The following is the transcript of an interview with John Kerr, the owner of Wazoo Records in Ann Arbor.
Lisa Ruiz: How did you first get interested in opening up your own record store?
John Kerr: Well, I worked at this store since 1978, I started in 1978, a couple years after college. I really enjoyed the experience. When the opportunity came and the original owner decided that he wanted to retire, I decided that I wanted to try and buy the place and do what I felt with it. I felt I had all the experience I needed, and it was a good business, so I thought I could do it and I did.
LR: How long have you been running it?
JK: For about 9 ½ years, so far.
LR: So, what would you say drove you to go into the independent record store business?
JK: I’ve always enjoyed music; from the time I was about eight years old I started collecting forty-fives and records and was real interested in what was on the radio. It was an interest that sustained from elementary school through college. I worked on a college radio station for four years, where I was the music director and wrote reviews and published playlists and things like that. When I came back to Ann Arbor, where I had grown up, I initially worked some odd jobs and things; but then I spoke to the guy that started this store, and he had an opening. It was always a dream of mine to work in a record store, so I took it, and…that’s where it all started. It was something I enjoyed doing, especially with used records and the whole process of buying and selling those, and the bartering and negotiations, and having to use the knowledge that I had acquired throughout my life in a way that was actually lucrative and made me some money. I had spent all these years learning about music and learning what was good, what was interesting, what was rare, what was collectible, and now I could actually make a living doing it instead of just having it be a hobby.
LR: What attracts you to buying and selling used records? Is there a community that is forged that way, or…?
JK: Yeah, there is. I mean, our type of store attracts a pretty serious sort of music fan, not the casual fan that’s just interested in top forty, because we have such a diverse, deep selection. We get the really hardcore people that are interested in all types of music. You make friends; lots of interesting conversations happen. People tell you things you haven’t heard of and you are able to tell them about interesting music. With a used record store especially, it serves that sort of recycling function in the community, which I feel really proud of. Let’s face it, there’re a lot of people coming and going in Ann Arbor. They’re here for a short time, they have to sell their stuff when they leave, and so rather than just putting in a dumpster like students do so much, we can take their stuff off their hands and find someone who’s very happy to have it. There’s almost an environmental aspect to it. It’s like we provide that function, and everybody’s happy, everybody gets a little money for their stuff rather than throwing it out, and the person that buys it gets it for about half the price you’d have to pay for it new. Plus, with used things…so much is out of print, so a store like ours will have lots of items that you could not go into Best Buy, or one of those discount places, and even find.
LR: So, with Best Buy, and Borders, and things like that…how do you compete?
JK: I’d say primarily by trying to focus on music that they’re not going to bother with because it’s a little more fringe, a little more niche oriented, and that requires us to really keep up to date and know what’s on the cutting edge and is sort of beneath the radar for these places, and to develop a clientele that is appreciative of the fact that we have that stuff and is willing to support us. But also, another thing the big stores don’t do is that they don’t go real deep on what you call “catalog stuff,” which would be like old Grateful Dead records, or Miles Davis, artist that have put out maybe 20, 30, 50 records. Not many of the discount stores are going to devote that much space to something that doesn’t move a lot faster. They devote a large portion of space to things that were released this year. That’s what, frankly, sells the most, if you’re interested in buying them, which is what they do, since they sell them so cheap that they have to. They have to give up so much space to that. They’ll have like, 40 copies of the record out on their retail floor; we just have one copy of each thing out on our floor. So, t might look like they have tons of cd’s, but we really probably have more titles than they do.
LR: How about online sources? How do you compete with them? What do independent music stores have to offer that they can’t?
JK: Well, they are more challenging, because they can have a lot of depth in their inventory. They are formidable competition. I think there are people, however, who really like to come in and just put their hands on stuff and flip through it; they don’t come in with a pre-conceived notion of what they’re looking for. They come in just to look and to, sort of, have their memory jarred, like, “Oh, yeah, I heard that, I should try it.” There’s nothing quite like going into a real store. I mean, you can do a lot of really specific searching online and you can find all sorts of information, and we can’t compete that way, but in terms of the tactile experience of shopping and handling things and looking things over…we do allow people to listen to almost anything. That’s one of our strong points, because anything that’s used and open, people can check out. So, I know in a lot of online places you have that capability too, so we do compete in that way. And plus, you get a lot of advice; I mean, we’re willing to give our opinions, which maybe you couldn’t get quite as well online, I don’t know…I don’t know how they’re set up.
LR: I agree about what [independent record stores] have to offer…
JK: …And then the shipping. I mean, with the online thing the prices can look really good, but you add two or three dollars for shipping, and even more…it doesn’t seem as cheap anymore.
LR: So, how do you interact with the other independent record stores in Ann Arbor?
JK: Oh, you know, it’s a cordial relationship. Usually, if we don’t have something that someone’s looking for we’ll use the inventory of the other stores. Or, if we can’t buy the things that they’re trying to sell, we’ll send them along to the next guy. I think there’s room for everybody. You know, there’s three used places now. We’ve all been involved in the business for many years, and everyone’s surviving, so it’s okay.
LR: How do you feel about the location of Schoolkids in Exile, about three doors down?
JK: How do I feel about it? Oh, um…I was a little distressed when it first opened up, ‘cause I thought, it’s pretty close, and it might confuse people, ‘cause they display signs on the street and we have our own, and that might confuse people. But, I guess I try to take a positive outlook about it, which would be that there might be people that might think, “Well, I’m going to go to Schoolkids, and that’s just below Wazoo, so I’ll hit both places.” Or, they might think it’s worth it to come down the block from Borders or someplace because there’s two stores to visit instead of just one. So, there’s no point in being negative about it, you know, you just roll with the punches. It’s fine.
LR: When buying music for your store, what types and genres do you consider?
JK: We consider practically all genres; the one thing we really don’t focus on is classical. So, I would say anything that’s a twentieth century form of music, we pretty much consider. We have jazz, blues, folk, country, everything like that. We just have to be really sensitive to the customers and what they’re looking for. Since we have such a limited amount of space in the store, the things really have to earn a spot. We can’t just try all sorts of strange things unless we have some sense of what the customers are really interested in buying, because ultimately, that’s how you pay the rent.
LR: Spatially, how do you decide where to put what genres?
JK: That’s an interesting question, ‘cause it’s been the way it’s been for so long. It’s just kind of evolved; I’m not sure there was much conscious thought behind it. But, occasionally, if a new form of music comes along that has really blown up, like electronic, techno, whatever you want to call it, kind of dance-oriented music, it makes sense to but that right next to hip-hop and other things that maybe influence each other. There’s somewhat of a logical juxtaposition of certain genres. As to why things are the way they are, they’ve been that way for about twenty-five years, and I couldn’t tell you exactly how it started. We try to make it make sense; we try to be logical about it.
LR: Okay, so, when did the store first open?
JK: The very first store, Wazoo, was almost a closet like space; it was very small and that was in 1974. It lasted there for two or three years before it quickly outgrew that size space, and it moved to the upstairs on 209 South Street, which is right next to where Buffalo Robin’s is, there’s an upstairs at the building there. It was a nice space, but it didn’t have much space behind the counter at all for storage, which this place provides. Actually, in terms of retail space, they were close to similar, but this place offered a whole office and all sorts of space for back stock, which is very, very useful to us.
LR: Okay…so do you know what year it moved to South Street?
JK: Okay, I would say it moved to State Street in about 1977…or eight. ‘Cause I started in ’78 and it was already there, and I think it was fairly new, there. There was a brief period around 1980 where we had two stores, this one and the one down there, and this one was called The Annex. Initially, the idea was that this store would be focused on collectibles, ‘cause during the course of operating the store in Ann Arbor for about five years or so, we had accumulated this incredible number of records. [motions to crates] You see these crates, here, they hold about 120 records. There were probably 100, 200 crates of records that had just been stashed because at that point we were the only used record store in town, and we were just buying so much stuff, and unusual and collectible stuff that the previous owner just wanted to stash for a rainy day, or something…and it just got out of control. So we had all these crates of records, and he just decided he’d open another store. And so we did open another store, but shortly after, I would say the two only lasted for about a year or two, we quickly realized that having two stores on the same street just didn’t make any sense…because there really wasn’t as much difference between them as we’d anticipated. It was almost like we were competing…competing against ourselves. So, we realized that we should consolidate down here. I think, on the first month we consolidated, the sales here were equal to the combined sales of the two places, so it really was the right decision to make.
LR: Right. And what year was that…?
JK: Ah, I think it was…it was certainly by 1982, so it was like, ’81, ’82, when we packed everything and moved down here. It was quite a task. And we’ve been here ever since. Fortunately, we’ve been able to keep this space, we haven’t been kicked out and we haven’t gotten too exorbitant. It’s been a great location for us, right across the street from campus.
LR: What types of music would you say sell the best?
JK: Well, you know, rock. They’re usually buying rock, pop, whatever you want to call it. That’s definitely our best seller, followed by hip-hop, then jazz. You might say alternative or indie rock, because that’s kind of our specialty, I think that’s what a lot of people come in here looking for. But we’ve never wanted to focus too heavily on one thing. My experience has been, observing record stores that specialize…there was a really good record store in the 80’s that was all about imports, British imports, and they had great selection, but that’s all they had, so they quickly failed, because I think you need to have more than one specific genre or one specific…country, or whatever. I think it’s best to have a wide variety, because everyone here listens to a wide variety of music. I would personally hate to be focused on one type of music…it’s like only eating one type of food, or something, all the time. I like all sorts of music.
LR: So, how do you choose what kind of music to play in the store, or who does that?
JK: It’s strictly…everybody gets a pick, it’s real democratic. You know, we don’t do it as a sales gimmick at all, we don’t play them based on requests from labels or anything. We do get sent a lot of promotional material, which we, if we’re interested in it, we do play in the store. If it’s a great album, if you play something, people want to buy it, if they haven’t heard it. But we don’t do it with that in mind, we play it based on what we want to hear. We sort of have this one rule that if somebody puts something on that the other person can’t stand, they can veto it, but that doesn’t happen much.
LR: How would you describe the customers that come into your store?
JK: Like I said earlier, I’m very impressed with them, for the most part. Most of them are really knowledgeable, and interested in a wide variety of music. They’re dedicated, because let’s face it, we’re out of the way, and kind of obscure…you have to make the climb up a long flight of stairs. Usually the people that come here know what they’re coming for, I mean, they have a desire to get something…they may not know what, but they’re really devoted to music, and finding out about new stuff. So yeah, I think our customers are great. Especially now, I mean, some people complain a lot about the internet, they say it’s diluting sales. I think people have such research now that they can find out about so much music they like on the internet, and then they come here looking for it. So, I think the internet has a positive role. People come in here all the time and ask me about groups that I have never heard of and I have to make a serious effort to keep up on things. I think that most people are finding out about these groups on the Internet, and they’re probably groups that don’t have a widespread distribution of their product, they distribute mostly through their websites, or something. So the people are out there looking for these things that really aren’t out there in stores at all. It’s kind of frustrating because it seems like that’s picked up a lot lately, that I get asked about a group that I have no idea who they are.
LR: Do you have regulars?
JK: Oh sure, yeah. I can’t tell you how many people, grown people with children, come in and say that they shopped here when they were in high school. They come back, and it’s especially gratifying around the Christmas holidays, because people will always drop by and come back and say hello, and usually they’ll say things like, “You know, where I moved to, there’s really nothing like this and I really miss it.” Because I think there really aren’t tons of these stores left.
LR: Yeah, I know where I live, there’s nothing even nearly like this.
JK: Well, it really does require a special sort of community and environment to support it. You know, there’s just a real good musical environment in Ann Arbor, and people are exposed through the radio stations and stores like ours and Encore to a lot of different music that they wouldn’t normally be exposed to. There’s just a lot of people that are interested in really non-mainstream types of music around here…it’s really nice to see.
LR: What percentage of your customers, would you say, are college students?
JK: Oh, that would be a tough one, ‘cause I’m not sure I can always recognize a college student. Okay, I can say this much: I don’t know, I’m sure it’s a large percentage; but when the college students leave, our business doesn’t drop off that much. We still get plenty of young, college-aged people coming, from I guess the Detroit area or some of the surrounding suburbs. You know, it’s hard for me to judge when those people come in whether they’re U of M students, or if they’re just people that are age…and I would say that the average age of our customers is at college age, largely. I mean, you get people in their 40s or 50s still coming up, but they don’t buy music like they did in their twenties, I’m sure. It’s high school through late twenties…that’s really our prime audience, sure.
LR: How would you say that your sales vary throughout the year?
JK: They’re remarkably consistent. We always have a good mark in December with Christmas, and there’s a slow month in May, which is the time between when the college students leave and the public school students let out. Then, it’s just, maybe, down by ten percent or something, from an average month. But once the kids get out of school in June, then it’s back up and the sales in the summer are pretty much the consistent with the sales during the U of M calendar year.
LR: How has the look of the store changed as the years have gone by?
JK: Not much, according to most customers that come up here; they’re sort of amazed, because so much has changed in Ann Arbor, at the street level, just in terms of the types of stores, and really, I mean, there have been a lot of massive facelifts of stores…there’s so many more chains…so, this store has changed very little in the course of its existence in terms of its appearance. We’ve even managed to adapt the record crates that used to hold vinyl to hold cd’s. So, when you just walk in, it looks pretty much the way it did the day it opened. The big difference is cd’s, and the way you display cd’s, and how we need a lot more space behind the counter to store cd’s. With records, you buy them, mark them up, and put them out in the store. With cd’s, we don’t do it that way. Are you familiar with our system?
JK: Well, with used cd’s…
LR: Oh, yeah….
JK: …what we do is we put the books out and we keep the cd behind the counter. So we have to devote a lot of space to it behind the counter for storage.
LR: I like the way you do that, though, so you can still see the booklet…
JK: Yeah, that was a tough one, to figure that out. It took us a few years. When we first started buying cd’s, we would just put them out on the shelves, and they would just disappear. That was not really secure. This solved two problems; it solved the problem of space, ‘cause it takes a lot less space to display, it solved the problem of security, and it created some problems, too, because it’s a little bit intensive to process the cd’s and have to price tag the booklet, and do all the filing and storing. And anytime you separate the cd from its booklet, you’re asking for trouble, because you have to assume that when somebody comes up with a booklet that you’ll be able to find the cd. And usually you do, but probably once a day there’s a situation where the cd wasn’t filed properly and you have to spend a few minutes looking for it. It’s a headache in a way, but it’s the best thing we’ve been able to work out in this space, so we’re happy with it.
LR: How do you decide to put on the walls?
JK: It used to be that all we had were posters that weren’t even for sale. When I took over, I thought, there’s this prime display space…and also, I had about three times as many records as you see here in the back area…so, I’ve spent the last nine, ten years selling thousands and thousands of records through the internet and through the store. So what goes on the wall…you mean the vinyl, mostly?
JK: It’s just things that I think are interesting or funny or you know, maybe collectible…things that I might have an inkling that people would find them interesting. Usually it’s going to be something unusual, like a collectible.
LR: Do you think the style of the store affects, or is affected by, the visuals in Ann Arbor and its music scene?
JK: Well, I do sort of get this sense that people walk in and they just immediately go, “Wow.” ‘Cause there is so much visually to take in when you walk in the door, and frankly, I don’t think they see that kind of store much. Especially old records…I’m sure you must be aware that people in their twenties are way more into vinyl than they were say, even, ten years ago. It got to the point where people were just getting less and less and less interested in vinyl and then something turned around, I guess with, I’d probably have to say, the whole deejay thing and hip-hop and people liking records. They kind of rediscovered them, and realized how much pleasure they could get out of a record: handling a record, and the cover art, and the unique quality you have with a record that you just can’t get with a cd. Not that I hate cd’s, but records are just kind of undeniably a unique experience and so it was kind of cool to have records again and to display them. We started ordering new vinyl, and it really sells quite well for us, ‘cause that’s another thing that Best Buy’s not going to have, records, or any of those kind of…Target, they’re not going to carry records.
LR: Target doesn’t have anything.
LR: How would you describe Ann Arbor’s music scene?
JK: I think it’s an amazingly good scene. I know people that come from big cities: New York, places out west, and say that record stores here are better than the record store in these huge cities. There’s great radio, there’s a really good live music scene. Although, I think it could be a better one if there were more venues for live music. That’s the one problem I find. There’s plenty of good musicians in town, and interest…unfortunately, there aren’t many good venues. So, there’s pretty good live music, great radio, I think really good record stores, and people seem especially interested in music here. I don’t know what it is; Ann Arbor’s always had that reputation, I guess.
LR: Has the music scene evolved over the years?
JK: Well, yes, I’m sure it has, along the lines of how music’s evolved, you know, there’s always a crowd of college-aged people that are very extremely interested in music and going to clubs and listening to the radio and buying cds. Obviously our selection has struggled to keep up with that, but that’s why Forrest, who’s our manager, is twenty-five and is very in touch with that scene and what people listen to, and keeps real up to date on that. We don’t ever want to get to the point where there’s nothing good new anymore. A lot of people my age you’ll talk to and they won’t have an interest in music that’s being made now. They want to listen to the music that they grew up with, which is sort of typical and it’s understandable. It always makes me kind of sad, though, that they’re not interested enough to listen to the good music that’s being made now, by new people, by young people. ‘Cause there’s so much stuff that just doesn’t get on the radio or is under the radar.
LR: What types of music are you into right now?
JK: Well, I’m really into all sorts…again, just like the store, I don’t really have a strong interest in classical at this point. I like twentieth century sorts of classical, like Philip Glass and things like that. I don’t know…I love everything, I mean, country, jazz, folk. I would say the thing I like is what I grew up with, which is Top Forty radio, and pop and rock, and so I’m always interested in the newest variations of that. I’m not such a collector, personally, like I don’t want to collect objects, like old records, or rare records, or things that are just objects; what I want to know is the music to listen to and I want to keep up with music. That’s what’s kept me going all these years, is that it’s always fascinating to hear the evolution of music.
LR: Awesome. Are there specific groups that are your favorites, or…that you’re listening to right now…?
JK: My favorites are just like, throughout history, who are my favorites. There’re so many, like Velvet Underground, Bob Marley, Bob Dylan, some of the classics that everybody knows are great that get in all the top five lists. There’re a lot of new groups like Stars, who are fantastic. I really like this group called Beechwood Sparks. I just hear so much…the Books, Souchin Stevens, I don’t know where he came from, but he’s just a huge sensation because he had that album about Michigan…we sold hundreds and hundreds of those, and they just didn’t stop selling; it’s one or two years old, and we still sell four or five copies a week. There’s just a lot of interesting stuff going on right now, I think. I think it’s a great time for music.
LR: How do think Wazoo and the other independent record stores affect the local music scene?
JK: Well, I think they provide things for people to listen to; it’s really kind of a service. I mean, I truly feel good about it. Not only do I make a living doing it, but I think that supplying music to people is almost like a religious service. I know the importance it has in my life, and what it’s done for me on a spiritual level. So I think to provide that to people and to let them get access to the music they own and want to listen to is really important. So, that’s what I think we do.
LR: How interactive are you with the local artists? Do you sell their records…?
JK: Yeah, we have a local records section. People can bring their records in and put them on consignment, which means that we take them in, and then if they sell, they get a large portion of each CD, a couple dollars, and we get the rest. So, pretty much anyone who has a CD, we have a space for it.