Photo Credit: Matt Hardy
Owner Dan Wall is manning the Wuxtry Records counter one morning when a college-age customer approaches. “Do you have the new Head and the Heart album on vinyl?” he asks. The store’s UPS shipment hasn’t arrived yet, but Wall tells the customer to check back that afternoon.
The exchange illustrates a key issue independent record stores face today. With vinyl once again the preferred physical format for music, long-running shops like Wuxtry must now compete for customer loyalty and often-limited stock with newly dominant monoliths like Amazon, as well as trendy album-of-the-month clubs. To survive, Wall has to buy confidently but not overcommit, know what to order and when.
Though it has always maintained a respectable supply of used wax, there was a time not long ago when Wuxtry, like most of its ilk, focused on CDs, which are cheaper than vinyl, easier to manufacture and take up less space on a store’s shelves. But as everyone, your grandma and even the New York Times knows, vinyl is back.
“I’d like to say that we at least try to anticipate trends,” says Wall, who estimates that vinyl makes up “70 [or] 80 percent” of his store’s sales. “When CDs came into being, a lot of stores went out of business because they couldn’t afford the cost. And when records came back, a lot of stores went out of business then. With records, we’re deep-shelved, because we never gave up on them.”
For decades, Wuxtry—an Athens institution and one of the Southeast’s premier record stores—has navigated the ups and downs of a fickle industry. On Saturday, Wuxtry celebrates its 40th birthday with a concert and gathering at Little Kings. The event also serves as a release party for the 25th-anniversary edition of Party Out of Bounds, author Rodger Lyle Brown’s book on Athens’ creative explosion during the 1970s and ’80s, which birthed bands like R.E.M., the B-52s and Pylon, and to which Wuxtry’s rise is inextricably linked.
Forty years is rare in any industry. In this particular field, it’s nearly unheard of: Wuxtry is the oldest still-operating record store in the state of Georgia. (It’s one of two still operating in downtown Athens; the equally essential Low Yo Yo Stuff is the other.) As downtown has filled with chain stores and student high-rises, other independently owned businesses have either shuttered their doors or relocated, unable to maintain in the new reality. Yet Wuxtry endures, a beacon of cool amidst a sea of change.
In the Beginning
Like countless other young Athenians in the mid-1970s, Wall and business partner Mark Methe, who moved here together from Chicago, got into music because there wasn’t much else to do. “We kind of got into it by accident,” says Wall. “[Mark] was a DJ in college, and I always played in bands, so we were music enthusiasts that got into the business.”
On Mar. 1, 1976, when Wuxtry opened on the corner of College Avenue and Clayton Street after a short initial stint on Foundry Street, there was little to no Athens music scene to speak of. Nor were there any other record shops; local gadfly and former Flagpole contributor William Orten Carlton’s Ort’s Oldies, which specialized in 7-inch singles and famously employed a young Fred Schneider, had just closed.
“We were here and in place before [the scene] started happening, but we always thought we were a part of it, and kind of grew up with it,” says Wall, who cites the advent around that time of a few other iconic downtown businesses, including the 40 Watt Club and The Grit, as equally vital to the scene’s development.
As the B-52s and Pylon galvanized Athens’ young and restless, Wuxtry became a gathering place, a spot where like-minded freaks could exchange ideas and new music. Around then, “things started happening for us,” says Wall, “and we realized that we may be in this for a while.”
That initial success led to the creation of a Decatur outpost in 1978—which Methe opened and continues to run—and a small Baxter Street store the same year. A decade later, the downtown shop moved into the larger adjacent storefront and spun off its books-and-comics operation into Bizarro Wuxtry, which opened upstairs. In 2013, Wuxtry established the Sidecar in its original corner location to sell half-price used vinyl. (All except the Baxter location remain open for business.)
Throughout, Wuxtry was an Athens-music linchpin—not only as a space where ideas could be shared and sounds discovered, but where cash-strapped creative types could earn a few bucks when they weren’t performing. “We hired mostly musicians, because those were the people we got along with,” Wall explains.
Indeed, Wuxtry has employed countless local musicians over the years, some of whom would become household names, like R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck and the B-52s’ Kate Pierson. John Fernandes, of many Athens groups, including the Olivia Tremor Control, is a longtime fixture.
Perhaps one of Wall’s savviest business decisions was to let his knowledgeable staff have a say in what he stocks, unlike other owners who impose a narrow personal taste on their customers. “I’m totally old-school,” admits Wall. “That’s why I have smart young managers.”
Photo Credit: Matt Hardy
Wuxtry’s selection is vast and varied. Fernandes’ favorites include cosmic jazz, world and psychedelia; HHBTM Records and Athens Popfest founder Mike Turner specializes in taut indie and post-punk gems; and Nate Mitchell, who fronts Nate and the Nightmares and DJs as Nate From Wuxtry, has an ear for classic garage-rock, soul and R&B. Bins feature a selection of employee recommendations, guiding customers towards albums they may not ever encounter otherwise.
The clerks themselves have also been creatively enriched. In 1998, Wall hired Brian Burton, a UGA student, WUOG staffer and aspiring club DJ. Burton, now better known as the Grammy-winning musician and producer Danger Mouse, had been toiling unhappily at a mall Sam Goody and wanted to make the jump to the big leagues.
“I used to go into Wuxtry a lot,” says Burton. “I was in there one day, talking to Dan about why they didn’t have any hip hop records. He said, ‘Well, I don’t know which hip hop records to buy.’ I said, ‘Maybe I could help you with that…’ I kinda talked my way into [the job].”
Burton’s Wuxtry experience was formative. He credits Fernandes in particular for turning him on to a style of music that has informed his work with groups like Gnarls Barkley, the Black Keys and Broken Bells. “I got really into psychedelic rock stuff right around then, based on John giving me a lot of music,” Burton says.
Another former Wuxtry employee, Manfred Jones of garage-rockers The Woggles—that band will play the store’s 40th birthday party Saturday—says his time working there was likewise integral to his musical growth.
“The ancillary threads to the Wuxtry web include its social functions—allowing like-minded music souls a place to commune,” says Jones. “That discourse provides the foundation and inspiration for continued musical adventure.”
It’s not only insiders who have been inspired. With its reputation as a pillar of Athens music, Wuxtry has also acted as a magnet for new locals and out-of-towners curious about the scene, as well as various visiting musicians, some of whom have left their own mark on the store.
“Robyn Hitchcock came to town one time,” Jones recalls. “We had a poster on the glass door facing out, so you could read it as you came in the store. We asked him if he would sign the poster. He said he'd love to, took a Sharpie, walked over to the glass door and signed the glass. He handed back the Sharpie, and with a twinkle and a ‘cheers,’ bade us goodbye.”
Wuxtry’s 40-year existence is especially remarkable considering how much downtown Athens has changed since 1976. As big-budget development has come to the city’s university-adjacent core, many businesses have either closed or decamped to neighborhoods like Normaltown or the Eastside.
Wall reflects on all he’s witnessed with quiet amazement. “When we first moved to town, there were still chickens and goats running around on the street downtown,” he says with a puckish grin. “It was a different town and a different time.”
Brown, whose book chronicles a downtown Athens teeming with creative life and light, says the transformation that has occurred is more than simply a physical one.
“What the intensity of development has done… is limit those empty spaces—both physical and imaginary—where people could just make stuff up without being aware of the fact that they’re in ‘Athens,’” says Brown. “Consider that in Party Out of Bounds, I write about how dramatically different the town was in 1984 compared to 1980. You can only imagine how much additional change has taken place.”
Equally troubling is the apparent rise in the number of UGA students—who make up nearly a third of Athens’ population—who are unappreciative or, more likely, unaware of the city’s cultural history. A recent Red & Black op-ed that straight-facedly praised the convenience of chain stores and dismissed locally owned businesses as irrelevant drew ire and consternation from townies already sweating the corporatization of their beloved burg.
But Wall, who is surprisingly calm about such matters, isn’t worried about a shift in students’ attitudes. “It can’t be a good thing that kids are interested in the franchises only,” he admits. “But one would hope that after a year or two in town, they wake up and get around some hip friends and things change for them. I’ve seen that happen.”
The homogenization of downtown does bother Wall, and he scoffs at the lack of intimacy and care exhibited by competitors like Urban Outfitters, which opened last year on the same downtown block as Wuxtry and features a few racks of unimaginatively curated vinyl, as well as cheapo record players and other accessories. Nonetheless, Wall thinks Athens will always be a center of creativity.
“Over the years, I get asked that question: ‘Is the scene over? Have we had our golden age?’ And my answer has always been, absolutely not,” he says. “We get new energy and new creative people all the time… There’s no question it’s continued on, and it’s as good as it’s ever been. I don’t know about downtown, but Athens will always be a music town. There are too many people who have made it their life.”
Of course, there is a bigger picture to consider. Even as he celebrates this milestone, Wall is unsure about the state of his industry. He expects the widely acknowledged vinyl bubble to burst as we move closer and closer to all-digital everything, joking that “as times get more and more modern, we will find that fossils made of oil derivatives are not going to be the format people use.”
But Wuxtry has weathered storms in the past, and its owner isn’t overly concerned about the future.
“I’m not one of those that believes [physical media] is here forever. In 20 years, we’ll all be walking around with something implanted in our heads that picks up musical signals from Mars,” Wall says. “But if vinyl goes out of style and everything’s digital—then we’re an antique store. And we’ll still be around for a few more years.”
Rodger Brown will give a talk about Party Out of Bounds: The B-52's, R.E.M. and the Kids Who Rocked Athens, Georgia for its 25th anniversary edition. The book launch is a joint party with Wuxtry Records 40th Anniversary. Music by The Woggles and Nate & the Nightmares will follow. See story on p. 14.