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We Should Be Talking About Women in the Record Store Business

I am feeling pretty grateful right now.

We’re exercising caution, we’re still masked up and social distancing, but we are finally seeing some light at the end of the pandemic tunnel. We are welcoming back local customers, some of whom haven’t stepped inside our store in over a year. We’re selling more vinyl. We’ve expanded our methods of reaching people and, with much support from our local community, we are experiencing real growth.

We’re finding new audiences. People who have never been to the store walk in every week. Most of those new to Guestroom Records Louisville are more femme, Black, and queer, as well as families of all kinds who have chosen vinyl as a safe-at-home activity. We’ve wrestled with our own privilege along the way. We’ve acknowledged our store as a cultural institution, not merely a business, that has a responsibility to prioritize the health and well-being of our staff, customers, and community.

Stop over-relying on male voices to tell store stories. Start looking around at the layers of ownership throughout our stores for more voices and hold others accountable as well.

It has been a year of intense growth and, quite frankly, one in which I didn’t think very much about my gender in relation to my work life. With doors closed and in-person traffic halted, the usual sexist micro-aggressions ceased. No one was around to ask where my husband was to get an answer to basic questions or tease me about “texting my girlfriends” while I ran media campaigns. I won’t lie. It was nice. Traditionally femme tasks of care — thinking about health and well-being, or even detailed cleaning of spaces — became shared instead of singular burdens. My usual anxieties were an asset. Rules were dope. Shutting the store down to take care of yourself and your staff was punk.

Amidst all this complexity and evolution, the upending of gender norms, the new bodies showing up in our stores, and the incredibly diverse talent and crew who run them, it shocked me recently to hear narratives about independent record stores return to a reliance on white male voices. A recent article checking in with “some of the coolest record stores on the planet” for an “oral history” of how the pandemic had impacted their businesses featured almost entirely men. While I love many of the stores mentioned, and many stories resonate with my own, I was really disappointed to see scant coverage of stores owned by female or Black entrepreneurs.

Owners

Coverage of record stores has been embarrassingly white-male-centric. A December 2018 article in Rolling Stone of the “Top 10” record stores in the country mentions male-owned stores with one exception and cites men’s voices throughout the article. Woman store owners are not unicorns. New stores owned or co-owned by women bourgeoning on the indie store scene. Legacy stores like Peaches in New Orleans, Stinkweeds in Phoenix, and Record Archive in Rochester, New York, are just a few examples of excellent stores owned by women that have been serving their communities for more than two decades.

While inclusivity would be a welcome shift, I’m not optimistic. Too often, I’ve seen women-owned stores grouped together on a list rather than given legitimacy in the scene write large. It seems there’s too much focusing on owners as the ultimate storytellers of record store history in the first place. More (mostly cis-white) men own record stores than anyone else. By a lot. They own more of everything. But that doesn’t mean they are the only voices that hold the authority to narrate the history of record store culture. When a store has been open for at least a few years, it likely has developed an ecosystem all its own. The best store owners, regardless of gender, know that understanding a store’s present and its future lies in the people they employ, the product they stock, and the customers they invite in through their doors.

Staff

Sonidos! Music and More is a new shop in the Washington, D.C. metro area owned by Claudia Mendiola-Duran. In talking with the DCist, Mendiola-Duran echoes much of what women I’ve talked to over the years highlight about opening their own stores: a desire to have more inclusivity in record store culture, autonomy through entrepreneurship, and a middle finger to the sexist music establishment. But another aspect of her story hit me like a wall: Mendiola-Duran had a 15-year history working in DC area record stores. Fifteen years.

If you want to understand record stores in this present moment, talk with the women who have been staffing them.

Consider how different our knowledge of indie store culture might be if we had included her voice and others like hers without the requirement of ownership. If each article featuring “Top” or “Best” or “Coolest” stores simply paused to interview femme members of those record store teams, we’d legitimize women’s voices and see a much more holistic portrait of record store culture. You’d still get to visit legacy stores (Amoeba will always be cool), but you’d learn about them from the viewpoint of the people who are on the front lines of buying, ordering, and serving customers. If you want a summary of what recent Saturdays have been like in our shop, you don’t need to talk to an owner; you need to talk with our staff member, Amber, who manages most Saturdays and has been with Guestroom for more than 7 years.

While many owners are often behind the counter of their stores, at least as many are not, so getting the pulse of what’s actually happening in record stores is likely better accessed from the people who staff them. Jenn D’Eugenio’s blog, Women in Vinyl, gets this. The blog has a simple format, running profiles of women in the vinyl industry, from record stores to pressing plants to sound engineers and more. She covers but doesn’t focus solely on owners, and instead highlights the contributions of femmes across a spectrum of positions within the industry. Recent profiles of Natalie Martinez from Radioactive Records or Annelise Kopp from Harvest Records highlight the immense knowledge and richness of those independent record stores that is absent if we continually return solely to owners’ voices.  If you want to understand record stores in this present moment, talk with the women who have been staffing them. Can’t call up and find a woman member of the shop? Then it’s probably time to rethink what makes a store cool.

Customers

The idea that customers have “ownership” in our stores is nothing new — check with “your” local shop, I love “my” indie record store, etc. We sport merch and mugs and stories from our favorite spots that clearly mark us as stakeholders. If you’ve ever been a regular customer of a store, it’s as much your store as the people who own it, even though your name isn’t on the LLC.

Customers are endless support and a glimpse of our collective record store future. Almost everyone who works in or opened their own record store was a store customer first.

Diversifying customers is everything. While there is still much work to do, femme-identifying customers are expanding by the minute. On our pandemic-anniversary “thank you for sticking with us” post, my eyes popped a bit upon reading comments from moms who shop with their teenage daughters:

“My teenage daughter loves vinyl and knows she can find her music there. Thank you!!”

“We found you during the pandemic. My daughter also loves vinyl and we visit as often as we can. Good luck!”

I honestly never thought that mothers would bring their daughters in to shop for records, but here we are. And if you are shaking your head and thinking this is the end of record stores, I assure you, it’s not. While it’s too early to tell, these new customers might be signaling a vinyl renaissance greater than any of us had imagined.

Mothers, daughters — femme-identified customers of all kinds are coming for vinyl and changing the game. I helped a teenager find a copy of Harry Styles’ self-titled release, and while that may sound simple to you, I assure you it was a moment that they will remember for a lifetime. A young Black woman shopped safely and checked out with a full stack of LPs to celebrate a cancerous tumor shrinking after her first round of chemo. It was an honor to celebrate with her. Another femme spotted a first pressing of the Perks of Being a Wallflower soundtrack on our rare wall and made a first-time investment in a collectible record. Remember the first time you spent “too much” on just the right record? It was awesome.

There are hundreds of stories like these happening every single week in our store and in stores across the globe. And that’s just the new people! That doesn’t begin to speak of the DJs, the collectors, the vinyl enthusiasts, and even the occasional record listener who has been around supporting and creating record store culture for years. This past year has been chaotic. It has upended everything we know. But it has left us with a great opportunity to stop bad habits. With so many incredible women’s voices in independent record stores, I get reasonably frustrated when we leave them out of the picture. Let’s stop. Stop over-relying on male voices to tell store stories. Start looking around at the layers of ownership throughout our stores for more voices and hold others accountable as well. If you click on a best-of list and can’t find femme voices, keep scrolling. You — and we — deserve better.

Feature image by Danica Tanjutco.


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Lisa Foster
Lisa Foster is the co-owner of Guestroom Records in Louisville, Kentucky.
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