Uncle Sam's New Mix for Old Town

They say everyone needs a hobby. My mother scrapbooks. My dad maintains his garden. Even I have a few.

My latest hobby is collecting vinyl records.

True, it’s easier to get on iTunes or just buy a CD. But as any audiophile will tell you, there’s nothing like the sound of a vinyl recording.

So, where does one find vinyl? One of my favorites is Uncle Sam’s Record Emporium in Lansing's Old Town, which opened in June of 2006.

The brick building rests on the corner of Washington and Grand River, appropriately right down the street from Elderly Instruments. Inside, the walls are adorned with band posters and fliers. Music blasts from a turntable and a pair of speakers next to the cash register.

“Music is our thing,” says co-owner Ryan Horky, whose black Ramones T-shirt blends in well with the rest of the decor.

Music and nothing else.

Unlike some other used music stores, Uncle Sam’s does not sell used movies and video games. It’s all about the music. All genres fill the racks, from The Cars to Johnny Cash to the soundtrack for the film “The Bridge On the River Kwai.” And where the racks can’t hold enough, records fill shelves along the walls and boxes on the floor.

The collection spans decades of musical history, acting like a vinyl Library of Alexandria.

Selling and Promoting

One thing that sets Uncle Sam’s apart from other record stores is that Uncle Sam’s supports bands by letting them play in the store. Horky admits this is a ploy to lure people to the store and support the Lansing music scene, which Horky described as “amazing,” “very underground,” a step above Ann Arbor.

I attended one of these shows, featuring Grand Ledge’s own Jason Alarm, and from Florida, The Measure. The shows are free, all the store asks for are donations for the touring bands—gas money.

I counted at least thirty people in attendance. Not bad for a school night.

The store also sells local bands’ albums, only taking a dollar from each album sale. “Smart local bands will bring us a copy to play here,” Horky says.

And better still, unlike the record store in the film “High Fidelity,” you won’t get kicked out for asking for a copy of “I Just Called To Say I Love You.”

Horky laughs, saying, “Sometimes it scares me how much we are like that movie—but without the pretension.”

In “High Fidelity,” the staff consists of music elitists who look down on some customer picks that don’t meet their muster. There is none of that at Uncle Sam’s. The staff is friendly and helpful. And if they don’t carry with you’re looking for, they’ll special order it if possible.

“When we started, [the customer base] was much older,” says Horky. Lately, the store’s demographics are skewed towards younger males—and not just college guys either. The store has a gaggle of high schoolers that show up regularly to whet their adolescent appetite for metal and punk music, which the store has in abundance.

Landing in Old Town

Lucky for Old Town, Horky decided to open his shop away from his East Lansing-based competitors. East Lansing has more than a few used record shops, including the very popular Flat Black and Circular (FBC).

In East Lansing, FBC—which Horky describes as “A killer store. I go in there all the time”—would have been the store's main competition.
While competition pushed them toward Old Town, the Lansing neighborhood wasn’t a hard sell. “(Old Town is) receptive of the kind of store we are,” says Horky, adding that the artistic community really blends with his store.

Old Town isn’t as “rushed” as East Lansing, according to Horky, who cites a more laid back community and professional camaraderie among Old Town business owners as a major professional asset.

Being down the street from Elderly Instruments, a popular stop for guitar aficionados can’t hurt either.

“Definitely,” Horky says with a smile.  “Especially in the beginning,” he adds, joking that on opening day everyone who worked at Elderly was at Uncle Sam’s buying stuff.
Despite the fact that CDs are more common than vinyl, a lot of vinyl passes Horky’s cash register. So I ask him, which one is a bigger financial generator? Vinyl or CDs?

“It is actually vinyl," he says. "Not by a huge margin, maybe 60/40. But still impressive.”

And what of the recording industry’s lament that album sales are slumping due to digital music downloads?

“The demise of actual CDs and records is greatly over-hyped,” said Horky “Sales are down from what it used to be, but still, a lot of people are buying stuff.”

He adds that younger kids, more accustomed to having MP3s, want to own actual albums instead of just having computer files.

Horky said that used CDs sales have become more commonplace due to the national recession, but adds that more people bring in their old CDs to sell, too, so the cycle is feeding itself.

And how about used records? Horky smiles and explains that people are more prone to hang on to their vinyl than their CDs.

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Daniel Hogan is a freelancer and self-professed audiophile. 

Dave Trumpie is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.


Uncle Sam's Record Emporium co-owner Ryan Horky and his Old Town store

All Photographs © Dave Trumpie

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