Old City's Hot Horse Assembles All-star Collective of Hip Merchants

Hot Horse, the Old City's newest retailer, sits modestly among the crumbly brick facades of Knoxville's late-night district. Through the large windowed storefront, a spacious treasure trove for the curious appears: One wall is lined with a considerable collection of records, both new and old, while on the opposite wall stand guitars, amplifiers, a few vintage keyboards, and a collection of strange, homemade musical instruments. A large glass counter displays microphones, recording software, guitar strings, and other random musical paraphernalia. To the rear of the store is a room filled with vintage furniture, clothing, and kitchy bric-a-brac. Store clerks play rare Japanese pysch-pop or singles from a multitude of forgotten rock bands of the 1980s, provoking the question, "What is this?"

The answer is tricky—Hot Horse is an ever-evolving collection of merchandise from different local retailers who have all crossed paths with Hot Horse owner Jason Boardman. "Every time this space has become empty, I've thought, ‘Here's a shot to do something,'" Boardman says. That "something" took a little while to define.

In 2008, Boardman missed his chance at the space, located at 108 E. Jackson Ave., when the short-lived Woodward Books opened there. When the space became available again in the summer of 2009, Boardman quickly seized the opportunity. "If I wanted to do it, now's the time," he says.

Finally opening its doors in January, Hot Horse—taking its name from a character in a Damon Runyon short story—and its concept had been in the works for some time. As a longtime Old City business operator with the stalwart indie music venue Pilot Light, Boardman saw a need for a musical equipment store for bands who may need some last-minute supplies.

"The concept of it developed over time," he says. "After 10 years of having bands ask me where can I get an adapter or a cable or some strings or some sticks or whatever, that was the primary emphasis for it."

But the business realities of such a venture seemed daunting.

"I knew there was no way to run a business just selling musical supplies and whatever instruments I could come up with," he says. "I really wanted the place to be wired for survival."

This challenge led Boardman to some creative thinking. He decided to take a collaborative approach, recruiting peers with established businesses that he felt would add to Hot Horse's aesthetic and financial stability.

Initially, Boardman brought in local online record dealer Jay Nations, of the late Raven Records, along with Mike and Maria Armstrong of North Knoxville's Lost and Found Records, to build a respectable record stock and also to serve as a satellite operation for their own respective businesses.

"I wanted to have records but I didn't want to run a used-record store," Boardman says. "Why try to reinvent the wheel when these other people have been doing it for decades now? I didn't want to compete with them, I just wanted to involve them."

Soon after, Brad Gibson, owner of Music Room Guitars in Bearden, agreed to stock a collection of guitars and amplifiers.

The final part of the puzzle presented itself in August of 2009, when Janice Fuqua was forced to close her longtime Old City vintage shop, Legacy. Boardman approached Fuqua about filling Hot Horse's backroom space. Boardman says this addition of vintage clothing and furniture gave the Hot Horse a completely different feel, but it stayed within the framework of Hot Horse's overall concept.

"I didn't want the place to be crazily mismatched," Boardman says. "I wanted the place to have the feel of a single store, a purposeful feel. I wanted it to seem it all made sense to be one store."

With the upcoming addition of local electronics operation, DB Electronics, to supply affordable record players and stereos, Hot Horse's product line is set to grow again.

According to Boardman, after the initial effort of setting up the store, which took about six months, the multiple-vendor collaborations have made Hot Horse very manageable for him to maintain, with the expertise of products along with the financial risk, being shared by all those involved.

"Everyone who has things here is on a consignment basis," Boardman says. "I wanted to start out in such a way that it wasn't going to cost them anything to try it."

Despite this collaboration, Boardman is not limited to the idea of vendor-only sales, and stresses that Hot Horse is open to anyone who wishes to put something for up consignment sale. In a way, he feels that Hot Horse is a community-based store.

"I don't ever expect to make any money, personally, and I'm sure that I won't," he says. "If it can pay a staff and help support a community that we're already working on down here, that's its primary mission."