cover_story_4 (2007-08)

2007 Music Issue (continued)

When Mike and Maria Armstrong officially reopened Lost & Found Records last summer, one of their first customers was a vinyl hound of the literal sort--a stray, flea-bitten basset hound, to be more precise. The sad pooch had wandered his way up to the conspicuously hip plaza on Walker Boulevard, presumably more interested in kibbles than Beatles, but nonetheless on a collision course with doggie destiny.

"I just kind of fell in love with him," says Maria, standing at her usual post behind Lost & Found's front counter. At her feet sits Henry the Hound, former skinny puppy turned resident record shop mascot. "I brought him in the store one day, and he's been here ever since," she grins. "A lot of people come by to see Henry now. He sort of belongs to all of us down here."

Of course, aside from being everyone's four-legged friend, Henry the Hound is also a convenient metaphor for the resilient spirit of Lost & Found Records itself--a place where things once cast aside may yet prove to be in high demand.  

This local business's ballad-worthy tale begins in 1990, when Knoxville natives Mike Armstrong, now 46, and his wife Maria, 41, established the primarily vinyl Lost & Found Records at its original location at 7315 Kingston Pike. For Mike, it was the realization of a nearly lifelong ambition.

"I was just elated," he remembers. "I had always been into music, collecting music, since I was a small child. So I always had it in my mind to, at some point, open a record store. Finally, Maria and I just went for it, and the rest was history."

Considering its historic context, the timing of Lost & Found's debut   was daring. The world was a very different place in 1990. There was a Bush in the White House, a war in Iraq, and sweeping technological changes in how people could purchase and listen to music. The vinyl record--elder statesman of recording formats--had been brutally supplanted by a smaller, shinier, digital alternative: the compact disc. In the midst of this CD revolution, opening an old fashioned record store could have seemed like a counterintuitive move. As it turned out, the Armstrongs knew exactly what they were doing.

"I remember Mike saying, when we first opened the store, as long as we can get good records, people will always buy them," Maria says. "Regardless of CDs or any other format that comes along, people will always want records."

"One of the things I remember most during those early days," adds Mike, "is how much we looked forward to coming in to the store on Saturday. Because we knew we'd be looking at 500 to 1,000 records that day. People were coming in and selling by the droves, which is always great for business."

As it had turned out, the very technology that would supposedly destroy vinyl actually helped jumpstart a flourishing new secondary market, as music buyers "upgraded" to CDs and emptied their attics of perfectly good, collectable records--items still hotly sought after by the city's DJs, audiophiles and plain old nostalgic types. With a massive inventory and loyal clientele, business was good at Lost & Found in the '90s.

"We had pretty good success there for a number of years," Mike recalls, noting that his inventory even wooed visiting band members from national acts like Sonic Youth, Stereolab and Guided By Voices. "Then the internet came along."

Cue the thunder and lightning.

Things had changed by the time 2003 rolled around. There was another Bush in the White House, a different war in Iraq, and more sweeping technological changes in how people could purchase and listen to music. The combination of mp3 downloading and eBay took its toll on every mom and pop record shop in the country, including Lost & Found. The Armstrongs had already been forced to move to a smaller space on Cumberland Avenue back in 2001, and by March of 2003, they reluctantly decided to close up shop entirely. However, all hope was not lost.

"When we closed the store, I kept all my stuff," Maria says. "I just had a feeling that one day I could do this again on some different level."

For the next three years, the Armstrongs continued selling vinyl at antique malls and online, but for the extroverted Maria in particular, it just didn't feel quite the same. Luckily, a string of events was about to unfold that would put everything in its right place again.

First came the reports of vinyl's almost mind-boggling resurgence. In contrast to the colossal collapse of CDs, American sales of new vinyl records had jumped from about $75 million in 2000 to $110 million in 2005, solid numbers that didn't even take into account the gigantic second-hand market. All signs indicated that grandpa's format was en vogue again.

Then, early last year, Maria saw another sign--a space for rent sign, to be exact. "We were literally driving down Broadway one day," she recalls, "and I saw this spot (3714 Walker Blvd) and I just knew. I thought, I can do this again!"

With Mike working behind the scenes this time, Maria proudly reintroduced Knoxville to Lost & Found Records at its cozy new confines last August. As a final twist of good fortune, she was even able to rehire a past employee, Nathan Moses, who had just moved back into town and was thrilled to rejoin the team. For Moses, 34, the vinyl revival had been no surprise at all.

"There's a different experience with vinyl," he says. "You have to pay attention to it, take care of it--it's a labor of love. A lot of people still want that original packaging, and to hear the sound difference. Analog versus digital. That's why I collect records, for the sound."

Mike concurs. "We've always felt that analog sounds better. But I also think that records bring a certain collectibility to the experience. They make you actually want to own a piece of music, to have it in your hand and in your personal collection, rather than just having random songs on your iPod."

Unquestionably, the single greatest factor in vinyl's renewed popularity may be its tangibility. In a time when just about everything seems to be going automatic and two-dimensional, many people are eager to use all five senses again, to recover that direct connection with music that has been largely lost in the digital age. Thankfully, there is still no better place to find something you've lost than at Lost & Found. Just don't forget to say hello to Henry.

2007 Music Issue (continued)