Since opening their Louisville outpost on Frankfort Avenue in 2013, Guestroom Records has become an integral part of Louisville's music scene. Selling new and used records, CDs, and cassettes, Guestroom has thrived even as consumers rely on streaming services and digital downloads. Owners Travis Searle and Lisa Foster are keenly aware of how Guestroom has made it. For them, a good record store doesn't just sell records; a good record store engages their audience, supports local musicians, and fosters the communities--music, business, neighborhood--they belong to. Guestroom Records has been a fantastic addition to Louisville, so we were really pleased to sit down with Travis and Lisa and chat about all things Louisville, the return to records, and the community of local businesses they're proud to be a part of.
Tell us a little bit about opening up your first store in Oklahoma.
Travis: My business partner, Justin Sowers, and I legally opened in 2002 as a small distribution company. We pooled together $400 each and made an order and took it around to people's houses in a Rubbermaid tub.
Lisa: They still have the Rubbermaid tub in the bathroom at the Norman store, it’s pretty awesome.
Travis: We kind of just ordered what we were interested in and if people didn't want to buy what we had to sell than it would just be ours, which was cool with us. As it turned out, the stuff that we were interested in was the same kind of stuff that other people were looking for. So we would just take stuff around to people's houses, take whatever profit we made and make another order. We would do that once a month until it got to the point that we had too much stuff to actually carry with us. In the meantime, we would set up at shows and other places and sell. At the point when we had too much stuff to carry, we started doing monthly garage sales. We did that for about 6 months until someone from a local coffee shop and music venue told us about a space opening up next to them and we decided that it made perfect sense. So we opened the store in Norman in July of 2003, outgrew it in about 2 years, and moved to a store just around the corner about a block down the street in September of 2005. By 2007 we had gotten to the point where we had almost outgrown our second shop. We found a bargain on a place in Oklahoma City in kind of a cool area and decided to open up another location.
Lisa: At the time, they also had a lot of customers traveling from Oklahoma City to Norman, which is the nearby smaller college town. A lot of the customers were saying they wished there were a store in Oklahoma City around the same time they were starting to outgrow the space.
Travis: Yeah, we actually got 'Best Record Store in Oklahoma City' despite the fact that we were about 25 miles south of Oklahoma City, so it just made sense.
What inspired you to open your first record store?
Travis: I worked in a record store in high school for a couple of years. It wasn't a great record store and I always thought I could do it better and turns out I could (laughs). I got lucky when I met my friend and future business partner, Justin. Our ideas just really gelled on what we thought a record store could and should be. Between 2002 and 2003, every record store in Norman had shut down. Over a three month period, the city went from three record stores to zero and we just decided the time was right for us to do it.
Lisa: All the local stores were dying in Oklahoma at the time and the only ones left were these CD warehouses and bad chain stores.
So what was the local business scene like in Norman and Oklahoma City?
Lisa: As an outsider, what was really interesting to me about the Oklahoma City and Norman business scene is that the independent businesses there that make it are incredible local businesses. It's not really a culture that supports local business in the way that Louisville does, or even in some ways that Kentucky does, so there just aren't as many. But the ones that they have are incredible. That's what really struck me about Guestroom before I was part of it, was 'how is this tiny record store so cool in Norman, Oklahoma?' because I had been living in Austin before that. The independent business that are there are good, solid businesses that give a lot back to their community and continue to grow in that way. Oklahoma City has the largest land mass of any city in the country so it's very spread out which makes it more difficult to have a strong business culture. It's not like there's a Frankfort Avenue, or a Bardstown Road, or a NuLu.
Travis: It was a good place but it was never going to get as big and interesting and diverse as I wanted. The county, city and state laws made it difficult to open businesses unless you were independently wealthy.
Lisa, tell us about when you came into the picture.
Lisa: I was a professor at the University of Oklahoma. I moved to Norman in 2005 and I lived in Austin before that and worked at Waterloo Records. I had been in record stores before and I wrote about music and politics. The very first thing I did when I moved was find my local record store and that was Guestroom. We [Travis and I] didn't start dating until years later. It wasn't until we moved to Louisville that I started working full time with Guestroom. It was in part because we were trying to figure out what our next move was going to be as a couple. We had been talking about wanting to leave Oklahoma for a while and I was trying to figure out if I wanted to move to a place for another professor position or if we were going to put the store first. After two or three years of being on the job market and talking about it and really figuring out what was important to us, we decided that record stores were really where we wanted to focus.
What was it that brought you guys to Louisville?
Travis: Well, when we were on the job market, we kind of laid down some ground rules about different places where we didn’t want to move. And we didn’t want to move further west because we didn’t want to get away from Lisa’s family or from my family. And we wanted to live in a place where we wanted to live.
Lisa: That’s how this all started. Because for professors, the job market is such that most people never really get to decide where they want to live, they just have to take the job that’s offered to them, and that’s where they go. I did that once and I wound up in Oklahoma and that worked out great for me, but it was also really one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, to move someplace I didn’t want to go. So when we were considering moving, whether we were looking at a professor job or opening a new store, we had these criteria for the kinds of things that we wanted to do and the places that we wanted to live.
Travis: We wanted a place where we could eat well, where the cost of living wasn’t much higher than what we were used to, where we could have a car, and a place that had a good local business scene and a solid music scene and a number of venues. Where people liked the city where they lived.
Lisa: That was huge for me. When we visited Louisville, everywhere we went, we heard people talking about how much they love the city so much. We also wanted a place where there was a sense of community, and a city that had a more progressive culture.
Travis: It also didn’t hurt that we were coming through Kentucky multiple times a year to visit Lisa’s family and friends.
Lisa: It snuck up on us, to be honest. When I left Kentucky fourteen years ago, Louisville didn’t look like it does now. I was born in Louisville and my parents lived in Louisville, but I grew up in Springfield, Kentucky, right outside of Bardstown, and when I was five we moved to Campbellsville, which is where I graduated high school. It was actually friends of ours who live in Indiana who said, ‘When you guys talk about what you want, it seems like you should think about Louisville.’ So we just started exploring a little more every time we came through to visit my family.
Travis: And every time we came, we thought, ‘Man, this city is awesome.’
Lisa: In a lot of ways--I know this sounds super cheesy--but I really feel like it chose us, in a way. It wasn’t the first place I thought I wanted to go, I honestly didn’t think I wanted to move back to Kentucky. But it started to make so much sense.
ear X-tacy closed pretty close to the time you opened your Louisville store. Was that at all scary to you?
Lisa: I grew up with ear X-tacy so we watched that story a lot. It wasn't super scary to us because we saw it as part of a larger thing that was happening to record stores everywhere and not just this iconic, long-standing part of a community that was going under.
Travis: And at that time, CDs were king, there were no downloads or streaming services.
Lisa: Right, so we were able to see what was happening to ear X-tacy not as a community unable to support record stores but really as the industry shifting in a way that didn't serve that business.
What is it about vinyl and cassettes that have people buying them again? Do you all attribute your success to the fact that records have made a comeback?
Travis: Absolutely, 100 percent. If records hadn't made a comeback, stores like ours, and about 250 other stores across the country that started championing records six or seven years ago, would be very different or wouldn't exist.
Lisa: Vinyl culture, people wanting to buy vinyl again have saved independent record store culture. The question about what it is about vinyl is a big one, I think part of it's about sound, people like that sound. And it's also not something you usually listen to by yourself, it can be, but you can't walk around with a personal record player in your pocket. I think it's a post-digital response that people are having. You know, 'I don't want to download music and listen to it all by myself, I want to have a collection of something that I can play for other people, that I can hold, that I can collect and own.' I think that a lot of this started happening after those stories about not being able to pass down your iTunes collection to your kids started coming out. People were starting to have this question, you know, ‘I bought all these iTunes files, why can't I give them to someone?’ It also becomes a question of ownership.
Travis: I think that's how a lot of people in their early 20s and 30s are feeling about records at this point. I was born in 1980 and I remember going through my parents’ record collection when I was 9 or 10 years old before I knew anything about any of the bands in there and I remember being interested in what these artifacts were. I knew about cassettes, that was what I was buying stuff on.
Lisa: I certainly think nostalgia is part of it, with the cassette tapes what I love is that they're really cheap. You can walk out with 5 albums for 10 bucks that you can listen to in your car, and if it gets too hot or it wears out you got to hear it a couple times. I think cassettes are fascinating.
Travis: Having to flip something... it's a more involved and active way to listen to music. You can't just hit shuffle and hear whatever, you don't use a 5-disc CD changer and just hit play and see what comes on. And there's nothing wrong with that, either, if people want to listen to music I'm not going to complain.
Lisa: Over the summer, we did this Summer Cassingle Series and we were able to give them away with people's admission to the show. We had originally talked about doing 7 inches, but once we started doing the numbers we realized we would actually have to sell them. But with the tapes we could put Louisville bands on the Cassingles, have a show, give people the tapes, and it was a great way of actually circulating people's music.
Tell us a little bit about the stock. Is it very different from the other stores? Do you tailor it to local tastes? Your own tastes?
Lisa: We tailor it to our customer’s tastes. And since our customers are local I guess you could say we tailor it to local tastes. But we certainly pay attention to how much people buy some things and sometimes there’s a record here that would not have sold as well in Norman, and vice versa, and we definitely try to get what our customers want.
Travis: When I do my ordering I certainly take personal taste into account but our taste is so varied--we listen to everything. I do my buying just like I’m doing Christmas shopping: ‘Oh, I know someone who wants that, I know someone who wants that, I know six people who will want that.’ And I can look at the sales records and see how other things have sold and tailor it accordingly. We stock what we’re going to stock, and we stock what people come in looking to buy. As far as used stuff, it it’s cool we’re going to buy it.
Lisa: Used collections are really fascinating because the used stock in here is literally stuff that people walk in here with. So it really is what your audience is bringing to you. As for how it compares to the other stores… A friend from Oklahoma came in the store here and said--and I can’t think who it was but it’s my favorite thing--it was like another child of the same parent, where it’s clearly a different person, you know, it’s its own unique thing but it’s also from the same genetic fabric as what created those first stores. I think that’s a really good way to look at it, in terms of the aesthetics, in terms of the style, in terms of the stock.
Tell us about your in-store events.
Travis: We do a few of those. We can’t do too many; we have a lot on our plate with the other things we do, and we try to be considerate to the neighbors--we can’t have a big band in here being super loud.
Lisa: We’ve been able to do a few more things recently, especially acoustic. Dawn Landes was in here a few weeks ago, that was really great. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart did an all-acoustic set. And we did a DJ set that worked really well. We love in-store events though. They build a sense of community, they get people out to the store who haven’t been to the store before--that’s one thing I notice a lot, people will come in and say, “Wow, I didn’t even know this place was here,” but they heard about someone playing and came to check it out.
What are some of your other favorite local businesses?
Lisa: That’s tricky.
Travis: Everything that Tyler Trotter does.
Lisa: We probably wouldn’t be here had we not stumbled upon the beer store, to be honest. We were looking for beer to take back to our friends in Oklahoma when we were driving through Louisville years ago and we walked in and we were like, “We don’t ever want to leave here.”
Travis: We love the Beer Store, Holy Grale, the Gralehaus. Astro Black and Fat Rabbit. Wild and Woolly.
Lisa: We love the Silver Dollar. We get a little bit of that Texas-Oklahoma culture there. We have awesome neighbors too. I can’t say enough things about Sean of Reynolds Grocery Company and Jessica at Sweet Surrender, and the guys at Hilltop have been great. We love this corner.
Travis: So many places. We could really go on for another hour. I like being an ambassador; it’s really fun to have people come into town and to show it all off.
Other favorites: The Fish House, Why Louisville, Please & Thank You, Flea Off Market, Nancy’s Bagels, Four Sisters.
Visit Guestroom Records at 1806 Frankfort Avenue. Their hours are 11 am to 9 pm Monday through Saturday, and 1 pm to 6 pm on Sunday. Check them out on Facebook and on their website for news and events, and for more information about the Oklahoma City and Norman, OK stores.