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‘Let’s go all in’: Cheyenne used bookstore rebrands to Downtown Vinyl after years of growing music sales

CHEYENNE, Wyo. — On the surface, Don McKee's decision to nearly completely revamp how he's made his living for the past 16 years seems risky.

Vinyl records sit in bays inside Downtown Vinyl (formerly known as Phoenix Books & Music) on Wednesday on 1612 Capitol Ave. in Cheyenne. As a “vinyl revival” in music sales has created a new interest in the format, owner Don McKee made a recent rebrand from mainly a used book store to a mostly-vinyl shop. (Briar Napier/Cap City News)

CHEYENNE, Wyo. — On the surface, Don McKee’s decision to nearly completely revamp how he’s made his living for the past 16 years seems risky.

But pay attention to consumer tendencies over that timeframe, and his recent choice to rebrand his shop in Cheyenne from Phoenix Books & Music to Downtown Vinyl becomes a much easier one to understand.

McKee, the only owner and employee of his business on 1612 Capitol Ave. in downtown Cheyenne, held a soft opening of Downtown Vinyl on Monday to much fanfare, calling it one of the best sales days he’s had in 16 years. Influenced by the so-called “vinyl revival” — a resurgence of interest over the past decade-plus in vinyl records, resulting in the format surpassing CDs in physical sales last year — and its effect on why patrons were going to and buying things from his store, his shop has gradually shifted from one that is heavy on used book sales to one specializing in vinyl sales.

After mulling the idea of switching (almost) solely to music sales for a couple of years, McKee had a specific thought on his mind when beginning the remodel of his shop at the start of the new year: “Let’s go all in.”

“I brought my vinyl bins upstairs, put them right in front, and kept taking down bookshelves and adding more vinyl bins,” McKee said. “It’s been a progressive thing. And just midway through the pandemic, I realized I just need to go all vinyl [with] a tiny amount of books in the back.”

“Vinyl has been the majority of my sales here for several years, so it’s just me making that decision … it’s really what has sustained the store for many, many years.”

At the store’s capacity, McKee said that the store can hold about 10,000 records, with 7,000 currently in-store but “more to put out” remaining in his collection. Options for numerous different eras and genres of music can be found at the shop, from Bruce Springsteen to Merle Haggard and the Rolling Stones to the Red Hot Chili Peppers on anywhere from 7- to 12-inch vinyls plus CDs.

McKee said heavy portions of his customers come from an older generation that grew up with vinyl, along with young people that have gained an interest in vinyl collecting. That left what he called a “donut hole” of a generation in between the two that grew up listening to CDs and cassette tapes, a gap that’s been filled over time as namely children and teenagers have gotten parents into the scene.

“Let’s go back 15 years or so, I think a lot of 15- to 30-year-olds were getting into vinyl, possibly as a result of being anti-digital,” McKee said. “They wanted to be different than the Spotify/iTunes friends that they had. They probably saw vinyl in their parents’ and/or grandparents’ collections and thought it was pretty cool. … And every other customer, it seems, comes in and says, ‘I had that [record]. I had that. I had that.’ … It spurs the memories, for sure.”

For those who come to McKee’s store for the books, some copies are still around the store, but clearly don’t hold as much prominence as the music on display. With year after year of records outselling books, McKee said that “it’s just not going to change that much in that regard.”

This week’s soft opening showed off the many cosmetic changes at the location — such as more speakers, artwork and some merchandise — but Saturday’s day at Downtown Vinyl is where the fun really begins. McKee plans to have live music at the shop all day to celebrate the first weekend of the location under the new name, with T-shirt and gift certificate giveaways (plus a $1 record sale) to boot.

It’ll be McKee’s culmination of plenty of work and plenty of thought that’s gone into the project over the years. If anything, this weekend will be an opportunity to relax and jam out with the music that now engulfs his life.

“It’s not that I don’t like books, I love books,” McKee said. “I read all the time. That’s why I kept classic literature a little bit back there and keep music biographies. … But as a business, you just go with where the customers are telling you to go.”