Guestroom Records to celebrate 15 years
NORMAN — Asked to recount his favorite moments at Guestroom Records, Norman store manager Will Muir got one sentence out before tearing up.
“Tommy Stinson played in store ...” Muir said, pausing as his voice quivered. “He didn't want to play through the PA. He did a few songs standing in front of the counter, then he got up onto the counter and sang my favorite Replacements songs. Standing on the fricking counter at Guestroom, one of my heroes.”
He went on to sum up his feeling about it, a sentiment echoed by so many others' recollections of Guestroom: “It was really cool, and it wouldn't have happened if the store didn't exist.”
Muir is an 11-year employee of Guestroom and is curating the store's 15-year anniversary party, to take place in Norman on Friday and Saturday. The event includes live music from friends and patrons of the store, giveaways and a sale.
Norman's store was the first location, opened in 2003 after owners Justin Sowers and Travis Searle, having spent the previous 18 months as a traveling and special-order punk and indie outlet, pooled their record collections and set up shop in a former auto garage next to music venue Opolis. A few years later, Guestroom Norman moved to a prominent Main Street location. Guestroom Oklahoma City followed in 2007, then a Bricktown shop that opened in 2011 and closed in 2013 upon Searle's relocation to Louisville, where he and his partner Lisa Foster opened a Louisville branch that year.
The original store's inventory sat somewhere around 6,000 pieces. Now, the collective Guestroom collection sits around 90,000, 75 percent of which is vinyl. It's a curious success story at a time when record labels have been struggling to sell physical copies of albums, with music retail shops closing left and right. Muir says Guestroom's down-to-earth business practices play a big part.
“We are small and flexible. We don't have a corporate ethos, so there aren't a lot of hurdles to making a change in our stores,” Muir said. “It's, ‘Do you wanna do this?' ‘Yes, let's do it.'”
There's also the vinyl resurgence, which Guestroom caught onto ahead of the curve. Billboard reported that 2017 marked vinyl sales' 12th straight year of growth, comprising 14 percent of all physical album sales that year. While Guestroom does carry CDs, its inventory has shifted heavily in favor of vinyl records since opening, and not just the punk and indie variety that spurred the store's creation.
“Travis says that Guestroom started off with the music he and Justin liked, and as other employees came in, it was music that Justin and Travis and the new employees liked,” Muir said. “When major labels figured out what independent labels were doing, more pop albums came out on vinyl all of a sudden, and there was nowhere else for people to buy them. We were the place to go if you wanted to buy a punk record; we're now the place to go if you want to buy any record.”
Timid music fans should take that to heart: The concept of an independent music store can be daunting to people who think what they're into doesn't pass muster or isn't cool enough to warrant fandom. But Guestroom is a judgment-free zone.
“We work really, really, really hard to fight that stereotype, and we try to help everyone we can find what they want,” Muir said. “A lot of times people bring a record up and say, ‘Oh, I'm so embarrassed to be buying this,' and don't be! We know that attitude is out there, and we try really hard to not be that place.”
Discovery, though, is part of the job as well: Patrons may walk in and hear Beyoncé overhead, or they could hear an obscure new band the staff is trying out. This love for finding and supporting new music is critical to Guestroom's DNA and is ingrained in many of the stores' most frequent shoppers.
“I liked going into Guestroom when I was younger just to talk to Will, Travis or Justin,” said Oklahoma City musician Tommy McKenzie, who will perform with NET Friday during the anniversary celebration. “I got turned onto Thee Oh Sees, Ty Segall, Wavves and countless other bands from their recommendations.”
Emboldened by the welcoming environment and their similar tastes, McKenzie brought a demo CD to Searle in 2010.
“He actually listened to the damn thing and came to a show of ours!” McKenzie said. “I can't even begin to describe how much that meant at the time, how much that still means.”
That band, The Boom Bang, ended up as one of the artists on Guestroom's small record label, Guestroom Records Records. Vinyl releases by the label include the Starlight Mints' 2009 album “Change Remains” and BRONCHO's 2011 release of “Can't Get Past the Lips,” among others.
“We really had a compulsion to put out music by creative friends of ours, to make sure there was a place for them to do something,” Muir said. “Some of it is wanting to be like our favorite indie stores that have labels, but it's also really about making the scene that you want, which is where Guestroom came from.”
Norman musician Mike Hosty, who has long had his albums for sale at the stores, agrees. “Guestroom has become an important gathering place for local musicians as well as music lovers, and best of all, Guestroom is local.”
Guestroom is an integral part of Oklahoma's music scene and has quickly become well-loved and respected in Louisville as well. All three stores host frequent in-store performances and prioritize participation in and hosting of local events, including the annual national Record Store Day celebrations, which Guestroom has taken part in since RSD's inception in 2008.
What started as a desire to bring the music they loved to their community has turned into something bigger than the sum of its parts. But, at its core, it's still about providing a place where people can come to support the music they already love and search through the racks for the music they're about to.
“What church or meditation is to some, Guestroom is to me,” said Tyson Meade, who will perform Saturday. “When I happen to be there on a Friday afternoon and see a ton of teens and preteens shopping, this takes me back to my youth and how any pocket money I had I spent on records.”
That's a timeless experience, rooted in nostalgia for many, and, critically, being provided anew to Guestroom's younger clientele, securing for those customers the very thing that led to Guestroom's existence in the first place: an early and likely lifelong passion for listening to, caring about and sharing music. It's not unusual to see parents buying records with their kids, toddlers watching in-store concerts, or grandmothers proudly buying their grandkids' bands' albums.
That is the core of Guestroom's purpose, to provide a place for people to find and enjoy a song, a record or a band, Muir said. “It really is about giving people the music that they want.”