If, in 1981, you found yourself at 336 S. State Street in the campus area of Ann Arbor, you would have seen a storefront sign for Wazoo Records. If you then walked up a narrow flight of stairs to the second floor, you would have entered a small store chockfull of used albums for sale. Behind the counter, ready to assist, might have been 27-year-old John Kerr ’76.
Fast forward 39 years. Go up those same steps and enter the same floor space. There behind the counter will be Kerr. In the years in between your visits, while you’ve been here, there and everywhere, he’s been waiting for you to return.
While you might think that Kerr’s world has been static, it’s been anything but. The music industry has gone through a series of revolutions and Kerr, to keep his business viable, has had to make adjustments at every turn.
However, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Just how was it that a K graduate came to work at, then own, a record store?
“After I graduated from K, I stayed in Kalamazoo for a while,” he recalls. “I hadn’t explored the city as much as I’d wanted, so I spent some time doing that. I also spent some time in California with a friend before returning to Ann Arbor, where I’d grown up, for good.
“I’d graduated with majors in sociology and anthropology, and partly out of deference to my parents, I felt I should at least try to get a job in that field. I ended up working for the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research doing telephone surveys. I didn’t really care for that, so that didn’t last very long.”
That’s when fate intervened. Kerr walked into Wazoo Records (then at a different location but soon to move to State Street), where other customers were browsing and only one worker covered the shop. Because the man seemed a bit harried, Kerr made an offhand remark about the store needing more help.
The man—the owner, it turned out—readily agreed. “You want a job?”
Kerr said yes. He’s been there ever since.
During the 70’s, all Wazoo sold were used albums. Doing so was profitable but “it put us at the mercy of our clientele,” Kerr explains. “We constantly needed people who were willing to sell us their albums. That’s why we eventually started selling new albums, too. I’ve always preferred used albums, though; they’re more profitable and just more interesting.”
In the ‘80s came cassette tapes. Tapes released by the artists, with songs on them, were a commodity Kerr could sell; it was the blank tapes that were initially a cause for concern.
“Some thought blank cassettes would kill the music industry, since everyone could record someone else’s album onto their tape and not have to buy the album. It didn’t work out that way. People still bought albums, and we sold tons of blank tapes.”
Shortly after that came CDs. Kerr had to find room for them, too, and the used CDs that inevitably followed.
Then, about 20 years ago, another existential threat appeared. A couple of teenagers developed an online platform where users could easily download and share songs for free. They called it Napster, and the music industry was forever changed.
“That hurt us,” Kerr concedes, “though for some people, online music wasn’t satisfying; they wanted a physical product.”
All of these industry changes caused vinyl album sales to decline. Dramatically. And then a funny thing happened—young people rediscovered vinyl. Sure, albums were big and bulky, and they were prone to being scratched, and one side only had about 25 minutes of music. But they were…cool. That was especially true for originals, those that were made in the ’60s and ’70s and had somehow remained in good condition.
“When I ask kids why they’re buying vinyl, their responses are almost mystical. They love the feel, the experience of putting the record on the turntable and placing the needle on it,” Kerr says.
That interest extends well beyond Ann Arbor. With the advent of the internet, Kerr has made his collection available to the entire world.
“I’ve been shipping to England and West Europe for twenty years. Now I’m taking orders from Russia and East Europe—Romania and Poland.” With a smile he adds, “Russians love their heavy metal.”
Including those he ships, two-thirds of Kerr’s sales are records (new and used). The balance is mostly CDs, though he also sells cassettes (mostly used, although “a few really hip groups will also release their new music on cassette”). To add to the quirkiness of his store, he offers old DVDs and even some VHS tapes.
“Horror VHSs sell really well—” Kerr notes, admitting, “there is a bit of a flea market mentality here.”
Asked if he wishes he had a bit more floor space (about 600 square feet open to the public), he shakes his head. “No, not really. Being small like this forces a certain type of discipline” regarding what he buys and sells. And even though his inventory is in the thousands, he’s never felt the need to have it computerized. He has a system and it works for him. “If someone asks for something, I can tell him within 30 seconds whether I have it or not.”
Sometimes changes in demand for a particular artist catch Kerr by surprise. “In my 40 years doing this, I’ve never seen a single event impact sales as much as the movie Bohemian Rhapsody. That sent demand for Queen music through the roof. When Prince died, we sold out of our stuff in a day, but the Queen surge has just gone on and on.”
It was music, at least in part, that drew Kerr to K. His older brother Bill ’72, was a junior at K when John was a senior in high school. Bill mentioned that K had a radio station, WJMD, and that students were the DJs. That piqued John’s interest and was one of the reasons he decided to attend K.
“K’s radio station had begun years before I got there and was entirely student run. It was only ten watts so it was pretty much limited to campus. It had live programming from 9 a.m. till 11 p.m.; during the night we’d play a two-hour loop tape we’d make. Once I arrived in Kalamazoo, I signed up to be a DJ and just loved it!”
Among the attractions to the job was the freedom to play, and say, almost anything he wanted. There were no commercials so no need to keep songs short to make time for ads.
“I could play a 3-minute song or a 23-minute song. It was entirely up to me,” Kerr remembers. “At first I would plan out my entire two-hour show. I’d know exactly what songs I was going to play before I went on air. But after I’d done it for a while I just winged it. While one song was playing I’d figure out what the next would be. That created some pressure but it also created more energy. Sometimes I’d have friends with me and they’d pick out songs. Since all of our music came from albums, I’d have to have the needle properly placed on the record when it was time to play that next song.”
Kerr never had any illusions of grandeur about the operation. “We were lucky if our station had 50 listeners at any one time. We had speakers playing in the game room next to us and there were always kids there, so we always knew we at least had them listening.”
While still a first-year student, Kerr also became the station’s music director, a position he retained all four years. Record companies, likely not appreciating just how small K’s station was, routinely sent K their new albums when they were released.
“I’d pick up the albums when they arrived, then have other students write up reviews, which we would send back to the companies. That might have given them the impression we were bigger and more important than we really were, but it helped keep the flow of new albums coming!”
Music also played an unlikely role in enhancing Kerr’s foreign study in France. Unlike some of the other K students who lived with families, he lived in a single-person unit, which limited his opportunities to interact with native French speakers. Then one night he heard some American music coming from another apartment.
“It was Jackson Browne or America or someone like that,” he recalls. “I screwed up my courage and knocked on the door. When a guy answered I said that I liked his music. He invited me in and for the next two hours we talked about music, although my French wasn’t very good. We became good enough friends that he later came to visit me at K and I went back over there to see him.”
Now 65, Kerr sees Wazoo Records as being in “its victory lap.” He bought the business in 1996 and until seven years ago had employees. Now, however, he mans the store on his own, working 51 weeks a year, six days a week. His wife of 30 years, Vicky (a retired high school teacher), has suggested it’s time for John to sell the business and retire.
“There used to be two other used record stores in the campus area,” Kerr says, “One closed after 37 years; the other moved to another part of town. As far as an on-campus music store, I’m it.”
Despite the challenges of being a one-man operation, Kerr still enjoys going to work after all these years.
“I have great conversations with some of the people who come in. Back in the day it was a dude thing; that’s who came in. Now I get all sorts. People on dates come in and spend an hour chatting about the records. I get tourists who’ve seen the store on Yelp. And I’ve had any number of people come in with their kids and say, ‘I used to buy all of my records here!’”
The best part of running the business may be when a customer, after digging through crate after crate of albums, finds that special one.
“It’s like they’ve hit the jackpot. I enjoy their excitement.”
Kerr pauses, perched amid four decades of music and memories.
He adds, “I’ve had a nice run here.”
Editor’s Note: K’s radio station is still going strong, though it only plays via the internet, not through the airwaves. You can listen live at kzoo.edu/wjmd.