If you're a record store, you celebrate your 33 1/3rd birthday.
The Packers-Cowboys game roared through the car speakers as I pulled up to Sugar Shack Records.
Is there anything less Packer-like than a used record shop on a football Sunday? The fact that Sugar Shack owner Gary John Feest selected game day for his store's 33 1/3 anniversary sale was perfect. In the face of indignities both industry-imposed and self-inflicted, Feest has lasted more than three decades.
I pushed the heavy old door open and listened. Canadian folk singer Stan Rogers spun on the turntable -- music so bland it sounds like soup simmering.
Inside, Sugar Shack is a mosh pit of merchandise. Records, CDs, tapes and DVDs are stuffed into the three-room store at 2301 Atwood Ave. where Feest has held forth since 2003. That's when, after stops on Gorham, Mifflin and State streets, he split from downtown for the near east side. "Students stopped buying music," he said.
They're back, thanks to the vinyl resurgence. Vinyl makes up the greater part of the 60/40 ratio of his current album-to-CD inventory. "That ratio seems about right," said Feest, adding that he's seeing an uptick in CD sales, too. "Like with albums, once in a while people like to have it in their hands. Plus it's a fast way to reclaim essential music after a computer crash."
Stan Rogers' worried warble continued from the speakers. "Why do you have funeral music playing at your birthday sale?" I asked Feest. "He's my favorite songwriter!" he said, cracking the seal on a bottle of champagne. There was an enormous chocolate cake at rest on a bin of LPs right inside the door. The cake was baked by Feest's wife, Susie. It said "Happy 33 1/3!"
The name of Feest's store has two birthrights. Jimmy Gilmore & the Fireballs' 1963 hit was titled "Sugar Shack." The word "sugar" is also one-half SU-sie and one-half GAR-y.
It's clear Susie has supported her husband's unusual career path. Why else would someone put up with a guy who owns nearly 20,000 LPs and about the same number of CDs?
Feest said the first record he remembers selling was a Tommy Bolin LP. Feest always adds a fact about any artist he mentions. "Jeff Beck was the last guy to see Bolin alive."
Who are the most dependable artists to sell over the years? I asked Feest. There was no hesitation. "Doors, Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd."
A half-dozen customers squeezed past one another in the skinny aisles as we talked, including a father who gathered CDs as his young daughter built a short stack of DVDs on the counter. In total defiance of the young hipster stereotype displayed by his beard and reservoir-tip stocking cap, a man laid down a Billy Joel platter to buy.
"How's that Stan Rogers selling?" I asked Feest. "Not so great," he laughed. There are two settings on the toggle that is Gary Feest's face: 1) smiling and 2) unhinged amusement.
He turned to change the record on the hi-fi behind the counter. The store seemed spooky drenched in silence, especially because album covers cover the walls from floor to ceiling, all those groups peering down as if to say, "Pick me, next!" That's when I noticed, over in a cluttered corner of the front room, the Packers game was on, sound off. The TV looked like it was manufactured the year of the original Ice Bowl.
Feest selected Grateful Dead's Terrapin Station to keep the party going. While the likes of Weir and Garcia have never visited his various locations over the years, there are plenty of other famous artists who, in town on tour with an afternoon to kill, have wandered in his store and spent some bread.
The late Chris Farley was a regular. English punk blockhead Ian Dury swaggered in one day. Heavy metal meathead Rob Zombie politely waited in line to pay for his records. Then there was the day one musician pointed out an album track to another musician and wondered aloud if it would work as a cover. She was Rickie Lee Jones. Feest has even handed records to artists on stage while they were performing, recordings he found, at the musician's request, in his off-site archives.
Sugar Shack has employed 30 to 40 people over the years, but these days Feest is pretty much the workforce. His house is a short walk from the shop, a convenience that partially explains the sometimes scattershot hours of the place.
If Feest can't find your disc, it doesn't exist. I nearly stumped him one Christmas time, asking for a title for a gift for one of our sons. I forgot about it. Christmas morning it showed up inside our storm door.
Each year Feest threatens to close his corner of uncommon commerce. "I never get around to it," he said. I gathered up my coat and paid for my discs (Wilco and Robbie Fulks).
"Thirty-three and a third years is a long time to be in show business," I said. His face burst into the "unhinged amusement" setting.
"You mean slow business," he laughed.