Columbus, Ohio USA
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Why record lovers dig Magnolia Thunderpussy after 30-Plus Years!
By Jeff Link
October 2003 Issue
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Chuck Kubat in the early '70s.
That was Chuck Kubat, a young man standing before racks of rock-and-roll vinyl, searching for an answer, a path, when acid guru Timothy Leary told him to go live in the woods. Pure fantasy to Kubat. "The woods? C'mon."
He had other dreams.
Overdub the chirping, the rustling, the campfire crackles with the soundtrack to Magnolia Thunderpussy. The clickety clack of hipsters rifling through rows of records and CD's. Customers firing off litanies of must-have records. A derelict wind of words exchanged as paychecks get cashed on rare gems, and behind it all the kick drum of a song taking shape, a hip-hop groove, a heavy metal anthem, and enough blood and guts rock-and-roll to satisfy Mick Jagger.
The 55-year-old Kubat, owner of Magnolia Thunderpussy, has made a life of selling music. The store whose name comes from Indian legend or an acid-laced vision, depending on whom you talk to, has sputtered, evolved, grown, shrank, flourished, and withstood the onslaught of changes the music industry has undergone in the last 34 years, from the birth of compact discs, to the advent of hip-hop and MTV.
It has evolved from a small family-owned-and-operated shop stocking a couple hundred top-selling Billboard artists like Led Zeppelin, Elton John, and Aerosmith in the early 1970s, to a veritable warehouse storing colossal racks of tens of thousands of records, hundreds of T-shirts, posters, pins, and even video games. Kubat says you can find anything from "Abba to John Zorn" on the shelves, and a quick jaunt through the store will send you past Goths armed with fists full of metal, and indie kids going ga-ga over the new Bright Eyes album.
And the records keep spinning.
The cherubic, soft-faced Kubat has come a long way to get where he is. The wire-rimmed spectacles, well-tailored mustache, and impish laugh only begin to tell the story that spans three decades and half the country.
Music was always in his blood.
"When I was five or six my uncle used to throw parties and I was the DJ. I couldn't read, but I recognized the good records by the color of the labels."
Kubat had a passion for music, but had to earn his stripes. In the 1960s, while still a teen, he left his home in Cleveland to head for California where he found his first real work with the Atlas Glass Company in Los Angeles, California.
"I worked in Beverly Hills fixing stained glass windows," he said, a trade he admits he "lucked" into.
The job gave him early exposure to glittering celebrity life as he rubbed elbows with Jack Benny, Milton Burl, and The Jackson Five. He even fixed the ill-fated window of Sharon Tate, smashed during one of the infamous Charles Manson murders &endash; a macabre job not made easier by movie producers who showed up "the next day" to shoot scenes for an upcoming film.
"None of those people (movie producers) have any souls," Kubat said.
While Kubat saw some of Hollywood's vultures, he also found a number of compassionate individuals who helped him make his first foray into the music business. With collaborator Val Star, he staged The Los Angeles Free Clinic Benefit Concert in 1969. The show boasted psychedelic acts like The Strawberry Alarm Clocks who performed while doctors administered free treatment to the sick and ailing. The show landed a spot in Variety magazine and pulled Kubat closer to life in the music business.
SURVIVAL: A SHIFT IN POWER
Chuck and Betty Kubat looking through the screen door of Magnolia Thunderpussy on opening day.
Kubat left the West Coast, a bit jaded but emboldened, and made his way back to the Midwest on rumors of a spike in sales for stereo equipment. He opened the Magnolia Thunderpussy Record and Stereo Coop in East Lansing, Michigan in 1969 with his friend Gary Lazar. The store got off the ground with aid from the Student Economic Development Corporation at Michigan State University, an organization, Kubat says, that helped college-educated blacks and "revolutionary types," launch businesses.
"I met this guy, Steve Landau, a rep for the SEDC, in a bar, and as I began bad-mouthing the establishment, he said, 'why don't you open a record store?'"
The store operated on consignment, capitalizing on a boom in stereo equipment in the 1970s. Kubat and Lazar repaired and resold stereos along with records fronted to them by the Student Economic Development Corporation.
Although the partnership with Lazar dissolved rather quickly, Kubat kept the business alive, moving to Columbus in 1971, gutting an existing clothing store at 1585 N. High Street near 11th Avenue, and running the store with his wife, Betty Kubat, until she became pregnant in 1983.
With staunch competition from well-established stereo businesses in town like Stereolab in Clintonville, Kubat dropped stereo sales, selling records exclusively and doing electronics repair on the side just to survive. This meant long twelve hour days with the shop sometimes staying open until midnight. Back then records sold for $3-$4 and Kubat only had a couple hundred in stock. It was a hand-to-mouth existence.
"I didn't know what I was doing, I did anything to make a buck," Kubat says. "It's hard to remember that whole period."
Betty Kubat says they had no money or formal business education. As a pair, Chuck managed the service end and Betty did the bookkeeping. Looking back, Betty says, she can't believe how she and Chuck managed to juggle a new marriage and a business, a combination that meant being together 24 hours a day and constantly "reinventing the wheel."
"Eventually there was a power struggle and Chuck won. It couldn't have worked if someone didn't win," she says.
But she is happy things worked out as they did. Betty, a classically trained and New Age jazz pianist, lets her husband work the 60-hour weeks he thrives on, and she has gone on to become a dental assistant and raise her daughter, Charlotte who now works at the store. She has little pretension about her years selling rock-and-roll.
"'I Can't Get No Satisfaction' will be classical music in 100 years. It's such good music people will like it forever," she says. "The ones that are really good have something that appeals to humans."
The records kept spinning.
SEARCHING FOR GOLD
Some customers come with a mission. They carry a list and move quickly through the aisles. They look like they don't want to be bothered and check off items as they go.
Others, like Stacy, a 25-year-old English teacher at Marysville High School, are more casual. She has time to browse for CD's with her friend Paul, a 28-year-old nurse at Riverside Hospital, before the two go to see the movie Danny Darko. She looks for CD's like Radiohead and Pearl Jam to play for her students, and says, "Lyrics are just poems set to music." For some, like Stacy and Paul, time seems to slip away. Paul says he could spend hours in Magnolia Thunderpussy.
Todd Mason, a 22-year-old junior at OSU, has a more methodical approach. He says he'll often come in and sift alphabetically through racks of used CD's, sometimes walking off with piles and other times coming up empty. It's a lot of work, but music is important to him. He'll drive five or six hours to see a band play. He is a musician searching for his own sound.
This day Todd has a specific mission. He just went to the Misfits Fiend Fest in Chicago and saw the Misfits 1950s Project comprised of "three existing members of punk bands that started the whole thing in America." When he says it, it sounds bigger than life.
He couldn't get a CD at the show where the band played, but he found it at Magnolia Thunderpussy. You get the sense he didn't just want it- he needed it.
Twenty-four-year-old, grungy-clothed Derek Bartlett checks out, carrying a handful of music and a playful smirk. He's a behavioral therapist and a musician. He's even starting a comedy troupe. He carries with him King Geedorah, a side project of MF Doom; Ohgr, featuring the former singer of Skinny Puppy; Dystopia, a $6 score from the used bin; and Lyricist Lounge a rather obscure hip-hop compilation. It's a mix of music about as likely as a winning lotto combination.
He may be the only person in the world to own it.
And he looks like he just struck gold.
(l-R) Val Star, John Miller, Chuck Kubat, (unknown w/cigarette), Jim McShane, and Bill Eichenberger, Dispatch pop music critic.
Ron House, part-owner of Used Kids Records, worked weekends and odd hours between 1978-1983 at Magnolia Thunderpussy, running inventory and sales. He, like Kubat, remembers the early years of Magnolia Thunderpussy as a slow time of scrimping and scraping by.
"It was really quiet during the day. We'd sit out front and play chess and have five to six customers all day long. No one could get rich back then," House says.
House and Kubat share a colorful history and a teetering bond. Between 1978-1981, they performed together in Twisted Shout, a new wave noise band that played local bars and college venues, stunning, shocking, enraging, and leveling audiences with the scream of a surge generator and crashing alien whip sounds. All this in the kinder, gentler (albeit more synthetic) age of Abba.
"My mom said it was so bad, she had to leave because her stomach hurt," said Kubat's 20-year-old daughter Charlotte, glowing as her father retold old stories.
"I never get to hear these."
House, who gives only a slightly more mollified account, says the two didn't really know how to play their instruments, but were similar to the Cleveland noise band Pere Ubu in their screaming, punk rock antics.
"We had one called "1969." We would go on stage and say, 'This one's called 1969- cause nothing's happened since 1969!'"
The band was not always well-received. Kubat remembers when the soundman at Bernies Bagels & Deli couldn't take it, pulled the plug, and threw them out. House recalls similarly, a time while playing at The Ohio State University Oval when someone jumped on stage and punched the clarinet player in the nose.
And there were other sore spots. House says that during his tenure at Magnolia Thunderpussy, he was fired twice and quit once. In the final break, he threw a beer bottle across the room, tempers flared, and he was asked to leave. End of story.
The sores seem to have healed. The candidly gruff and stubbly House grins as he recalls Kubat always scheming to find the next big thing. He laughingly remembers one time Kubat played the Fleetwood Mac album Rumors over and over again from 11:00 am until the store closed, trying to stir up new interest. He says he is glad Kubat is still in business.
"I respect him for staying in the business as long as he has. I think he thinks of his store as more than a business. It's like a cultural crossroads."
Kubat also seems to have a soft spot for House, insisting that the competition between the two is friendly, a feeling House shares, even if in part due to divergent markets, with Magnolia Thunderpussy's stock comprising more Gothic and heavy metal music, and Used Kids Records leaning more towards indie rock.
Kubat says he'll point out-of-town music seekers to Used Kids Records if he doesn't have the particular item in stock.
House will send them to Magnolia Thunderpussy.
Paul Volker, a local artist who creates animal paintings on plywood, worked at Magnolia Thunderpussy in the bustling 1980s, when throngs of OSU football fans stretched the campus store's Plexiglass windows on gameday.
Volker sees a softer side to Kubat. He says Kubat fostered a good working environment and welcomed new ideas, even if he didn't always use them, finding ways to keep his employees a long time. Volker worked with Kubat to put together Comic Relief, a cartoon newspaper featuring local artists.
Kubat has always promoted local art, he adds, founding the punk label New Age Records in the 1980s and hosting events like Art Jam, a 2001 Short North art and music festival held in Magnolia Thunderpussy's adjacent lot.
"You almost drew a lightbulb over his head," Volker says.
But while never ruthless, Volker says, Kubat did clamp down when it came to business. He recalls a friendly lunch at Rigsby's when Kubat said, "Don't hurry through lunch, you should always take time and have lunch." This wasn't always the case while on the job.
Chuck Kubat in the '90s.
People of every kind and from every place come to Magnolia Thunderpussy. From college kids to Short North Saturday shoppers, black to white, Goth to hippie, Magnolia Thunderpussy hauls them in. Spending $6 for a used CD or $12-$16 for a new one, they comb the aisles looking for rock, hip-hop, metal, jazz, funk, fusion, and soul.
Rock stars are no exception. Kubat remembers the doe-eyed British folk rocker Donovan dropping by the store in the 1970s on a quick spell from his Cosmic Laxative tour. And the aggressive glam-girls from Heart happened by after flying in on their own private touring jet. "The blonde one bought a bunch of buttons. She wanted me to come work on her video player, but my wife wouldn't let me go," Kubat smirks. Also swinging through Magnolia Thunderpussy, the most unlikely of all Deadheads: hard-edged, steel-jawed Henry Rollins who Kubat swears came in to buy Grateful Dead albums.
The sardonic and erudite, Brian O'Neill, who wears a dark mane of hair and a metal shirt has worked at Magnolia Thunderpussy for the last six months. He knows as well as anyone the store's prolific appeal.
"People come in here from big cities like New York and Philadelphia and say this is cooler than the record store in my city – insert big city name here," O'Neill says, adding that Magnolia Thunderpussy was highlighted in Esquire as one of the 10 coolest record stores in the country.
Kubat chuckles, as he weighs in half-kidding: "It's the best record store this side of the Mississippi."
Kubat has a gift for finding stars before they're born. In the early 1980s, he organized several weekend concerts in Columbus and Marion, Ohio, where several hundred gathered to see future legends. While Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen never hit the stratosphere, after Kubat set up their gig at the Agora, (now the Newport), big name acts like REO Speedwagon, Bachman Turner Overdrive, and Ted Nugent did and are still packing amphitheaters and lighting up classic rock radio stations. These nascent acts weren't promoted locally at the time, and Kubat helped them make their mark in Columbus by arranging shows at the Marion Fairgrounds and Marion Palace Theatre.
FAIRY TALE MOVE
As celebrated as it is, Magnolia Thunderpussy is new to the Short North. After starting slowly at the corner of 11th Avenue and High Street, Magnolia Thunderpussy began booming in the mid-1980s with the explosion of punk music and a new generation of college students flocking to music stores. As business swelled, Kubat opened a second store on 18th Avenue next to Schoolkids Records to make room for expanding stock, and to help Schoolkids Records sell excess inventory they couldn't hold.
But the boom didn't last. The second store which opened in 1984 closed just one year later. Magnolia Thunderpussy continued operating in a single store on 11th Avenue until the summer of 2000 when the Campus Gateway Project moved in to buy the building he rented from Airhost Investment, to tear it down and make way for reconstruction. Kubat then moved to his current location at 1155 N. High Street near 4th Avenue.
"The neighborhood was deteriorating. Why stay?" he says.
There was the added boon of a growing retail market in the North end of the Short North where Kubat wanted to relocate. The neon lit portion of High Street, between Clark and 4th Street where Magnolia Thunderpussy has nestled in, now includes 16 stores. And Kubat expects the retail market in that area to continue to grow as rising rents push galleries and shops northward.
Kubat says the building was a deal at $200,000, and included the rights to an off-street parking lot. In three years, he has managed to return to the level of sales he was doing at his former location, a feat he says is fairly remarkable.
"We found this place and lived happily ever after."
TO EVERYTHING THERE IS A SEASON
Chuck and Betty's daughter Charlotte finds her way into the family business.
But the move wasn't the only reason for Magnolia Thunderpussy's success and longevity. Kubat says catering to the customer is essential. He gets second-generation customers who gripe, "Man, you guys are always changing," but concedes that space must be made for music that sells.
"Backstock is not a good concept. If it doesn't sell you've got to get rid of it," Kubat says.
To check what music is selling Magnolia Thunderpussy uses a computerized system which tracks buying habits. If an album doesn't sell two copies a year, Kubat has it removed from the shelves.
Magnolia Thunderpussy has also adapted well to the musical splintering that took place in the late 1980s. In Kubat's mind, FM radio became incredibly sterile and predictable during this time and people sought newer, more creative musical forms. Punk, hip-hop, and alternative music broke onto the scene and Magnolia Thunderpussy welcomed them to the shelves.
"Music was beaten down and so well produced. People naturally burst out to find anything and everything which wasn't shoved down their throat."
The recent wave of Internet copywrite infringement which, Kubat says, has put a dent in the record industry and burdened big companies like Capital and Warner Brothers, has not been as harmful to Magnolia Thunderpussy. He insists people have always borrowed and copied music, and this has never killed the industry.
He rekindles an old adage from the psychedelic days: "It will all come down."
While people can easily download songs for free, Kubat is convinced they are still drawn to packaged, finished albums and willing to pay $10-$15 for them. And new bands using the Internet as means for sales, have blossomed &endash; able to distribute their own music online while maintaining self-ownership. Magnolia Thunderpussy keens in on this new market.
The local market is also big. Kubat will gladly show you racks of albums he sells on consignment from bands like Watershed, The Johnson Brothers, Blatant Finger, and The Jive Turkeys who are making a name for themselves in and outside Columbus. If it has a market, Magnolia Thunderpussy has it.
And they can compete with the big guns. Kubat says larger competitors like Virgin Megastore and Best Buy are attractive to stroll through, but can't compete on price, because of higher overhead costs. A CD that sells for $17 in a bigger national chain might go for $13 in Magnolia Thunderpussy.
"They might go out just to see it, (chain store) but it doesn't take long for kids to see it's more money."
From records, to eight tracks, to CD's, they keep spinning.
It's a stormy Wednesday and the theme of the night is black. A gothic demon donning a spiked collar, dyed-black hair, and a grim look asks if they have the new Velvet Acid Christ album. Behind her, blacking-out the walls are T-shirts reading The Dillinger Escape Plan, Death To The Pixies, Lords of Acid, Marilyn Manson, and The Ramones. Kubat says one of his former employees went "a little overboard" with the darker, Gothic theme, so they're trying to put a little more color back on the walls.
Still, the store has a decidedly sinister edge. One shirt in the back of the store reads Piece be with you; another requires even less thought: the words, Revenge is Easy, balanced atop a submachine gun. Some, like 22-year-old Columbus College of Art and Design student, Jonas Nicholes, like the dark music selection they don't find elsewhere in Columbus.
"It's darker, a little more evil," Nicholes says, dressed in stark black save a bright red pair of Chuck Taylors. He thumbs past a keeper from the band, I Curl Up And Die, happy to have found something in the midst of such an mammoth selection and a self-imposed $30 price ceiling.
The store is an enigma. Across from the death metal section, a Godzilla-sized rendition of Ghandi beckons with outstretched arms. And the store carries sufficient jazz, blues, R&B, hip-hop, classic rock, and sugary indie-pop to attract a cadre of shiny, happy people. If Magnolia Thunderpussy has a message, it's almost anarchist - a punk rock rejection of all authority, indoctrination, and dogma. The No Nazis sticker in the front shelf says a lot.
So does humor.
"Stick em' up," says Chris Pierce, a 23-yea-old Tough and Lovely musician, as he walks through the front door.
In a bank this is a crime. In here it's a joke.
Pierce directs the joke at cashier and resident hip-hop expert, Wes Eckmayer, a gregarious 26-year-old who grew up on Public Enemy, Ice Cube, and KRS-1. Eckmayer knows all about RJD2, Blueprint, Illogic, and Spitball and spends time sifting through industry catalogs like Revolver and Fat Beats.
He'll tell you, "Columbus is a dominant hip-hop scene in the underground hip-hop market." And if you come in looking for 50 Cent, he'll smile and ring you up, but may point you towards Cannibal Ox who, "might be similar, but doing something more edgy or interesting." Expanding the customer's musical ear is part of the job and requires tact and business savvy.
In making suggestions, Eckmayer tries not to belittle the customers with commentary or scoff at matters of taste. "We're not going to be rude about it. It's not like High Fidelity," he says. Even an album by Insane Clown Posse, who he admittedly detests is better purchased at Magnolia Thunderpussy than elsewhere.
His friend Pierce buys a T-Rex pin for his girlfriend. The two laugh about an old job they had together doing surveys for the Coast Guard. Eckmayer says he would make calls to Guam between 3:30 and 7:30 am and lie to those on the receiving end, saying the survey only lasted ten minutes.
"This job is a lot better than that job," he laughs.
ASK THE EXPERTS
The Thunderpussy gang, l to r: Tom Butler, Chuck Kubat, Charlotte Kubat, and Brian O'Neill, the well-versed metal-head. (Photo © Gus Brunsman III, September 2003)
But it was not so easy to get. Record store jobs are competitive, he says, and beyond musical expertise, they often require a recommendation from a friend, like Eckmayer wheedled from Mahssa Taghina before she left the position he filled.
"To get a job at a record store you have to know somebody. It's nepotism of the local music scene."
But Eckmayer knows his chops. He spent four years working for the Web site omnimix.com which streamed video footage of hip-hop battles, sold local hip-hop, and included interviews with musicians and a message board.
It's the kind of knowledge needed to recommend a Burberry Shire Armes album, a darker-edged local compilation that thumped and skittered in the background as customers drifted through the aisles, a few bobbing their heads to the beat. Eckmayer also maps sales trends on computer, discovers new artists in catalogs, and plays music in-house to draw customers to new music and sell albums.
One customer, who did not wish to be named, fashioned sporty Adidas sweats and was deciding between the divergent worlds of gangster hip-hop and neo-soul. She likes the musical diversity. And the attitude.
"I like the vibe a lot better than some of those others on High Street," she says. She later pointed at Eckmayer, who was spinning a CD she liked. "See, he knows stuff. I like that."
While Eckmayer handles hip-hop, O'Neill is the well-versed metal-head. He says his two goals at the store are to be the expert in metal and to "know enough about the Internet to be dangerous." Internet sales are still relatively slow due to time constraints, O'Neill says, but it has allowed them to reach new customers by selling collectors items they couldn't otherwise move. He says a Velvet Acid Christ box set, which might earn $30 if anything in the store, could earn $45 online.
O'Neill also highlights the importance of musical knowledge, turning over his words with amazing speed and comic flair.
"I can play Lightning Bolt, and a customer can be listening to Lightning Bolt and say to himself 'I know that the clerk can talk to me about it. I can say this is kicking my ass and go to the guy behind the counter and say what is this kicking my ass?'"
Kubat's daughter, Charlotte, a bright and sparkling 20-year-old Columbus College of Art and Design student, has found her way into the family business. Unborn when the store first opened, she says she has worked there "officially" 6 years, but "unofficially forever." She handles the buttons, T-shirts, pins, posters, and everything else music related that's not actually music.
As she flips through the store's posters in an effort to revamp them, it's easy to tell she takes pride in her work. She looks at a picture of Bjork covered only with a Biblical fig leaf. "If you go to K-Mart you're not going to find this poster." She shrugs at a White Stripes poster she finds bland. She points at a sensual picture of PJ Harvey she likes.
"I try to think, 'Would I put this on my wall?' Since I'm an artist I'd rather put something on the wall that looks more like art than someone's face," she says.
She beams as she points to all the music and paraphernalia she has access to and remarks how much she enjoys meeting people all day long.
"I've been waiting for this job since I was six years old."
Music is in the blood.
© 2003-2011 Short North Gazette, Columbus, Ohio. All rights reserved.
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