In Burro Alley, behind El Fenix Café, an overgrown and almost forgotten courtyard is home to Abilene’s best-kept music secret – The Record Guys.
The small store, tucked away between two local shops on the corner of South 1st and Willis, isn’t visible from the street. Customers follow a red-brick sidewalk until they hear a Beatles’ tune playing through outdoor speakers. A small sign above the speakers signals that the simple concrete structure is, in fact, a fruitful business.
Stepping into the store, customers are greeted with a hearty hello from Kevin Howell, partial owner of the business his sons began in middle school.
These days, his sons Justin, the businessman, and Jon, the salesman, live in the Dallas area, and Kevin runs the shop after he’s done teaching social studies at Abilene Cooper High School – creating somewhat unconventional hours for the local store – Tuesday through Thursday from 4-6 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 1-6 p.m.
The walls of the small, single-room store are lined with old records, tie-dyed T-shirts and a few 8-track tapes. The center of the room is a maze of 45s, neatly arranged in multicolored milk crates, roughly sorted by genre and price. At the back of the shop, customers can find refurbished record players and a collection of vintage cameras.
The friendly staff and relaxed, musical atmosphere makes the simple store as homey as the family who started it.
And Kevin says starting it was an accident.
While browsing a garage sale, Kevin discovered 12 crates full of records marked $.50 each. As he looked through the old records, the man running the garage sale bargained with Kevin, offering him better and better deals.
Kevin continued to peruse the crates until he heard himself asked the man, “What would you take for all of them?”
“A dollar a crate and you can keep the crates,” the man said quickly.
Twelve dollars later, Kevin had a horde of records and a frustrated wife. He set aside 20-30 records for himself and stacked the rest in the living room to collect dust for the next few months.
In an attempt to ditch the pile of records – and appease his wife – Kevin decided to haul the 45s and his two preteen sons to the Buffalo Gap flea market. Justin Howell, Kevin’s oldest son and self-proclaimed businessman of the record operation, said they brought a table, a tarp and the 12 cartons of records and set up a booth. The family team intended to rid itself of the record problem, but instead, they ended up buying more records from another vendor.
“It’s so funny how the business got started, because we went out to the flea market to sell them and get rid of them, and we ended up buying more. And eight years later, here we are,” Justin said.
The monthly flea market became a regular weekend activity for the Howells. Kevin said he would drop off his 12 and 13-year-old sons at the flea market each week with the table, tarp and records. They would sell records all day, then Kevin would pick them up. They made $300 on the first trip and a steady profit after that.
“It was interesting being young people being around adults on our weekend and doing adult things like business and stuff while your friends are watching Saturday morning cartoons and going to the mall and hanging out with friends,” Justin said.
After a few years, though, business became slower, and the family decided it was time to relocate.
They opened a store in Abilene on South 7th Street and tried out the flea market scene in Fredericksburg. They traveled to Fredericksburg on the third weekend of every month and ran the Abilene store after school and on Saturdays.
Their hard work paid off. Jon said he and his brother used proceeds from the business to buy their first car – an ’84 Mustang convertible.
For the most part, the family makes a good team. Jon is known for his ability to sell, always knowing what will sell and what won’t. Justin is better at buying the records and controlling the business side of things.
Jon said he remembers the first few times he and his brother sold in Buffalo Gap. Justin was a very aggressive salesman and Jon said he would suddenly shout at people in an attempt to persuade them to look through the records. Eventually, Justin got better at sales, but he really excelled in business – Jon’s weaker suit.
In fact, Justin remembers one afternoon in the original Abilene location when Jon was looking after the store by himself. Justin and Kevin walked in, and Jon said, “Oh, hey I bought some steak.”
Jon proceeded to tell his dad and brother that a man entered the store claiming to sell steak from his truck. Jon gave the man $30 and expected him to come right back with the steak. He never came back, but Kevin and Justin had a good laugh.
After Justin and Jon graduated from Abilene High School in 2007 and 2008, the South 7th location closed, but they continued selling records from Fredericksburg, and for a brief time, San Angelo. At the beginning of this summer, Kevin found the location in Burro Alley and set up shop once again in Abilene.
The family keeps a couple thousand records in the store at a time, but they have more than 60,000 albums in a warehouse on North 1st Street. Justin said in the beginning they bought 2,000-3,000 records at a time for typically $.05- $.10 a piece from ads placed in newspapers.
The Record Guys sell most of their records for $2. The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, Johnny Cash and a few other hard-to-find records cost closer to $20 – a great deal, according to Justin.
“We like to have low prices because we’re buying a record for 5-10 cents, so we don’t want to charge outrageous amounts of money just because a book says a record’s worth it,” Justin said. “To us, a record is worth what someone is willing to pay for it.”
But, the family isn’t in the business for the money. They keep the store alive out of their appreciation for music, the interests of customers and love of family.
“Family is the most important thing in this venture,” Justin said. “Without family, there’s no way we could have done it – no way.Â It’s not possible.”