Vinyl was dead. Compact discs had given way to digital downloads, and LP records were dumped by the boxful, sold at yard sales or just sent to the trash heap.
And then, suddenly, vinyl wasn’t dead. Last year, Billboard reports, more than 14 million vinyl albums were sold, up 9 percent from 2016. It marked the 12th year in a row that vinyl sales had increased and represented the most album sales since music sales began being digitally tracked by Nielsen Music in 1991.
Music on vinyl is very much alive, indeed.
The original owners of Guestroom Records, Travis Searle and Justin Sowers, weren’t buying the “vinyl is dead” narrative when they opened their shop in Norman, Okla., 15 years ago. And Searle and partner Lisa Foster still weren’t buying it when they opened the Louisville outpost of Guestroom at 1806 Frankfort Ave.
That was in 2013, and the couple will celebrate five years in business this weekend, Nov. 2-5, with special sales and events at the shop. Five years selling what once was considered a dead product certainly warrants a celebration.
“Every year a small business stays open is a milestone, at this point,” Searle says.
Searle says he and Sowers noticed when in college in the early 2000s, record stores in Norman were closing down. Both vinyl junkies themselves, they decided to take advantage of a niche that needed filling. Four years later, in 2007, they opened a store in Oklahoma City.
“We were told we were crazy at various points for various reasons,” Searle says.
One of their regular customers in Norman was Foster, who had moved up from graduate school in Austin, Texas. She and Searle hit it off and began dating, and she would become part of the operation when the two decided to move to Louisville.
Why Louisville? For one, it was another location with a thriving music culture. For another, Foster was a Campbellsville native who had attended Centre College and the University of Kentucky before moving west to get her doctorate degree.
When the couple got together in 2008, Searle made it clear to Foster he had no intention of ever doing two things: shaving his beard and leaving Oklahoma.
“Two years later, I shaved my beard,” Searle says. “And I was like, ‘I’m ready to leave.’ ”
The move was not just about getting closer to Foster’s family — at the time of the move, Searle observed Louisville as having “a thriving local business community, a great local music culture, and a good community of vinyl purveyors already at work.”
The rest, as they say, is history. The store stays busy with not just buying and selling records, CDs and other music-related items, but also with having in-store performances.
One recent show in September featured a Ramones tribute band called Goodfellas. Other live acts and even DJs perform occasionally; Nick Dittmeier and the Sawdusters played Oct. 21 to celebrate the band’s new album release.
And true to Billboard’s reporting, vinyl record sales are paying the bills. Searle says record sales at Guestroom accounts for about 80 percent to 84 percent of the income. CDs hover between 7 percent and 11 percent on average, with the remaining accounted for by sales of everything from cassettes to shirts to record players.
Searle reports since opening, more than 150,000 records have gone out the door. Not bad for a 1,400-square-foot retail shop. And it isn’t just used or new big-name album titles — local music sells, too.
“Most people buy vinyl,” Foster says, “but Louisville is a really good buying audience. Whatever it’s on, they will buy.”
Always buying collections, the couple also posts highlights of new acquisitions on Instagram as much as possible. Keeping the inventory fresh is one thing, but in the social media age, getting the word out is almost as important as what’s on the shelves at any given time.
People still like to root through records, the couple says, but they also like to have an idea of what they might find.
And, of course, all that vinyl lining the shelves in the little store with the checkerboard floor pays the bills, so Foster and Searle will celebrate with an art installation by Emily Keller called “Sound and Vision,” live music on Saturday, Nov. 3, and a store-wide sale (not including consignment items) all weekend.
In addition to discounts, Searle and Foster have been, for the last few weeks, holding back a lot of the incoming stock of vinyl to unveil as part of the anniversary celebration.
Customers can come in to look through stock that, Searle says, is “unpicked by anyone, including employees.”
“It’s exciting to be turning 5,” Foster adds.
Louisville’s music scene would no doubt agree that the couple’s move in 2013 has been fortuitous, and that feeling would be mutual.
“I wanted us to choose a place where we would be happy and we can live,” she says, “and Louisville was that place for us.”
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified co-owner Lisa Foster.