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JOHN TIMMONS: X-TACY (WITH A LITTLE AGONY)
By Tim Roberts • Photos by Laura Roberts
It's the Obsessive-Compulsive Action Figure! Anxiety and germophobia represented in a small plastic doll a little more than four inches high, complete with his own surgical mask and a disinfectant moist towelette, his face frozen somewhere between fear and disgust.
Then there's the Miracle Jesus Action Figure, flowing robes, hands out to his side in a gesture of welcome, with a set of tiny loaves of bread, a pair of fish and a cask of wine.
But between them, nearly a foot tall, the Johnny Cash Action Figure, dressed in a black coat and slacks. Upright next to him in the plastic package, a segment of railroad track. Two stubs of plastic stick up from it, where you can stand Action Figure Johnny while he waits for the Orange Blossom Special.
The three items are among the mix of other toys on a shelf over a big wooden bin filled with CDs, all secured in clear plastic holders that keep them at an easier level to browse through, but also make it harder for some scofflaw to stuff a few down his pants (or into her purse) and try to dash out the store. From speakers above the high, exposed ceiling comes an aria, a female soprano backed by strings and French horn. She sounds heartbroken, longing. The instruments behind her offer a tender bedding. The song is "Tristes apprets," from the opera Castor et Pollux by Jean-Phillippe Rameau. This version is from on the soundtrack to the Sophia Coppola film Marie Antoinette. The song title translates to "Mournful Endings." Appropriate for the film's main character.
Off to the left, a clatter of plastic cuts into the music. A man walks away from another one of the large bins. He's carrying a CD in its holder toward the cash registers at the front of the store. It is mid-afternoon on an overcast day in early November, lunchtime, so there aren't too many people browsing through all the other bins spread out among nearly more 8,000 square feet of retail space (with an additional 2,000 upstairs and in the back storage area), packed mostly with CDs (new and used) in every possible genre of music, a generous supply of DVDs (also new and used), t-shirts advertising the store's name or the store founder's "Keep Louisville Weird" campaign hanging in circular racks or from the fronts of the bins. And toys: bowling bag purses, Spud Guns (stick the barrel into a raw potato, pull it out, fire away! Pelt your friends with pellets of starch!), Kill Bill lunch boxes, refrigerator magnets depicting comb-over styles and action figures of any cultural figure, pop, literary, Biblical, or otherwise. Upstairs, a mini boutique of more shirts, beaded curtains, a glass counter with skull candles, incense burners and other items necessary to burn off any special herbal odors you might create (don't want the landlord or parents , sometimes one and the same, to get too suspicious).
"It's good," replied the owner when asked how business was going. "It could be a lot better. Has been better. After 21 years of being in existence, it's probably as tough now, if not tougher, than it's ever been before."
Seated behind a gray faux-Formica-and-pressed-wood desk in an a small office piled and stacked with the detritus of pop-culture, stacks of CD jewel cases, an M.C. Hammer doll still fresh in its packaging (even though Hammer Time expired sometime early in the last decade), bookshelves heavy with magazines, an Elvis and Barbie doll set ("Love ya, momma, but why don' ya change that expression on your face and pass the King a couplea jelly doughnuts. Thankyaverruhmuch"), with more stacks of CD jewel cases that threaten to topple onto the floor, is John David Timmons, owner of ear X-tacy in its two forms: the entertainment emporium and pop-culture boutique and the companion record label.
For 21 years, Timmons' store on Bardstown Road (in three different locations at different times on that asphalt conduit of the city's weirdest and wildest places) has been a pop nexus, a prime destination for music fans, no matter if they roll into the parking lot on skateboards or in a Lexus SUV, if they're celebrities or regular customers, if they've got only a handful of wadded up singles and couch-cushion change or wallet full of crisp, high-denomination bills.
And when they leave, they might even pick up a pack of Cat Butt Chewing Gum (which doesn't taste like you think it might).
"We're always changing the mix as to what we carry," Timmons said. "We have to listen to our customers as to what they want. As far as music goes, it changes constantly."
Keeping hooked into that constant change accompanies tough competition for Timmons and his store after being in the record business for more than two decades. Competition that isn't just coming from other stores like his.
"There are more avenues for people to acquire their music," Timmons stated. "There are more things to take up peoples' time and distract them than in the past. Back in the old days, there used to be a handful of TV channels to watch and only a few commercial radio stations. Now you've got Internet radio, satellite radio, you've got eight billion channels on TV and there's the Internet itself. So you've got all these things taking up time and distracting people.
"There's also a glut of incredibly crappy commercial music that has turned people off from even wanting to buy music."
At ear X-tacy, the crappy commercial stuff also shares wall or bin space with the other items. Not hidden, only woven into the entire selection of merchandise. So if someone comes in looking for Now That's What I Call Music 2,321, he might find himself (or herself) exploring the other stuff that's there, pausing to slip a pair of headphones on at a listening station and push its worn square buttons to call up a track from one of the CDs displayed there. Then trying another that looks interesting. Perhaps going to the front counter and asking about the music that's playing over the store's speakers. Or even checking out the rack of staff recommendations, locating an imported DVD of a concert of a friend's favorite band and finding a universe of kitchy treasures like Cat Butt Chewing Gum.
Fitting, then, that the sad music played in the store that day was originally from an opera called Castor et Pollux, a story about the two mythic characters that make up the constellation Gemini, considered as a patron of the ancient seafarers, a guide to new lands or promising a return to safe and friendly home ports.
What's important to Timmons, though, is making sure that the store is an important point of departure and return, for these journeys.
"We're always changing the mix as to what we carry," Timmons said. "When we moved into this location eleven years ago, we were looking for ways to try to make it look full. And now that we're full, we're trying to figure out how we're going to get more inventory in here. We can't carry everything that's out. There are hundreds of new releases every week. Other things that we've brought in, what we call the boutique items, the pop-culture stuff that's not directly related to the music business, there's more money to be made in that than a new CD. That helps keep us afloat."
And what about the store's core offering?
"It's still primarily about the music here. If it ever looks like this is something other than a record store, then we've lost focus. If we ever get to this point, somebody either needs to shoot me or let me know."
Revolutions start in unlikely places. Taverns in and around the colonies in the 1770s, the city center of Bratislava, Czechoslovakia in the autumn of 1989. Even behind a typewriter. American journalist John Reed spent more than a week behind one, hammering out a narrative about his experiences and involvement in the Russian Revolution in 1917 and bombastically called his finished piece Ten Days that Shook the World, used as an indirect textbook for social revolution for years afterward. Lenin himself, in the book's introduction, said it gave a clear answer to what is meant by the Proletarian Revolution, answering the question all the un-united workers of the world never seemed to ask. That Vladimir: always thinking for the little guy (when he wasn't busy eliminating opposing political parties and siccing the Cheka on his enemies).
Here in Louisville, a small revolution in the local economy and music business was started when John Timmons sat behind a bulky old manual typewriter and, in less than ten minutes, typed out nine characters on a piece of paper, took it to a photocopier, enlarged the text and coined an identity for the new store he was about to create: a courier typeface font that was exploded nearly 500 times it size, slightly skewed. The identity would eventually be reproduced and, as a bumper sticker would, as a Ying to a Yang, a capitalistic orouborus, feed recognition to the store, provide it business. And the store would be the only place where the stickers could be obtained.
The identity would ultimately give the store worldwide recognition.
"I seem them all the time," Timmons said of the store's bumper stickers. "It still amazes me that people would want to put them on their cars. I'll never understand it because I still don't believe in bumper stickers. But it's been the best marketing vehicle this store has had. That and word of mouth."
In 1985 Timmons was 30 years old and had been selling his massive record collection out of his apartment at 3rd Street and Magnolia Avenue in Old Louisville. A former musician born in Evansville, Indiana, he had come to Louisville from Scottsdale, Arizona in 1976 to become a manager and buyer for Karma Records at Bardstown Road and Bonnycastle Drive, then one of Louisville's independent record stores, the place where the mysteriously cool kid on the block would go pick up his Emerson, Lake & Palmer albums, black light posters and bulbs. The last time you went over, he had bought some kind of weird-looking plastic tube that had water in it and a tiny charred metal bowl that smelled like burned rope. It looked familiar. Maybe something you saw a picture of in health class. The kid's brother was in college. He rumbled around in a Chevelle with thick black tires. He had a set of sideburns that flared out at his jaw and kept a bottle of Brut in the glove compartment. He shopped at Karma, too.
John's Records, his home-based business was called, specializing in rare, out-of-print and promotional vinyl. He even had a catalog and filled orders by mail and sold from booths at record shows. But, tired of having people coming to his apartment at all hours day and night, he began looking for physical space. He knew where he wanted the store to be. The problem was finding an available building.
He had even created a name for it, borrowing a portion from one of his favorite bands, the witty British pop group XTC.
"I wanted to be on Bardstown Road," he said. "I'd found a location next to the Great Escape, but the owner of the building leased it to somebody else when I thought I had it. I ended up taking the first spot available. The first store was on Poplar Level Road at the Watterson Expressway."
The building, later razed to make room for an onramp onto the Watterson, was 300 square feet, but visible from the expressway. Six months later, he got the spot he had originally wanted in the Great Escape building after the used furniture store that was in there went out of business.
Timmons moved his store into the new space on Saturday, May 3, 1985. Obliquely appropriate, later that afternoon Spend a Buck crossed the finish line at Churchill Downs to win the 111th Kentucky Derby.
Five years later, feeling the need to grow out of the 600 square feet location, Timmons moved the store again, this time a few miles north to the Tyler Park Plaza, close to Grinstead Drive, to a location more than three times the size and anchored by a Blockbuster Video.
Five years after that, the store needed more space. Again.
"I had been looking for another location to move to. I'd wanted to stay there, but there was no room for expansion. I had even thought about Mid City Mall. Fortunately, Pier 1 Imports, who was in this space at the time, decided to close up in the middle of the night one weekend and move out. They broke their lease. As soon as I saw that, I contacted the owner of the property and started to work out a lease agreement. I was going from 1,800 square feet to 10,000.
"It was an incredible leap of faith and I had to find a way to make it work."
More than a decade ago, Timmons took that leap and it landed him in a prime location in a small shopping plaza a block south of the intersection of Bardstown Road and Eastern Parkway. Pier 1 had sneaked out of the visible, large, two-storey part of a new building and Timmons moved his operation in. He did what a major chain wasn't able to do: run a large store profitably on the Baxter/Bardstown Sub-Cultural Conduit.
It helps, though, if you're selling a product many in the area actually want to buy. CDs and Hard Day's Night lunch boxes do better in that area than pillows made from bright-toned Indian silk covered in Sanskrit that spells out dirty words and velvet tassels sprouting from every corner.
The prime means of advertising for the store is its ubiquitous bumper sticker, seen around town in a number of color combinations on the backs of cars, or with individual letters cut up ransom-note style and pasted to form other words (one disturbing version is "ax yer cat."). It has been spotted on a 1957 Chevy in Havana, Cuba. A picture of it was taken on a guitar case in front of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Filmmaker Cameron Crowe used several in Elizabethtown and didn't charge Timmons a product placement fee. He just loves the store that much.
Another way to Timmons promotes the store (in a way that is harder to cut up and arrange the letters to spell out a violent act against a cat) is through ear X-tacy Records, an independent label that showcases Louisville and regional musicians. It, too, had a parallel development with the store.
"With the first store on Poplar Level Road," Timmons said, "we encouraged all the local artists to bring in their records and tapes. There weren't many stores in town that wanted to cater to local musicians. It's a consignment thing. It's a headache. It's a lot of paperwork, a lot to keep track of. The perception is local artists don't sell much music, so what's the point?
"Having been a musician myself, I knew how important it was to have local artists represented in the independent stores. We actively encouraged bands to bring in their records to sell."
Through that encouragement, Timmons connected with several Louisville musicians. This was more than two decades ago, when recording, mastering, pressing and distributing records and tapes cost as much as a small car. Brent Starkey had a band called Mrs. Frazier. They needed help in making a record. Through a customary handshake deal (which Timmons still uses), Timmons fronted the band the money and helped them make a 45.
The deal he made with Mrs. Frazier still stands for others: the musicians pay him back when they make their money back.
Timmons resumed his story. "It wasn't until a couple of deals like that where I realized I wasn't getting anything out of it other than goodwill, I decided to start the ear X-tacy record label. The additional benefit that I had was that we actually got the name out there a little bit more. And that snowballed to where we are now. We're at 50 releases, soon to be 51."
Among those who have benefited from being on ear X-tacy are Tim Krekel (with and without the Groovebillies), Bryan Hurst (with and without the Lolligaggers), Heidi Howe, Dick Sisto, Butch Rice, Kathleen Hoye, Ut Gret, The Pennies, Lexington's Taildragger and The Mighty Jeremiahs, whose nationally-recognized self-titled release from last year is the label's biggest seller. The genres cover singer-songwriter pop, country, blues-rock, jazz, improvisational and Christian.
Will Timmons' good will and generosity hold out much longer?
"I'm still losing a whole lot of money at it," he admitted. "The releases we've put out have slowed down considerably. It's not the smartest business decision I've ever made. I'll say I'm never gonna put out another record again. Then somebody will bring me a demo and I'll say how can I not put this out."
The typewriter Timmons used to create the ear X-tacy logo, in a gunmetal gray body with its rounded front corners, dark green keys and a big X (culled from a bumper sticker) in the middle, sits on a bookshelf mounted to the wall behind his desk, acting for now as a bookend. The store, the commercial revolution, Timmons started with it is part of the varied history of music retail in Louisville. At one time this was the city of Vine Records, Karma, King's, Tiff's, Pyramid (which morphed into Electric Ladyland and is still in business) and Shively Records among others. Even though chain music stores have had locations here, not many remain today. FYE, Coconuts and the music sections of Barnes & Noble and Borders offer the largest competition. And with Tower Records in bankruptcy, their fates are questionable since all the other sources of music available, along with other distractions, are draining the customers away.
But Timmons isn't the only one who has inherited the tradition of Louisville music retail. In addition to ear X-tacy, Ben Jones still operates his Better Days store on west Broadway. And Underground Sounds has its cozy little store in the Original Highlands. They are the new Vines and Kings' and Karmas.
"I've been very lucky and very fortunate," Timmons said, "and have had such great support from Louisville. We were at the right place at the right time. The challenge for us now is to remain as relevant as we have been to Louisville. We're always looking for ways to keep people coming back to the music store. Everything we have you can find it online and have delivered to your house tomorrow. So we're always looking for reasons why people should come in here.
"It's not just a music store. It's a social environment."