COLUMBIA — Kevin Walsh doesn’t play an instrument, not a single note. But he has parlayed his love of music, coupled with an old-school sense of retail, into a career.
As people walk past his store on a steamy afternoon last month, Walsh greets most of them by name. Standing in the doorway of his shop, Walsh is at the disposal of whomever walks through the door. A rock melody laced with blazing trumpets flows through the speakers, and a light fog of Indian temple incense hangs in the air.
This is Kevin’s World.
Walsh opened the shop at 26 N. Ninth St. in May 2006, with the intent to return to a small-time brick-and-mortar music shop and the practice of old-school retail.
“I wanted my customers to learn the way of the honors system, bartering over merchandise and keeping a tab,” he said. “I felt responsible to teach the community about this part of the industry before I left it.”
Walsh anticipated it would only be a nine-month endeavor. Seventeen months later, he has no intention of closing up shop anytime soon. “I don’t see that happening soon because I want to maintain my relationship with the local music scene and the community of Columbia,” he said. “There are things left undone.”
Walsh, 53, came to Columbia in 1975 for graduate work, after earning an undergraduate degree at the University of Scranton. In 1980, he became manager of Streetside Records in Columbia, and he stayed there for 25 years.
“I feel that you lead a company by managing, and it became increasingly difficult to follow company policy during those last years,” Walsh said.
He knew it was time to move on. “I needed to repair some relationships in the community,” he said, “and I wanted to leave the business with a good taste in my mouth.”
Kevin’s World is an extension of Walsh’s experiences. Publicity fliers from past shows cover the walls, and vast ranks of CDs and LP albums line weathered, wooden racks. MU senior Adam Daniels, who edits the campus Maneater’s arts magazine, MOVE, and turns to Walsh for advice on music, said he loves the idea behind the place.
“He’s trying to separate himself by providing a community of interaction, rather than just a music store,” Daniels said. “That’s something you can never find online.”
Although Walsh would humbly dismiss any comment about his musical knowledge, Anne Moore of D & M Sound has a different opinion. She’s known Walsh since he began working at Streetside Records. ”He has the uncanny ability to know his customers and the music they are looking for,” Moore said.
D & M sound provided Walsh with an LCD flat panel TV and a surround sound system when he started Kevin’s World. “I’d hardly call his store old-fashioned,” Moore said. “He’s been incorporating video, Internet and streaming video into his business. It’s more synergistic than anything else.”
Walsh has established numerous complementary relationships within the Columbia music community. His association with Richard King, owner of the Blue Note, dates to the 1970s; their friendship blossomed when Streetside Records and the Blue Note opened around the same time in 1980. Had King and Walsh not reunited, the Blue Note might never have become one of Columbia’s most popular music venues.
“I had saved a bunch of money, my car was packed and I was heading to California,” King said. “On my way out of town, I ran into Kevin and decided to stay in Columbia from then on.”
Walsh also tries to incorporate his connection to the community into many aspects of his business. During the Twilight Festival, Walsh had Steve Cupp, manager of Glenn’s Cafe, cook dishes from his menu on the back patio of Walsh’s store. Glenn’s Cafe was a fixture in Columbia from when Cupp bought it in 1985 until it closed in 2005, and Cupp has since reopened the cafe in Boonville.
“When I worked at Streetside, I had to say no to a lot of things,” Walsh said. “This is giving me the chance to do things I could have never done before.”
Walsh smiles as he remembers times when he gave his keys to the Blue Note so a performing band could use his store as a dressing room. One time over the summer, he hosted a female arm-wrestling event there. Walsh especially loved that the event brought older and younger women together.
“It was really revelatory to see the women compete with such intensity,” Walsh said. “They are just as competitive as men, if not more, and it was neat to witness that.”
Building a good relationship with the community has led to community events such as collaborative art workshops and facilitated discussions centered on global issues. “I saw a need for this in the community, and it’s been community-driven all along,” he said.
Walsh has also noticed that many music lovers of his generation have been left behind the wave of technology. Once a week, Walsh invites people 40 and older in for a lesson in such mysteries as using a Zip drive and how to work iTunes.
“I feel like I can do some trial and error and show people what I’ve found,” he said.
Although he opened the store wanting to show people a people-first side of running a music store, the experience has expanded Walsh’s world. He enjoys the collaboration that results from generational differences and thrives on the chance to show young music connoisseurs who has influenced their favorite modern band. He notes that in the record shop business, older people have the advantage of having seen changes in the retail landscape and younger people are more savvy to the technological side and can adapt easily to those changes.
“I thought I knew everything there is to know about retail,” he said. “But now the customers are the ones teaching me.”