It's the crown jewel of the shop: A small, slightly scuffed box, adorned with lurid illustrations of a family of monsters riding around in a hot-rod hearse. Price: $550. How can this be?
Well, it's an artifact from another age—when small children were entrusted with metal cubes equipped with handles, then thrust into roomfuls of other small children and expected to not inflict concussions on one another. The monsters smiling from the box's illustrated panels were from a popular television show of the time (an era when there were only three networks!), and were meant to comfort the children before they went to school and tried not to engage in battle. Now that these steel "lunchboxes" have been replaced by soft vinyl ones, they are no longer potentially dangerous weapons—and therefore completely uninteresting. But the original metal ones—once as commonplace as peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches—are now prized as remnants of a more innocent time. And it's just the kind of thing Raven Records & Rarities would like to sell you.
"People love The Munsters, they still do," says Raven co-owner Jack Stiles. "This is one of the best lunchboxes—and one of the rarest ones, of all time. It's not beat all up, they didn't make a lot of these, and it's cool to look at."
Plus, primo Munsters lunchboxes can go for as high as $1,200. This particular specimen is just one of the affordably priced objets d'art available at the newly opened Raven (5710 Kingston Pike), a small shop in Bearden that could also serve as a gallery of lost and/or beloved pop culture. On one side of the oblong room are movie posters documenting the work of B-movie actor Warren Oates (Chandler) and rock star Mick Jagger (The Kelly Brothers), Batman Colorforms, reproduction Frankenstein Aurora models, and monster magazines and comics from the '60s and '70s (among uncountable other items); on the other side resides a vinyl valhalla of LPs, EPs, and 45s of different vintages and genres, from The Real Electrifying Eddie Harris to Nina Rota's Amarcord soundtrack. It's the sort of hand-picked collection you won't find at your typical thrift store—the cream of the collectible crop. But even more rare than the items it sells is the shop itself.
Back in 1995, when co-owner Jay Nations closed down the original Raven Records on the Cumberland Strip—an integral part of the local music scene at the time—he might have seemed prescient. In a few short years, you could buy exactly what you wanted off the Internet... or download the songs illegally for free. But in fact, he was just burned out on doing retail. Coming full circle back to a brick-and-mortar shop after a dozen years plying his trade online and at record shows (he first sold ads for Metro Pulse post-Raven) appears to be a surprise even to Nations.
"If you'd asked me last year [about reopening Raven], I would've said no. And then it just all kind of came to a head a couple months ago and it worked out. And I'm feeling really good about it," Nations says. "I had some emotional stuff to deal with, I think, and that's part of the reason I hadn't gotten back into this. I just had such a tough time shutting down the old store. And I was just worn out 'cause I'd put so much of myself into it back then. Being a little more mature, I've got a better take on how to manage things."
The shop is smaller than the previous Raven, open just five days a week (Tuesday through Saturday, noon-7 p.m.). And this time around he's sharing ownership with his friend Stiles, who brings a new dimension to Raven as a lifelong collector of TV and movie ephemera.
"I was probably about 12 or 13 when I got my first monster model," Stiles says. "Then it mushroomed out to records and paperbacks and comics and magazines and rare toys and posters, and that kind of stuff. So it all accumulated while I was working full-time either at UT or for movie chains. And Jay just called at the right time. I was getting fed up working for a corporate movie chain."
Not only have the partners committed to running an old-fashioned store selling old-fashioned physical media, but they've also ratcheted down their individual online sales. Raven Records & Rarities will not enter cyberspace as an e-commerce endeavor. Are they nuts?
"Well, vinyl is hot," Nations points out. "It's the only format in the music world that's growing. There's tons of guys that're my age, older, or younger that have stuff they want to get rid of, so I'm making a good market of buying and selling. And Jack's got a pretty unique mix of stuff. I mean, you can go into some comic shops and find some of the stuff he has, but he's got a lot more older stock and just oddball, weird, cool stuff that I've never seen anywhere."
And that may serve well as Raven's credo—bringing the oddball, weird, cool stuff back to Knoxville after a 16-year hiatus.