It's Friday at Ear Candy Music, which means it's release day. John Fleming is steadily receiving shipments and checking to make sure his vinyl copies of Beyonce's "Lemonade," out this very day, have arrived.
He's also juggling customers and phone calls. He shoots the breeze with a guy who's picked out $50 worth of records. A 20-something-year-old wants to exchange a record. A 60-something-year-old buys a concert ticket.
One guy asks where he can park and says he's from out of town. Fleming asks if he's here to see the Mac DeMarco show at the Wilma that night. He says no, he's on a road trip. Like a loyal music fan, he looked up record shops along the way.
Another package arrives. Fleming rings up a record for a customer and talks upcoming shows, a constant whirl of movement and conversation.
"I just can't believe we're still here after 20 years," Fleming said. "It blows my mind. I'm pretty thankful. It's good to have loyal customers that help keep the doors open."
In 1997, Fleming, then 28 years old, was working at Record Heaven. A friend, John "Tex" Knesek, pitched the idea. Knesek took out a loan, and Fleming sold his car and pulled several hundred records from his personal collection so they could open up shop in the Warehouse Mall on Toole Avenue.
After about a year, Fleming bought Knesek out. In 1998, Chris Henry and Aaron Bolton came on board, because Fleming said he doesn't know anything about electronic music or DJ culture, which back in those days required a large stack of vinyl.
Sadly, Bolton, a talented drummer and DJ who started the Badlander Complex with Henry and other partners, drowned in Seattle in 2012.
Henry oversees the online store, earcandymusic.biz, and has some space at the retail half, while Fleming sticks with the brick and mortar.
Henry said he likes to tell people that "retail is a mirror," that it doesn't have a mysterious power over consumer trends or taste. The fact that Missoula, population 70,000-plus, has Ear Candy and Rockin' Rudy's is "a testament to Missoula as a community." When he travels to music festivals, people are surprised to hear that two stores in a city this size both survived the "great record store cull."
In 1998, Ear Candy moved to the Hip Strip, where it has remained ever since. While the store initially specialized in vinyl, they expanded the CD selection. Then in 2005 to 2007, illegal downloading and sharing began to take its toll.
"There were many times I was considering just saying, 'Pull the plug, get out of here,' " Fleming said.
The interest in vinyl grew over the course of three or four years, to the point where it's now about the majority of Fleming's sales. He's actually running out of room.
The racks are stocked with new and used vinyl. Shrink-wrapped copies of Arcade Fire's latest album, "Everything Now" share space with carefully selected nods to local and regional taste, such as cult Portland band Dead Moon, or bands that are coming through town, like Thee Oh Sees or Sylvan Esso. The "rarities" bin has an LP by former Missoula band the Fireballs of Freedom.
Fleming, who began collecting records when he was in fourth or fifth grade, said they have a tangible feeling compared to a digital download.
"I just like interacting, listening to a whole side, engaging with the record, reading the liner notes, looking at the artwork," he said. Regarding the sound he said there's a "spatial quality to analog."
He notes that if you want, you can get that with a high-end CD player. Notably, his new CD sales have had an uptick recently, which goes against broader industry trends. Plus, some genres seem to have a preference — he says metalheads love CDs.
There's the treasure-hunt aspect to collecting vinyl. "Digging for records is fun," he said. "There's a lot of stuff that's never ever, ever been released on CD and it never will be." As examples, he rattled off the self-titled Kangaroo album, or Elmer Gantry's Velvet Opera.
Record collectors, too, are a different breed, he said. "Once your store gets known among the record-collector dudes, the diggers, when people are traveling, they find you."
He likes talking shop, too. He works the front of the store. "You learn stuff. I love it when a customer turns me on to something I've never heard before," he said. Musicians drop by, too. He has a wall with a growing collection of signed records: Ryan Adams, Ariel Pink, Dead Kennedys. He had his fingers crossed that DeMarco would come by.
The concerts draw out-of-town fans, too. He said the tourist traffic is noticeable on nights the Wilma has a show.
Henry likes to describe Fleming as a classic Missoula polymath, who got a degree in one thing but ended up working in another field.
The native of Jamestown, North Dakota, came to Missoula for graduate school. He was studying American literature with an emphasis on 20th century playwrights like Sam Shepard and Edward Albee.
"My thesis was 'The Myth of the American Dream and the Castrated Male in Modern American Society,' and lo and behold, 20 years later Trump's happening, and it's like, 'Wow, man. A bunch of pissed-off white males out there,' " he said.
He's also a musician, and has played in a string of great Missoula bands over the years. There was Oblio Joes, a scruffy indie-rock band with an enviable catalog of sharp songs. (They're all online now, by the way.) Then Secret Powers, a power-pop group with sharp harmonies. Then Skin Flowers and now the Sasha Bell Band, led by Bell, a former member of Essex Green — a part of the Elephant 6 collective Neutral Milk Hotel, Apples in Stereo and of Montreal. He's now reunited with Oblios and Secret Powers alums in Protest Kids, which has released a string of EPs online this year.
With its proximity to the University of Montana campus and Hellgate High School, the store has helped cultivate interest in music, particularly lesser-known groups and genres.
Ira Sather-Olson was in junior high when Ear Candy opened at its original location, and began swinging by to pick up electronic CDs and punk records. He worked there during college and for a stint afterward — if he hadn't found a full-time job elsewhere he says he'd still pick up shifts. "They're definitely like family to me," he said.
The curated selection of underground music, particularly back when physical copies and word of mouth meant everything, had a large role in shaping his taste and personality, he said.
"They've had such a great influence on Missoula as far as exposing people to music they might not find otherwise," he said.