Against great odds amid music-industry floundering and a sluggish economy, the tiny Wall of Sound record shop turned 20 this year. An anniversary event was supposed to occur to commemorate the occasion, but owners Jeffery Taylor and Michael Ohlenroth just couldn't get it organized in time (Taylor also plays guitar for the groups Climax Golden Twins, AFCGT, and Spider Trio). They're hoping to celebrate properly for next year's 21st birthday.
Taylor began working as a part-time clerk for Wall of Sound in 1991; Ohlenroth—who ran the minuscule industrial/noise specialist record emporium Ohm for five years in the '90s—started 10 years later. The two bought Wall of Sound from original owner Mark Sullo in 2002. Wall of Sound initially was just that—a wall of records situated in Belltown's Art in Form bookstore. Sullo and fellow boss Eric Hoffman established the shop's esoteric tone, which remains to this day.
"Our mission was to fill a niche that was not well represented in Seattle stores," Sullo recalls. "Independent recording was exploding. Our main effort was to learn what was the 'best' or most desirable and have our selection serve as a sort of recommendation. Jeffery became an early employee and cultivated the Japanese noise section to a small but eager audience."
Hoffman bowed out of the company in 1996, while Sullo began to suffer burnout around 2000. The latter's interest drifted from music retail to photography, but he also sensed an unpleasant shift in the record-peddling biz.
"Things were changing rapidly with internet growth," Sullo says. "I was having a bad reaction to business concepts like Amazon and HomeGrocer and all the other start-ups that were aiming toward taking the street level out of cultural exchange. It's fairly incredible that [Taylor and Ohlenroth] had the fortitude to survive and have been willing to make the necessary adjustments."
The new owners smoothly transitioned into Wall of Sound's valued role as purveyors of excellent, eclectic underground music, with expertly curated selections of world music, jazz, blues, rock, and electronic, as well as avant-garde/experimental sounds of myriad stripes. (The space also serves as an occasional live-music venue and art gallery.) Out of necessity, the shop had to be severe with its stock, so it cultivated an all-killer/no-filler philosophy. Things were going well until 2003, when Wall of Sound's landlord increased the rent by 50 percent—with one month's warning.
"It was kind of traumatic when it happened, but it turned out to be just fine," Taylor says. "We're in a good spot now."
That good spot is on East Pine Street between Melrose and Bellevue. Business at the Capitol Hill location has remained fairly steady, with vinyl and CDs selling in about equal number. While many record stores nationwide have folded in the past decade, Wall of Sound has survived because its owners know their niche and have built a clientele that verges on evangelical toward its stewards and contents.
Saxophonist Wally Shoup—who plays with Taylor in Spider Trio—perfectly captures the appeal of Wall of Sound. "[It] embodies the best in the Seattle music ethos; namely, that high and low culture can coexist in the same unpretentious space. Like the late, lamented OK Hotel, you're invited into a world where the far-out, the experimental, and the abstract sit side by side with down-home blues and borderline kitsch. It's all an expression of Jeffery and Michael's tastes, which are wide-ranging and astute."
Ohlenroth wryly summarizes Wall of Sound's guiding principle. "We want to be an alternative to the stores that sell everything that's popular—so we're selling everything that's unpopular. We're a connoisseur's shop, right?" he asks, looking at his partner.
"That's one way to put it," Taylor says. "It's a reflection of Michael's and my tastes, and it's also a reflection of our customers' tastes. We learn a lot from them about what they're into, what's coming out that sounds like it should be good."
Taylor continues, leaning in for emphasis: "Some [customers] will look around and ask, 'What do you guys specialize in?' My answer to that is, 'Good music.' You can come in here and tell us three things that you like, and we can point out three things that you should listen to or that you will probably like that you may never have heard of."
While retail of any sort can get to be a grind after years of doing it, Wall of Sound's brain trust sincerely take great pleasure in their customers and, of course, the typically atypical music they sell. While many in their age bracket (mid-40s to mid-50s) exude jadedness, Taylor and Ohlenroth maintain enthusiasm, which is contagious. As someone who can wallpaper his apartment with Wall of Sound receipts, I know well these guys' always-savvy recommendations and knack for ordering the zenith of adventurous global sounds.
"Our customers are very loyal," Ohlenroth declares. "I think we know half the people who come in here by name."
What partially makes Wall of Sound's continued success surprising is its scant internet presence. It does sell collectibles online, but most of its goods can only be purchased by visiting the store. Taylor and Ohlenroth admit that WOS needs to expand its online efforts.
What's indisputable is that Wall of Sound has been one of the best things about Seattle's music scene for the past two decades.
"This is a fickle thing," Taylor surmises. "There are certain people who only want particular things, and there are other people who are more wide open. Hopefully we can appeal to people on that level. You may not always find the thing you want, but often you're going to find something you want or maybe you didn't even know you wanted."
Back when was he a stoned teenager and Wall of Sound still sat in Belltown, Sunn O)))'s Stephen O'Malley bought Vangelis and John Coltrane albums there that changed his life.
"That's the power of music," Taylor concludes. "That's what makes people so passionate about it and delve so far into certain areas of it. That's why we're here. We want to change people's lives."
This story has been updated since its original publication.