The 50 Best Record Stores In America is an essay series where we attempt to find the best record store in every state. These aren’t necessarily the record stores with the best prices or the deepest selection; you can use Yelp for that. Each record store featured has a story that goes beyond what’s on its shelves; these stores have history, foster a sense of community and mean something to the people who frequent them.
Oklahoma, unfortunately, has a long history of losing people.
And not just to the coasts. Teachers here for years now have rightly left the state seeking better pay nearby in Arkansas, Kansas and especially Texas, where first-year teachers in the burgeoning Dallas-Forth Worth sprawl can earn as much as $20,000 more in salary. This shame weighs on those of us who stay.
We have our reasons. For some, it’s to be near family. Others like the slower pace of life or the quiet, which you don’t even have to leave the cities to find. Who knows for how much longer, but home ownership is still real here. Culturally, it’s not all megachurches and Luke Bryan, but that is a lot of it. Our hometown boy John Moreland captured that uncertainty on his first and deepest-cutting record, “In The Throes” when he pondered “Should I go Texas or Tennessee / Or lock myself in Tulsa and throw away the key?”
I didn’t really give a shit about all that when I was 22, and covering music for Oklahoma City’s alt-weekly, Oklahoma Gazette back in 2011. My plan was to work there for two years or so, assemble a little portfolio of clips, apply to work somewhere else. I signed six-month apartment leases and took good care of my car, thinking I’d sell it to pay the first couple months’ rent wherever I landed. If I don’t leave Oklahoma now, I reasoned, I’ll be here my whole life.
And that, what I dreaded then, is pretty much what happened. I got stuck in this place’s gravitational pull.
Part of that pull, it turned out, was located conveniently down the street from the Gazette. Guestroom Records’ Oklahoma City shop was where I spent a massive chunk of my 20s. Lunch breaks, dates, in-store shows, friends, Record Store Days. Hours spent feverishly searching for Lucinda Williams records that never came, or just time killed. Guestroom clerks always seemed to come into spare concert tickets and know what you’d want next with occult prescience. Once, sensing my hesitation, a friendly clerk named Joey convinced me to spend way too much on a bootleg triple-LP copy of To Pimp a Butterfly the week it came out, saying, “Yeah, you can’t wait on that shit to come through legit.” Sold. They were there when a roommate got me into Bill Callahan, when I needed emergency Christmas gifts and when it came time to sell my CD collection, rather than subject all those poor jewel cases to another apartment move. (I took store credit on that one.)
Owners Justin Sowers and Travis Searle opened Guestroom in Oklahoma City in 2007 just in time to ride the steady and continuing resurgence of vinyl. But they were already seasoned music retail pros by then. Years before, the two met at the University of Oklahoma in nearby Norman and bonded delivering Pizza Shuttle. By 2002 they incorporated Guestroom, selling special-order punk and indie records door to door, learning how to cater to their neighbors’ individual musical tastes while the larger industry convulsed over the death of chain-store CD sales.
Sowers and Searle’s first brick-and-mortar was a garage on Crawford Avenue in Norman that housed some 6,000 pieces of inventory, but they moved around the corner to a much more visible spot on Main Street in 2005. They’ve been there ever since, both a charming picture of past Americana and a pillar of the college town’s modest but tight-knit music scene.
Searle moved to Louisville, Kentucky, a couple years back and opened another Guestroom location there. Between the three shops — Louisville, Norman and Oklahoma City — their inventory’s grown to 90,000 items, most of it vinyl. “If you had told me that 85 percent of our business in 2018 would be vinyl I would have burst out laughing,” said Sowers.
One key to Guestroom’s longevity has been how thoroughly it caters to the needs of the Oklahoma City metro’s modern music listeners. New vinyl’s up on the display shelves the day it comes out, regardless of style or genre. Used vinyl and CDs go into their own special bins at the front of the store upon acquisition, for thrifty regular shoppers bent on discovery. (Those bins guided me to the Brazilian bossa nova king João Gilberto and delivered rarities like a Twin/Tone pressing of The Replacements’ “Let It Be.”) They price CDs to sell, so they move in and out like blood through your vessels. And they carry all the equipment — new and used stereos, turntables, tape players, speakers — that collectors need to get started or even upgrade, whatever your price point. They even sell some stock on eBay, a practice that one clerk once summed up for me in this way: “If you want to operate a record store in the Midwest these days, you have to ship a lot of soul records to British people.”
The Oklahoma City metro, which includes Norman, lacks specialty music stores, so Guestroom enjoys little competition when it comes to the more particular stuff, like jazz, country and metal. But their staff is curious and enthusiastic in keeping up an immense, diverse stock. And they’ll special-order just about anything you can’t find in the store. I didn’t know how to pronounce Todd Terje’s last name, but that didn’t stop a clerk from getting me my copy of “Inspector Norse.”
Naturally, Guestroom goes ballistic each year for Record Store Day and again during Norman Music Festival, which takes place on their front porch and has steadily grown alongside the store in both popularity and ambition since The Polyphonic Spree headlined its inaugural 2008 fest. One NMF, behind the Norman store, I caught the Guestroom house band, Shitty/Awesome, buzzing through a beer-drunk mid-afternoon set (Think Thee Oh Sees huffing paint thinner). Their frontman Will got this heavily distorted effect by fully mouthing the mic, and on this particular day, he stepped too quickly up to it and got thunked inside the back of the throat. Over the years, I learned this sort of thing to be par for the course for a Shitty/Awesome set.
And of course they do all the admirable stuff you’d expect from a mom-and-pop record shop in the Midwest. The aforementioned Moreland and Queen of Rockabilly Wanda Jackson have both done in-store shows in recent memory, and you can still order from their label, Guestroom Records Records, which has the distinct honor of carrying the last Starlight Mints album and the first Broncho one. You can find them in the locals-only section of the store. And working the Guestroom counters has kept the lights on for plenty of Norman and Oklahoma City’s touring musicians (and occasionally underemployed journalists) in between gigs.
A year and a half ago I moved home to Tulsa, where I was born and grew up. It’s got a couple of perfectly fine record stores. But I find myself missing Guestroom. It’s not just the bins and the stock. It’s the memories and the people. One afternoon when we were first dating, my fiancée secretly returned to the store and bought a copy of Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream that she watched me carry around the store a while before returning it to the shelf. Costs too much, I told her.
It’s a little silly, but a few weeks later when I unwrapped it on my birthday, I felt known. I felt like I could maybe build my own thing here in Oklahoma, too.