When Sonic Boom Records opened its doors on September 26, 1997, the small Fremont store was operated solely by co-owners Nabil Ayers and Jason Hughes. The store housed a meager selection of inventory, mostly contained in cardboard boxes. A decade later, the duo employs a 23-person staff among three locations (Fremont, Ballard, and Capitol Hill). Earlier this year, they opened the General Store in Fremont, branching out into books, snacks, magazines, and other random musical accessories.
Thanks to Hughes and Ayers's day-by-day approach, Sonic Boom has thrived while Seattle neighborhoods become more expensive and the record industry slowly crumbles. Also, they saved the life of an 89-year-old classical-music fan after nearly killing her.
What was Sonic Boom's first day like?
Ayers: I remember the first CD we sold was Atari Teenage Riot. The store was so sparse; there was nothing in there. We had two cardboard boxes of vinyl and the used section was literally our two collections cleaned out and turned into the used section. It was really quiet and empty and sometimes hours would go by when nobody would come in. We hung out with the girls who worked next door at Rudy's and split a dinner from Jai Thai. Of course now we each get our own—that's the big difference.
Hughes: It was touch-and-go for the first year. Pretty much all the money we made would go back into product. It really picked up when we moved to the new location in Fremont. Sales literally doubled without us doing anything but moving the store.
Over the years, Sonic Boom has had a lot of great in-store performances, which have no doubt helped drive traffic to the store. Do you have any favorites?
Hughes: The list is pretty ridiculous. Man or Astroman? were amazing—those guys are out of control. We did one for the New Pornographers in Ballard the night of the CD release and there was a line of kids from our door down to the corner and all the way down the block to Thaiku. We fit almost everyone in. It was great.
Ayers: The weirdest one was with Hilary Hahn, a classical violinist. She had a record coming out and she really wanted to play an in-store. It ended up being on the front page of the Seattle Times that day, and there was a huge NPR thing—the place was absolutely packed, way too crowded, and this 89-year-old woman passed out. It was fucking terrifying!
We called 911. There were fire trucks; an ambulance came. They revived her and she was fine, but I remember thinking, "This is going to be the easiest, most mellow in-store ever," and it was definitely the worst I'd ever felt. She came in and apologized the next day.
Speaking of almost dying, the record industry isn't doing too great. Record sales are dwindling. Does that affect Sonic Boom?
Hughes: Not necessarily, because that wasn't our bread and butter to start with. We didn't rely on Mariah Carey sales or Madonna sales when we first opened, and we still don't.
Ayers: Seattle is unique. The economy is relatively good, it's a huge music town, and people are really supportive of independent businesses. It's definitely happening, but I don't think it's happening as much at stores like ours where people hopefully come in for the experience and the in-stores. I'd like to think we offer something more.
The neighborhoods have changed, too.
Ayers: Totally. That's been a really interesting thing to watch, especially in Fremont. It's crazy. It's harder in Fremont just because it's getting more expensive to be here. It's still great, but it's different.
Is your survival threatened at all?
Hughes: We've diversified to offset the loss in sales. We have the General Store now, so we're carrying toys and magazines and books. When we originally opened, the idea was to be a pure record store—not Hot Topic stuff in front with music in the back. But you've got to adjust for the times.
Ayers: You've got to take it day by day. Open a General Store and sell people magazines and Red Bull if they want it. It's hilarious. As the owner of a record store, I never thought I'd be ordering ice-cream sandwiches.