Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Brian Lee's Mini Record Store: Bringing Vinyl Love to a Small Midwestern Town


I was excited to hear a few years back that the Adam brothers were going to open a new coffee shop in my hometown of Greenville, IL.  Cautiously excited.

Greenville is a typical small town in many ways, and is unique in many of its own ways.  Many small businesses struggle to succeed in Greenville.  One of the pros and cons of this small town is its close proximity to St. Louis (about 45 minutes).  It’s good for culture – a short trip to the concert halls, theaters, etc.  But it can be bad for local retailers; the big stores and malls are only 45 minutes away.


But the Adam Brothers Music & Coffeehouse has survived, largely I would say, through owner Jes Adam’s willingness to adapt.  When the shop opened, they sold musical instruments and accessories as well as coffee and hosted live performances.  Over time, they expanded their menu, tweaked their hours, began a partnership with a local bakery and briefly with a local arts collective, and phased out the musical instrument sales.  I’m pleased to see they’ve expanded their operations into the store space next to theirs to add increased seating.  They still host the occasional scheduled music performance as well as an open mic night once a week.


Oh yeah, and they now sell vinyl.

Records and coffee.  It’s like they saw me coming a mile away.

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I was thrilled to visit Adam Bros. a while back and see a rack of used records in the front corner.  On my first trip, I found lots of great oddball stuff that I hadn’t seen in my other digging endeavors: “James Brown at the Organ”, a Porter Wagoner album, records from longtime favorites like Albert King and Sonny Boy Williamson, and under-appreciated classics like Steve Earle’s “Guitar Town” LP.  I figured this was going to be a discount vinyl destination where I would occasionally find something of use to me.

Next trip, I found Jason & the Scorchers on vinyl.  Now I’m intrigued.

Next trip, brand new copies of compilations by The Pretty Things and Link Wray, put out by the amazingly fabulous Norton Records.  And more classic Atlantic Records soul than you could shake a stick at.

Next trip, Captain Beefheart and the Easybeats.

I should mention that these trips were each only about a week apart.  This wasn’t like the other local antique/resale shops that offered vinyl selections that never (EVER) changed.  Someone was putting real effort into this.

The selection got a little tighter, and better, every single time I visited.

I learned that the record shop portion of Adam Bros. was run by another college classmate (I’d gone to school with a couple of the Adam brothers, too), Brian Lee.


Brian has grown his vinyl sale endeavor to the point that it has a name (Brian Lee’s Mini Record Store) and a Facebook page.  It’s much busier than I expected a vinyl record bin to be in this small, rural town.  During last month’s  Agape Music Festival (a large Christian concert festival staged by our “local college”, Greenville College), I heard several of the nationally known recording artists stopped in to peruse the racks, based on word-of-mouth they’d heard around the festival.

For me, Brian Lee’s Mini Record Store has been a godsend.  I still love my buddies at all of the larger independent record shops in St. Louis, but finances and schedules have increasingly prevented me from getting over to the city as often as I’d like.  For a musical expeditionary and vinyl junkie like myself, to have access to a GOOD selection of records is HUGE.

On my last trip, thanks to a major purchase Brian was recently able to make from a collector, I scored quality copies of my two all-time favorite albums: The Clash’s “London Calling” and The Rolling Stones’ “Exile on Main St.”

My daughter and I have started a weekly tradition on Saturdays.  We’ll visit the Bakery Nook – conveniently located next door to Adam Brothers Music & Coffee House – for homemade donuts, take them over to Adam Bros. where we enjoy the donuts along with some of the coffeehouse’s goodness (coffee for me, smoothie for her), then hit the vinyl racks. 

I was excited to talk with Brian Lee recently about what goes into launching a successful record shop in a small town like Greenville, IL.

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First, tell us about yourself.

My name Is Brian Lee.  I'm a Carpenter/ Musician/ landlord/ and Bon Vivant!  Me and my wife and kids moved back to the area after living in Nashville TN for eight years where I did carpentry and was a professional guitar player.  We've moved back to Illinois to be close to family again and we really love it here!  

How did you get started in the “mini record store” business?

Well... I guess the old Adams Brothers had some musical instruments and there was a crate of records that had been there for a long time, and I asked Jessie if I could try my hand at selling records in the store.  When we lived in Nashville I would buy records in Illinois and trade them in for store credit at a local store called Backs and Tracks.  They would give you fifty percent trade in credit so I would buy stuff here and trade in for harder to find stuff.  They ended up going out of business so maybe they were giving too much!  Adam, you rule, I miss your store!  Pretty much after I started selling at Adam Brothers whenever I wanted to add more or try something different Jessie has always been up for it.  He's very pro new ideas!


What’s your goal in taking on this venture?

Well, one of the things missing since moving here was a vinyl store and it's amazing how many people collect around here! I've met some super knowledgeable collectors here, it's been really fun!  So the first goal is for there to be a vinyl store, which has happened! The next goal for me is to get a bigger audience.  The more people coming through, the more types of things I can carry, and that makes it way more fun.  I love getting requests for what people are looking for.  It kind feels like searching for buried treasure.  This year I decided to not worry about making a profit and just try to put all the money made into more and more records.  Having a bigger audience also enables me to buy more expensive and rare stuff which is always exiting.  

How far would you like to take the store?

Well, I'm not sure exactly how far it can go but I think I'm just trying to enjoy it and see what comes out of it.  It would be fun to make enough money to spend a few full days a week working on it.  I think it would be fun to get to the point where I could afford to drive longer distances to get stuff too.  

Tell me about the demographics/audience of the store.  I expected it to be mostly college kids, but I’m surprised that I see more folks older and younger than college kids there, shopping, a lot.

I've met a lot of college age and a little older and also a lot of people around or above fifty.  Absolutely no forty three year olds.  Just kidding.  There are some college kids, but I've been really surprised how many non college kids it has been.  I'd guess it's about half college kids and half older.  Actually, a big part of the fun is learning from the older collectors, there are a couple of guys around here that know a ton!


Are you surprised that a record shop endeavor has done this well in a small, rural town like Greenville?

Yes, very much, but the more people I meet I'm surprised less and less.  I think there is a pretty big community of older musicians and artistically driven people here.  The really serious collections are almost all older guys in their 50's-60's.  They grew up with it and a lot of them have been collecting for a long time or collected until the switch over to CDs happened in the 90's.  A lot of them have seen some of the artists they collect live and have lots of great stories about it.

Describe the process of how you go about finding and obtaining records to sell in the store.

Well... That's kind of the trick isn't it? It's really random, but I try to get ahold of people who have collections and try to buy my favorite ones.

What’s been the biggest challenge in this process?

Finding the collections!  If you know of any give them my number! It is 615-202-3837.  My email is brianfrom78@gmail.com


It is also hard to guess which records will sell and for how much.  I've gotten better at knowing when I can pay good money for a collection or when I have to pass because it will just sit and fill space.  It's actually surprisingly hard to set prices.  I want to be cheap enough to be worth driving from St. Louis or Springfield but be able to charge enough to carry valuable records too.  

What’s the most rewarding part of it?

Listening to the music, talking about it, reading the albums, and looking at the covers.  Vinyl is so tangible, entertaining, educational, useful (as entertainment), and addicting.  Also, finding something I've been looking for for a long time.  It is a huge rush. I love it.

What would you say are the lessons you’ve learned through this?

Always respect people and their taste in music.   There are a lot of records that are not valuable but the music is good and vice versa. I've had people be super exited about finding a record I didn't really even notice.  The vinyl format has so many things to offer in addition to the music.  Again, it's history, art, music, and stories to share.

What can we expect in the future from Brian Lee’s Mini Record Store?

Tons of records!   Whenever you go in, if you see someone else looking at stuff, TALK TO THEM!  You can learn a ton from other collectors just by staring up a conversation.  People love to talk about it.  Plus, it's good for you!

Go ahead and put a plug in for your band, where people can find your music, etc.

Oh yeah... here's my music!


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