An Interview with Acme Records’ Ken Chrisien
Sahan Jayasuriya talks with Ken Chrisien, owner of Milwaukee's newest record store, Acme Records & Music Emporium.
Ken Chrisien, otherwise known as Shopkeeper Ken, has been a fixture at Bullseye Records (and its pre-cursor Farwell Music) for more than a decade. Seven years after Bullseye’s inception, Chrisien has branched off and opened his own shop, Acme Records & Music Emporium. TCD’s Sahan Jayasuriya sat down for an interview with Chrisien where they discussed the difficulties of opening a record store, Acme’s unique decor and establishing his own identity.
Sahan Jayasuriya: What was your reasoning for starting your own record store? You’ve been at Bullseye Records for a while now, and they’re still around, so why start your own place?
Ken Chrisien: It was in the works for a while, really. The timing was right, I was able to save enough up money and have enough product simultaneously. It just kinda happened that way.
SJ: I remember Rich Menning once saying that his reasoning for opening Atomic Records was simply that it was a “fantasy job for an obsessive music fan.” Is that kind of how you feel about Acme?
KC: Yeah, definitely. I think a few years into working for Luke at Farwell Music, I just started to think “Man, it would be great if this was mine.” Everyone’s got their own vision of how they would do it and what they would do, and I’ve been carrying that one around with me for a long time.
SJ: Is it true that initially when Farwell Music closed and Bullseye was on the horizon, you were originally planning to have that be your store?
KC: Yeah, that was initially going to be my store, but I just wasn’t ready at the time. Then Luke changed his mind and decided to open another store and that became Bullseye.
SJ: That was 2006?
KC: I think it was 2005 actually.
SJ: So once you decided that you weren’t going to open a store then, did you just keep it in mind until you felt ready?
KC: Yeah, pretty much. I’ve been preparing for a few years. It’s been roughly three to four years of serious dedication to making that happen.
SJ: Were you buying stuff with the store in mind?
KC: Oh, yeah; there’s records in the store that I have probably a dozen copies of (laughs). Every time I’d see them, I just knew that good records generally don’t tend to stay on the shelves longer than about a week at a record store—as they shouldn’t. I knew that I’d have to have as much as I could get of the good stuff.
SJ: Was there a record store that you frequented growing up that you used as a point of reference for Acme?
KC: Honestly, I never frequented record stores because I was always buying records at rummage sales. It was right around the sort of “birth of the CD” towards the end of the ’80s. I started buying records pretty heavily when I was 17 when I moved out of my parents’ house and had my own space. It was a good time to do it because everyone was buying CDs. People were just bringing boxes and boxes of records with the mindset that “no one wants these things anymore.” I would just go to rummage sales and buy boxes of records for like five bucks. When I realized that I had accumulated a lot of stuff that I wasn’t into, I started selling them at record shows at Serb Hall, and that’s kind of when I realized that there was money to be made.
I would literally buy them all. Id see what kind of stuff they’d have and the shape they were in, and I’d offer someone $10 for their entire collection. At that time, no one really cared. They were happy to get rid of them, they had no idea that they were still in use, much less worth much of anything.
SJ: Was there a reason that you didn’t really go to too many record stores?
KC: I think for the most part I kind of avoided them after some typical bad experiences with clerks. My attitude towards that kind of thing has always been “you stock this record, so how can you laugh at me for buying it?” If a person brings something to the counter, I don’t think they should be sheepish about it at all because I brought it in and put it out at my store with the intention of selling it.
There’s probably some really goofy shit in here for sure, because I like really goofy records that you don’t always see. I sold this record yesterday that I don’t even remember buying, but it was by this guy named Dave Parker. The cover art was great–he had this toy airplane behind him and he had on this aviator scarf and goggle and it was just this really bad folk record. This girl wanted me to put it on, so I did, and it was terrible, but it was hilarious. And she bought it! She was like “this is so funny, I have to buy it. I’m going to give it to someone who’s a pilot.”
SJ: Starting this record store was not the easiest process to go through. What were the most taxing things that you had to deal with?
KC: The worst part was the city. There’s no real nice way to put it, but they’re not all on the same page, and they’re all telling you different information. At one point, I literally had two people from the same office one cubicle away from each other tell me different information. Each and every person is the one who knows what the other one doesn’t, and it’s terrible. They should all be on the same page. I think they just assume that everyone knows what they know, but they don’t, and I don’t. I work at a record store (laughs).
SJ: What made it so difficult?
KC: Early on, it was a lot of issues with permits. I didn’t really know much about occupancy permits and I didn’t realize that was something that you went for pretty late after you did a build out. The city let me get an occupancy permit and make appointments prematurely, and the inspector would show up and just ask why they were even there, because I hadn’t done more than some basic demo work. But they were able to share with me a lot of the things that I didn’t know, which was good, but at the same time set me back in some ways.
SJ: What made you push back your open day by a full month?
KC: I just wasn’t ready. There were about three weeks early on where the permitting stuff turned into a fiasco of sorts and it delayed me about two weeks. So I lost those two week and then I just came to the realization that it was going to take me a lot longer to get stuff going than I initially anticipated.
Opening day happened on my birthday, which is pretty cool, and my wedding anniversary is the eighth, too…so early October is a good time for me. It just seemed like a good time to do it. I had a camping trip planned for the week before that I had been planning for about a year, so i figured that it would be nice to just take a break and step away from it for a few days. I probably could have opened about a week earlier, but I decided to postpone it instead of rushing into it.
SJ: When you started Acme, did you want to do something with a more specific kind of identity?
KC: I didn’t want to limit myself in any sort of specialty, because I don’t listen to any one thing. As far as my own identity, I didn’t want it to be set up like any store that I had ever been to. Obviously, with it being a record store, it’s going to have some similarity to another place, but I wanted to make it a little bit unique. I wanted it to feel good, because I knew I was going to be spending a lot of time here. I mean, my house doesn’t look like this. I don’t think my wife would really go for that (laughs).
SJ: This place definitely looks unlike any other record store I’ve been to. Tell me a bit about all the wood that covers the walls here.
KC: A fair amount of this wood came from the curbside, actually. All of the panels came out of a mansion on Wisconsin Avenue. Pretty much the rest of it came from the Habitat from Humanity store. I was just hounding that place pretty hard this year and buying every cool thing I found. There’s pallet wood on the wall. There’s probably a dozen pallets in here. It was partially done because It was inexpensive. The other reason why it looks like this is that I really hate dealing with drywall.
SJ: And you primarily did it all yourself, too, right? You must feel an incredible sense of accomplishment now that its all completed and you can look back and say that you pretty much did all of this.
KC: Oh, yeah. This was two solid months of work that I don’t like doing. I used to be a carpenter, and I wouldn’t even say that I was a cabinet maker because all I really did was sand stuff by hand, all day, for two years. But yeah, I do feel really good about it, and I think it feels really nice in here.
SJ: So how much work did you end up actually doing to the space?
KC: When I came in it was cinder block walls, and a ceiling that was falling down. It was pretty bare. It smelled awful, too. You could actually stand at the front of the building outside and smell it. I remember freaking out that first week just thinking that I wouldn’t be able to get rid of it. It was just because of the fact that the building was unused for at least ten years, maybe more.
SJ: Well I can personally say that the place smells wonderful (laughs). But really, with all the wood paneling and such in here, it just smells great and really helps make the place feel really comfortable and homey. Was that something that you consciously wanted for the store?
KC: It wasn’t conscious or anything, but I definitely had it in mind for sure. I wanted it to be comfortable because I strive for comfort all the time, just ask my wife (laughs). But yeah, it does feel pretty comfortable for sure and even if it weren’t my record store, I’d still wanna hang out here.
SJ: Something worth mentioning is that you often have your dog Penny here at the store. Do you think having her here plays into your desire to have Acme be a more relaxed atmosphere?
KC: It certainly helps, that’s for sure. Especially if you like dogs. She’s nice, and I think for the most part she definitely adds to it being a more chill, homey sort of place. I mean, she chased someone out of here already. So if you’re up to no good, she knows it and she will let you know.
SJ: While I’m sure that all of the stress tended to overshadow the bigger picture, when was it that it hit you that you were opening your own record store?
KC: It was probably about two weeks before I opened. For some reason, something just clicked. I was hanging drywall or something, and I just got super emotional when I realized it. It hit me like a ton of bricks. It was really cool seeing the idea that I had in my head come to life. It looks exactly as I wanted it to, and that’s satisfying. There were little things along the way that really drove the point home, too.
It’s balanced with just sheer terror, too, though. It’s expensive and arduous and you really have no idea what’s going to happen. But that kind of goes without saying.
SJ: So once you finally opened the store, how did it feel? How was that opening day?
KC: It was great, but it was really intense. Seven straight hours, just non stop. It just didn’t let up. I’ve worked in that kind of environment before, but that day was something for sure. Everything about it was incredible. The customers were really nice and cool about not being able to get to the records right away, because at one point there was a queue of about three or four people in each section of the rock records, just waiting for the person in front of them to be finished.
There was some great music and at one point, this little kid named Dash (son of Canyons of Static members Ross & Aggie Severson) did an impromptu drum solo, and he was awesome. And because it was my birthday, someone brought out a cake for me, and I right before I turned all the lights out, I just told everyone “Please, no one steal anything while I blow these candles out.” It was just a really great day.
SJ: Sure sounds like it. So, now you’ve officially opened your own record store (and I’m here every goddamn day, it seems). What do you have planned for the near future? I know that you eventually want to start having in-store performances.
KC: I still have to straighten out a few things with the city before I have an instore, just because I’d feel much more comfortable doing it with the right sorts of permits and whatnot. I haven’t really figured it out yet.
SJ: Is there any significance behind the name? I’m guessing that it’s not a reference to Looney Tunes?
KC: (laughs) Not exactly. It means a lot of things. It means the “top” or “best,” for one. Decades ago, businesses used to pick it for that reason, but also because it would be one of the first listings in the phone book. I’ve also seen it stated as a level of maturity, which I thought was kind of fitting because I’m 41, and even though it’s sort of a “younger man’s game,” its just taken me this long to get it all together.
At this point in the conversation, a young customer inquiring about David Bowie LPs also bought an album after hearing it playing over the stereo, a record by Ethiopian musician Ali Birra.
SJ: Is there any sort of goal that you hope to achieve with Acme?
KC: One of the things that I love about working in a record store just happened with that kid buying that record. That to me is one of the things that doing this is all about. He didn’t come here looking to buy an African record at all, but I was playing it and he liked it. Part of the reason for doing this is to open up people’s minds to different kinds of music. Any time that happens, it’s always really cool to see.
SJ: How do you feel about people saying that you’re filling a void as far as record stores in Milwaukee is concerned?
KC: I think more than filling a void, it’s another ingredient. This is a big city and there aren’t that many places to buy records and there needed to be more. There still needs to be more. I would welcome another record store, or two more, or four more. The more the merrier, really. They’ll all have their own identity eventually, and there’s definitely room for more.
Acme Records & Music Emporium is located at 2341 S Kinnickinnic Ave in Bay View, next door to the Tonic Tavern. For more information, visit their Facebook page.