As someone who works in the music industry, and who grew up going to shows where vinyl records were almost always (and sometimes exclusively) available, I’ve never really stopped collecting them. I love the warmth of a good sounding vinyl record, the big artwork, the liner notes and the ritual of flipping the disc when the side is over. I own the same Discman I’ve had for 20 years, which I’ll throw batteries into once in a blue moon when I get the itch for something not available to stream and never pressed on wax.
It seems I’m not alone. According to the Recording Industry Association of America’s year-end report for 2019, vinyl LP and EP sales saw a growth change of over 14 percent between 2018 and 2019, even as CDs saw a loss of over 10 percent. Still, coming off the early 1990s decline of vinyl record output in favor of the CD, this seems wild to me. When has any industry gone from exclusively one format of distribution to a newer “better” one, stuck with it for decades, then gone back?
This is where Michael Shaeffer and Wes Howerton stepped in, with their record store Control. On the cusp of the one-year anniversary of the brick and mortar shop, they’ve won the Arkansas Times’ Best Of Arkansas poll in the Home Entertainment category. Control announced Shaeffer’s departure from the business shortly before the Arkansas Times went to press, but Howerton has no plans to stop serving Central Arkansans with the records they need.
Control opened up in June 2019 in the Hillcrest neighborhood, an area full of shops, restaurants and plenty of foot traffic, but the heart of the business goes back a bit further. Howerton and Shaeffer met when Shaeffer was a guest on Howerton’s radio show “NVRMND: The Morning Show,” on KABF-FM, 88.3, then DJ’ed some small functions together, including a recurring soul brunch gig at South on Main. They began doing pop-up shops around the city, including a sort of residency during the 2018 PopUp In The Rock, an annual joint project by Create Little Rock and studioMAIN and part of a national movement known as the Better Block Project. Taking cues from musical acts as varied as Janet Jackson, Pedro The Lion and Joy Division, they named their venture Control.
“Initially, Wes and I pulled from our own collections,” Shaeffer said, “and we took a chunk of that money we were getting from selling records, then we would reach out to distributors and say, ‘Hey, how do we buy from you?’
“That’s when we found there was a really big need for new vinyl, too. Used vinyl, you can go digging, but there’s not really anywhere around here you could go and get the new ‘whatever’ record. That was an eye-opener for us.”
“Those boxes were getting shipped to my apartment at the time,” Howerton said, “and we would sit in the living room pricing new records, putting them in a crate, and then we’d take ’em to the next pop-up, and people were super excited ’cause we’d have the new Car Seat Headrest record, you know, the newest indie rock, or hip-hop record.”
Shaeffer added, “There were holes in the market that people didn’t realize were holes.”
Eventually they moved into their brick and mortar space at 2612 Kavanaugh Blvd., where foot traffic has brought in lots of young people to browse records in a way they may not have been able to before. Everything from “kids buying their first record player from us” to an 11-year old girl coming in with her dad to make a list for a future birthday purchase. She told them she wanted to see “ ‘what Queen records you have, I wanna see Beach Boys and Beatles records,’ ” Howerton said.
Howerton began pulling records and she looked through everything, then she and her dad left without buying anything. Three weeks later, that girl walked in ahead of her dad, Howerton continued.
“You ready to buy Queen records?’ ” Howerton asked her. “She was like, ‘You remembered!’ Of course I did!”
As 2020 progresses, the escalation of the coronavirus pandemic has forced Control, like many businesses, to pivot how it interacts with its customers, both in terms of browsing and getting records to them.
“It’s really tricky right now,” Shaeffer said, “because the magic is taken away from that excitement of walking into a shop. We’ve just been relying on social media to create that magic in some ways. It’s tricky; we want to open the store. We love being in our store. It’s such a big question mark.”
Still, they remain hopeful that people will come back out to shop for records the way it was intended as soon as they are able.
“I had a beautiful moment a few weeks ago,” Howerton said, “where three kids came up, and those are three kids that would have been ready to explore everything. They called me from the front porch, and they just started telling me things they were interested in, and they sat on the bench looking through the window, and I went to the back and I pulled out a bunch of records, and we both stayed on speakerphone, and I just showed them records through the window and flipped them back so they could will figure out what what was on particular records and looking at track listings and everything, and after like 35 minutes of shopping via speakerphone through the window they bought two records, one each. It was amazing.”