By Mecca Bos
“This is Cheers and I’m Sam Malone. I stand behind the counter and listen to people’s problems and try to help them out with music.”
“Sam Malone” is actually Tim Wilson, the near-30 year veteran owner (he bought the store in 1993) of Urban Lights, Minnesota’s only Black-owned record store, and one of only 32 in the nation. The lifelong DJ and Fortune 500 salesman (the store is a labor of love, not money) says that his high school locker was “literally a record store,” so he was always destined for the job.
But still, nearly three decades in the same storied location, watching the music business go from vinyl to digital to back again-- and then toss in a pandemic and existing in the geographical eye of a worldwide uprising-- and his destiny has been, quite literally, a trip.
“But I’m just a southside kid with a dream,” he says, recalling the days when he’d be hanging out in music stores exchanging knowledge for records-- he was such a music head that the store managers would turn to him for his picks on what new music would sell, and in exchange, his expertise built his record collection. When Urban Lights went up for sale, someone mentioned that he should buy it. At first, thinking it impossible, he cobbled together the cash and made it happen.
Urban Lights has outlasted big boxes like Tidal Wave and Best Buy, and now that Target no longer sells CDs but is bringing back vinyl, he’s outlasting them, too. Vinyl is back, baby, and it’s because it makes people feel cool.
“Very cool,” says Wilson. According to him, aside from the people who come to him for therapy via music, or the regulars who know the store as the institution it is, his bread and butter are the folks who have a turntable and 20 records that they use as the “soundtrack to their lives.”
“They come home from work and put on Miles Davis Bitches Brew or something like that,” he says.
Wilson came to love music the old-fashioned way-- via his aunt and uncle’s soundtrack to their lives: Maze, Ohio Players, Cameo, Earth Wind and Fire. DJing gave way to a deep love of Hip Hop, but Wilson says his palette is “so deep.” He likes everything. He knows everything too, and what he really trades in is still knowledge-- and customer service. Since he can’t compete with the big box stores for prices, people come to him for his opinion, and then they’ll spend the $16.99 on the recs he gives.
And, even if you’re not into vinyl (maybe you’re just not interested in feeling super cool) Wilson fills up iPods and MP3’s too, curated to fit a party or even a mood (I got mine: H.E.R, Phabo, Hidden Beach, Unrwapped 8, BJ the Chicago Kid, Snoh Alegra, Airplane James, Doja Cat, and Sky Zoo, for those who wanna know).
The store is also “an open house for creatives,” and hosts a rotating schedule of events from open mics to block parties to DJ events every Saturday. The dark, evocative, scene-y space is also used for photoshoots and music videos.
If it’s been a minute since you’ve thought about heading to a record store to flip through the stacks, Urban Lights is your go-to. And remember, says Wilson, just because you have a world of music on your Spotify doesn’t mean you’re fully immersed in that world.
“Sometimes you have to get off the main highway.”
Also, he reminds us:
“Vinyl is a warmer sound. You miss a lot musically with digital.”
Stop missing out, and start listening up.
1449 University Ave. W., St. Paul
Photos courtesy @theurbanlight
Taking a trip to Urban Lights during your visit to Saint Paul? Let us know with #MYSAINTPAUL.
Mecca Bos is a Twin Cities based food writer and professional chef. Thinking of tacos and travel are hobbies. Her work can be found at meccaboswrites.com