Every Record Tells a Story

Passions - May/Jun 2020

Above: Luke Dickens

Writer: Chad Taylor
Photographer: Duane Tinkey

“I don’t buy records, I buy stories.”

That’s Luke Dickens, owner of Vinyl Cup Records in Beaverdale and Marv’s Records in the East Village, who doesn’t sell records he found at Half Price Books or on eBay or through estate auctions. For Dickens, every record tells a story, both of a moment in time for an artist and of a moment in time for each listener.

And those stories—those visceral connections to the music and that record—are the things that Dickens feels like he’s really selling. So deep is Dickens’ belief in the power and importance of those stories, he’s been known to pass them on to an album’s next owner.

“I will sometimes write … little notes on the labels: ‘This was John’s record and it was the first one he ever bought,’ ” Dickens explains.

His path to owning two record stores—soon to be three, as a new Vinyl Cup location is expected to open May 1 in Omaha—was not a straight one. The 35-year-old Dickens moved to Des Moines from the Mason City area during his sophomore year of high school. He later joined the Army, returning to Iowa in 2008. The next decade saw him spend time working alternately for Aspen Athletic Clubs, Starbucks, Noodles and Co., and as a drug and alcohol counselor, before fate pushed him in a different direction.

“My record obsession started in 2015,” he says. Two years later, after becoming irritated at a record store in town, “I went and bought a collection off of a guy just so I wouldn’t have to go into that store again.”

Dickens began sifting his way through that first collection, pulling out the albums he wanted to keep and posting photos online of the rest, hoping to make enough money to buy another collection and repeat the process.

Dickens’ eye for quality, his disarming approach to sales, and his open, friendly personality all served
him well. Before he knew it, he was making enough from record sales to go from paying for records to paying for vacations.

In August 2018, Dickens decided to take the final plunge and move his sales from online and collectors shows into his own brick-and-mortar shop, Vinyl Cup Records.

The success of Vinyl Cup has been almost entirely centered on Dickens’ approach to changing how people perceive the neighborhood record shop. There’s no counter for employees to lurk behind. When customers enter the store, they’re greeted with a loud hello and offered a free water, soda or beer. There’s a listening room with large, comfortable seats. Dickens rearranges the store a few times a month, which allows him to engage with customers and keep them abreast of what’s new and where things are.

Vinyl Cup’s strong sales and populist approach to collecting allowed Dickens to purchase Marv’s Records in February 2019, a move that Dickens says was as much about keeping a valuable part of the East Village landscape alive as it was about expanding his own portfolio. And now he is opening his third location, this one a 1,200-square-foot space in Omaha’s Old Market district, as part of a collaborative expansion with Raygun owner Mike Draper. The two businesses are operating separate suites in the same building.

But as Dickens’ standing in Des Moines’ vinyl-loving community continues to grow, his core beliefs remain the same: “Our intention is to be open and inviting to anyone and everyone,” he says. “I want [record collecting] to feel less intimidating.”

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