Jen Lemasters is the co-owner of Bric-A-Brac Records in Chicago with her husband Nick. Bric-a-Brac is your one-stop shop for all the vinyl, cassettes, VHS tapes, vintage movie posters, 80s/90s toys, and all the pop culture ephemera your heart desires. This bright, fun playground to dig for records is a haven for those of us that grew up in the 80s and 90s. Sometimes you meet someone who as the phrase goes, is a “sister from another mister“, and Jen with her Skeletor loving, record collecting self is just that.
Outside of the shop she enjoys being creative. Her quarantine art project for example was making bootleg toys of women in punk. She likes watching movies and is a big fan of 80’s and 90’s action movies, horror, and Hong Kong movies. She also plays bass in a band, and loves going to flea markets and estate sales.
How did you get into your industry / What motivated you?
I have always been a collector of various things. I have a lot of interests, and love looking for fun things. At one point, my collecting tendency started to feel like it was going to be a problem for my apartment size. I began daydreaming about a record / toy store so I could still get the thrill of the hunt and yet not totally fill up my apartment. Honestly that idea kinda backfired, because I still find things that make their way back to my house.
My favorite thing to work on is the shop ambiance. I am totally a maximalist and love to have the shop reflect that. Being able to create a fun and interesting environment definitely keeps me motivated. Brick and mortar “mom and pop” stores are becoming few and far between so I think it’s important to create a unique and fun space. It’s something you can’t get by clicking add to cart on a website. Since the shop is half records and half toys, I go for a strong 80’s / 90’s vibe with a big influence being Pee Wee’s Playhouse.
What is a day in the life like?
A day can be very varied for me. For a long time, my husband and I also worked other jobs on top of managing our store. The pandemic forced us out of our other jobs and gave us more time to stay creative trying to keep a record / toy store alive at such a challenging time. Most days we work at the shop, but we also tend to stay active trying to source new things, vending at pop-up markets, and recently we have been keeping busy moving the shop to a new location, decorating and setting things up.
What has been your favorite sale / relationship made from behind the counter?
The shop has been especially special for me and making relationships because I am a pretty shy person at first. Just to be in a place surrounded by things that I love has helped me to make some pretty awesome relationships with the people who have walked through the doors. I couldn’t pick a favorite because I have had people come into the shop who would become bandmates, employers, close personal friends, and creative partners.
In your opinion what has been the coolest thing to come through your shop / the thing you had to keep / almost couldn’t put out for sale?
A friend that I made through the shop recognized how much I loved Masters of the Universe (MOTU) and gifted me his childhood MOTU lamp which is an extremely rare thing and something I will cherish forever.
What has been the craziest experience that has happened at the shop?
We often (pre-pandemic) had bands play late afternoon / early evening shows at the shop. One night, there were two big conflicting shows happening, and my husband had asked bands from each show if they wanted to play. Paul Collins told us he would try but they were concerned about time, so we assumed it was a no. La Luz, who were touring with Ty Segall agreed and played the shop at 4:30. They ended, and people were leaving the shop when Paul Collins and his band bursted through the door and said, can we still play? Can we use the other band’s backline? No one was expecting them at all and it was such a surprise and a great show!
What advice do you have for someone wanting to get into pursuing what you’re doing?
For anyone else trying to pursue opening a record store, or any small business similar, I think it’s important to have a reliable partner. If you can’t have that, just keep in mind that all small businesses take a few years to be profitable so plan for that!
I had another job when I started, which helped me out a lot, but it also might have hindered me as well. I wasn’t always able to put my all into the shop. It’s important to have a plan of what you think would work best for you, and some money set aside.
Are you a vinyl collector yourself? What drew you to it?
I am a collector! I bought my first record when I was 17 before I even had a record player. When I first noticed them, I just loved seeing the artwork on such a large surface and they were cheap! My parents got me a record player for my 18th birthday and my dad gave me what was left of his record collection. It was all downhill from there.
I love that music is never ending, and whatever band you like, you can go down a black hole of bands that inspired them. It makes me realize I will always buy records, because I will always be discovering new music.
What has been / is the most difficult part of your job?
The most difficult aspect of the job for me is people always assuming it’s just all fun, or that I only put in a 7 hour day (as the shop is open daily noon until 7 p.m.). Most people don’t realize just how much time and effort we put into the shop, all the extra unseen hours, or time spent being in the shop totally alone with no customers. It is a really fun job, but it’s rough too. The shop has been open for 8 and a half years and for 7 of those years my husband and I worked 1-2 other jobs on top of it to keep ourselves afloat.
What types of things are happening in your industry / with vinyl that you’re excited or worried about? i.e. innovation, or trends you’re seeing.
It’s exciting to see that vinyl is having a big resurgence, but that is bringing a lot of negative things with it as well. I’m pretty sure we are all aware of the back-up at pressing plants and the fact that major chain stores like Target and Urban Outfitters are moving in on the independent record store market. I am worried that big labels will continue to monopolize the plants and so independent bands will have a harder time getting their music out there.
During this time we’re currently in, what message do you have for music and vinyl fans? How can we support you, the industry?
If you are going to get into vinyl, please shop at an independent record store. Don’t buy them off Amazon!
You can support the industry by keeping local record stores alive! You get so much more by walking into a shop, you can discover new things you wouldn’t normally or meet new people.
Anything else you want to share? If not, tell me: What is your favorite music genre or band right now?
I love post punk, new wave, and no wave. I hate picking one favorite band so if I had to throw a few out there, right now I would say Los Microwaves, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Bush Tetras, ESG, OMD, The B-52’s, The Shivvers, Pylon, Le Tigre, Delta 5, and Y Pants. I have also been listening the crap out of the new ONETWOTHREE record.
Bric a Brac: @bricabracrecords