A narrow staircase surrounded by decorative murals shields devoted music lovers on their way into Wazoo Records from the hustle and bustle of State Street.
A tiny music shop across the street from the Diag, Wazoo Records was founded in 1974 and changed locations several times before opening its doors on State Street in the early 1980s. The current store owner, John Kerr, bought Wazoo Records in 1996 after working at the store for 18 years.
“This is my dream job,” Kerr said. “I feel that doing this is a service because I know music plays a big role in my life, as I’m sure it does in (the lives of) others.”
An Ann Arbor native, Kerr explained he left the city to attend Kalamazoo College before spending a few years “figuring out what to do” in California. He later returned to Ann Arbor and began working at Wazoo, which was his favorite record store growing up.
Wazoo offers a wide selection of music with no focus on any specific genre, Kerr said. He said Wazoo balances musical classics with a considerable selection of alternative bands — a combination that also suits his personal preferences.
“Most people who are true music lovers have a variety of tastes,” he said.
Kerr said he believes Wazoo’s distinct combination of new and old music makes it unique.
“We started out as just used vinyl, (but) over the years we started to branch out,” he said. “It was a slow evolution, but we got to the point where we had more and more new music. But we’ve still kept the old.”
While vinyl records were once almost obsolete, Kerr said he believes there is now renewed interest in the form.
“Vinyl is not obscure and antiquated — it’s cool,” he said. “It’s been really fun to see this vinyl revival.”
Kerr admitted that when he was younger, he never thought the music he listened to would still be popular today. Kerr’s favorite musicians include Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Bob Marley and the Velvet Underground, whose album The Velvet Underground & Nico is his all-time favorite.
In addition to vinyl records, Wazoo sells cassette tapes, DVDs and CDs. While Kerr acknowledged that online music outlets such as Napster, Amazon and iTunes negatively affect his business, he thinks record stores still have a strong presence in Ann Arbor. Kerr pointed to 1993 as a peak year for sales at Wazoo, crediting the booming business to the lack of music availability online.
“All of those things combined to hurt record stores, and quite a few went out of business,” he said. “You really have to hustle in every angle to survive in this environment.”
Kerr said he personally enjoys purchasing records more than buying music online. He explained that certain aspects of the record, including using a turntable, examining cover art and reading liner notes, are lost when purchasing music on the Internet.
“There’s a whole ritual involved in playing records,” Kerr said.
He added that the entire Wazoo staff is knowledgeable about the technical aspects of listening to vinyl records, including setting up the equipment — details that people new to vinyl often overlook.
Kerr said he is grateful to be located so close to the Diag and hopes the convenient location encourages students to stop by in between classes.
“Location is more important than anything,” he said, adding that being on the second floor of the building isn’t a hindrance.
“We’re comfortable here, kind of hidden away,” Kerr said. “The people that want to know about us will find us.”