Founded: 1987
Owner’s Current Age: 53
Kimber Lanning is a force to be reckoned with. Not only is she the owner of the Phoenix record store Stinkweeds, which she opened at the age of 19, but she launched the gallery space (and former live music venue) Modified Arts in 1999 and founded the economically focused nonprofit organization Local First in 2009. Kimber also played drums in the 1990s shoegaze band Half String, whose music was reissued by Brooklyn label Captured Tracks in 2012. These days, the nonprofit is where she spends most of her time, but Stinkweeds continues to be a source of joy for the self-made business woman. Daily operations are overseen by store manager Lindsay Cates, who’s worked at the shop for 22 years. But 34 years ago, Kimber took the $5,000 she had saved up and began selling her nearly 10,000-strong record collection in a small storefront, along with 16 brand new CDs that were kept in a special case at the front. “We had New Order’s ‘Power, Corruption and Lies,’ The Smiths’ ‘Hatful of Hollow,’ and Foetus’ ‘Hole,’” she recalls. “People were blown away. They didn’t anticipate that they could find CDs like that in Phoenix at the time.”
Kimber got her entrepreneurial acumen from her mother, who owned an art gallery for 50 years before retiring. “I remember one time I called my mom, and after I finished my whole freak out, she goes, ‘Oh Jesus, Kimber, toughen up. Talk to me when you’ve had a bad year.’” Another piece of motherly advice really stuck with her. “She said, ‘If you fail, it’s because you’re too nice,’ and that was kind of an eye-opener for me too,” Kimber says. “In the beginning people thought they were doing me a favor by buying everything, but I realized if they buy all my cool used stuff, I’m gonna go straight out of business because you can’t replace the used. So I told them, ‘You can either buy two records max or you can bring me trade.’ And people were like, ‘God, you’re so mean,’ and I’m like, ‘I’m just trying to stay in business here, man.’”
After more than three decades, she must be doing something right. “Part of our strength is remembering our customers and knowing what they like,” Kimber says. “One of the most rewarding things is the people. Music really transforms lives.”
Owner: Tara Wyatt
Location: Niantic, Connecticut
Year Founded: 1974
Owner’s Current Age: 40
Daughter of original founder David Wyatt, Tara Wyatt took over Tumbleweeds in Niantic, Connecticut, in 2006 when her father died unexpectedly. “I studied environmental marine science and was planning on moving to Central America, but I was the only one who had the knowledge to do what needed to be done at the store,” Tara explains. “So I decided to do it, and 15 years later, I’m glad I did.” Aside from a hiatus during the late 1980s, the store has been in business for more than 37 years and is an integral part of the small seasonal beach town.
“I’m starting to appreciate that the legacy that my dad created is something that I can forward on,” Tara says. While many small businesses struggled this past year, Tara was actually able to expand hers. Located around the corner from the main store, the new space acts as a sorting area for new stock and storage for extra inventory, as well as a place to sell vintage audio equipment. “It’s been a turning point for me because selling audio equipment is something I’ve wanted to do for years,” she says. “It’s going well, but I’m only able to open that store a couple days a week right now.”
Tara currently has no full-time employees and works 80-hour weeks to keep the business going. “I work seven days a week, and when I do take a day off, I’ll go to a trade show or I’ll go buy records,” she says. “So I’m definitely a workaholic.” Sometimes her sister or a friend will help out, and her boyfriend, Alexander Alvarez, does the marketing, promotion, photography, and videography. While Tara still dreams of traveling the world, she’s happy hunting for collections to buy and records to sell. “I’ve realized that I’m really good at it,” she says. “I definitely was born to be a boss.”
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Amber Drea is a writer, editor, storyteller and record collector. She writes about the beverage alcohol and cannabis industries for Shanken News Daily and Market Watch magazine and has contributed to the public transit advocacy site Streetsblog.org. She lives in the Chicago suburbs with her husband and son.
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