At 660 square feet, roughly the size of a decent studio apartment, the Third Man record store is a serious contender for the world’s most compact but action-packed music shop.
The eye doesn’t know where to land upon entering, nor does the ear. A circus-like sense of wonder hums in this place, as if you’ve time-warped to the 1950s, starting with the portable record player on the counter. It fills the room with the sound of artists on the store’s home label, Third Man Records, which rock musician Jack White launched in 2001.
Ben Swank, who cofounded the store in 2009 with White and musician-writer Ben Blackwell, concedes that it wasn’t an obvious time or place to open a brick-and-mortar shop. Music retailers were shuttering across the country back then, but they had faith — and a figurehead who happened to be a rock star.
“We knew Jack already had cachet and an ingrown fan base from the White Stripes and the Raconteuers,” Swank says. “But what we didn’t expect is that we would reach [Nashville’s] citizens right away. We thought there would be a lot more buildup and legwork to do. But as Jack says a lot, people sense honesty, and that interests people. It happened really quickly.”
They had humble beginnings, setting up shop in a scrappy stretch of Nashville, right in between a homeless shelter and methadone clinic at the time and several blocks removed from the buzzing tourist area. They’re in a building whose brick façade is painted black with THIRD MAN RECORDS spelled out in towering letters. In addition to the store, it houses a venue that hosts shows and studio space where the label’s artists record.
When they opened, Swank and Blackwell worked the counter, figuring a handful of people would stop by on occasion. Within six months, the store was filling up and long lines were snaking down the street. Proving size does not matter, Third Man Records has become its own Nashville destination.
The front door reads, “Records and Novelties,” but really, it’s so much more than that. True to White’s curatorial vision, where presentation is as important as the art, Third Man is a loving homage to the ways we connect with music on all sensory levels. Pivot every few feet and there’s something new to behold.
Given the store’s cozy confines, you could conceivably pop in and out, but you’d miss so much. On a sunny summer’s day in August, my mother and I spent an hour at Third Man, and I still somehow overlooked the Scopitone machine, a jukebox of sorts that plays très-magnifique music videos first made in France in the ’50s and ’60s.
The store sells merchandise exclusively related to the label, but still feels like a broad world to explore. On the counter is a basket of lentincular postcards of the White Stripes; shift them ever so slightly to watch Jack and Meg White move. Buttons, books, T-shirts, DVDs, a photo booth, and screen-printed posters all vie for your attention. A heavy-duty Mold-a-Rama spits out petite replicas of White’s Airline electric guitar he used in the White Stripes, in red wax that’s still warm and malleable when it’s ready.
Over here we have the Monkey Band, which comes to life when you slip a quarter in the slot. Suddenly, the furry, animatronic creatures start stomping their feet and sawing away at their guitars to the tune of an artist on Third Man Records.
The star attraction, by far, is the Voice-O-Graph, a refurbished 1947 record booth where you can record close to 2 minutes, be it a song (an acoustic guitar is on hand), a story, and so on. It transfers your performance to a vinyl single right on the spot. Neil Young cut an album, this year’s “A Letter Home,” in this very booth, although Swank says they moved it out of the store and into a studio space.
My mother and I looked at each other quizzically: “What should we record?” A childhood memory of us singing Neil Sedaka’s “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do” in the car suddenly seemed like a good idea. Or was it? One by one we stepped into the booth, and huddled close as we leaned into the built-in microphone. We did a quick vocal warm-up and could have used another 10.
The tokens we purchased at the counter for $15 went into the slot, and eventually the light on the panel indicated we were recording. Off we went, a cappella. I think my mother started singing in the key of C, I went for G, and somewhere along the way our harmonies melded. The Everly Brothers had nothing on us, y’all. Well, except the ability to sing in tune and keep a steady rhythm.
That wasn’t the point, though. We were having fun, revisiting a joyful time in our lives, and we would soon leave with a keepsake. As the booth indicated we were done, we crouched and watched the wheels spin below. Within minutes, our 111 seconds of musical fame were etched into a 6-inch disc of clear vinyl. It was gently lifted and deposited into a slot much like a bag of M&Ms dropping from a vending machine.
The label was blank, and we needed a band name. My mother called it: Mama Can’t Sing. (Neither Can Son, but that wouldn’t fit.)
At the counter, the friendly sales clerk, who looked like she was just in from her waitressing shift at Mel’s Diner circa 1976, handed us a sleeve and envelope for the record. “You can mail it right outside the door,” she said, gesturing toward the mailbox near the entrance.
With the ink still wet on the label, we took our record with us, proud to have made it — and relieved no one would ever hear it without a turntable and our permission. It was our very own “Greetings From Nashville” postcard in song form.
“We say around here that novelties and gimmicks can almost be dirty words for some people, but not for us at all,” Swank says. “Man, if this is what it takes to get people interested in something romantic and beautiful, then so be it.”