Even amid a pandemic, Elizabeth's Records co-owner David Lewis has held tight to a community grown steadily over the last decade
The three years that David Lewis worked at Waterloo Records in Austin, Texas, the shop was consistently voted the top record store in the area by various publications. “It was always like, ‘We’re number one!’ And we had shirts that said, ‘Number one record store in Austin!’” said Lewis, who co-owns Elizabeth’s Records in Clintonville with wife Laura. “And I hated that. I didn’t want to be that at all [when we opened]. I’m always the underdog.”
Lewis embraced that beloved misfit role when Elizabeth’s opened in November 2010, joking at the time that it was the 42nd best record store in town. “And we’ve worked our way up to 13th,” Lewis deadpanned during a recent interview in the shop, which is currently open to the public Friday through Sunday, its hours curtailed by the ongoing pandemic. “And I’m happy with that. That’s a comfortable place. It’s close enough to the top for me. I can deal with that.”
Befitting someone more comfortable outside of the spotlight, Lewis described himself as a Zelig-like figure, always a step removed from some wider renown. When Richard Linklater filmed his 1990 feature “Slacker” in and around Austin, for example, many of Lewis’ friends turned up in the movie, where Lewis had a habit of arriving on the scene just moments after the cameras departed. Similarly, just as the early grunge wave was beginning to crest, Lewis found himself in the Healing Explosion, a promising trio that opened Texas shows for bands like White Zombie and appeared well-positioned to take the next steps, whatever those might be. Unfortunately, the group soon learned it shared its name with a Seattle band, and when the three couldn’t agree on a new moniker, they split up.
Elizabeth's character reflects Lewis’ off-radar demeanor, its cozy confines packed with hundreds of used LPs, including deep selections of jazz and classic country. The walls are lined with posters and paintings reflective of the owner’s diverse tastes, a number of which were done by local artists, including a Peter Gabriel portrait by Kent Grosswiler and a Robert Wyatt painted by Malvin Hicks, who lives across the street from the store. Then there’s Jonesy, the shop cat, who, during our interview, intermittently played “fetch” with a small puffball and loitered on the counter, his head resting near a small stack of business cards featuring his furry likeness and drawn by Lewis’ 15-year-old daughter, for whom the shop is named.Get news and entertainment delivered to your inbox: Sign up for our daily newsletter
When Lewis first hit on the idea of opening the store in 2008, it was sparked in part by the promise he viewed in his daughter. At the time, vinyl record sales had all but cratered, and there was little sign of the pending resurgence of the format. “Record stores were a dying thing … but I named it after her because even though I saw that happening, I wanted there to be some kind of hope,” said Lewis, who got his start working for record stores in the 1980s at Endless Horizons, which had two Texas locations in Midland and Odessa.
Now, 10 years after its opening, Elizabeth's is well-positioned enough that it has managed to increase its year-over-year profits from 2019, despite the presence of the coronavirus, which shuttered the shop for most of March and April and currently has it running under limited hours. Lewis attributes this growth to online sales made via Discogs, which the shop started using in 2019. During the days the shop is closed, Lewis can often be found inside, logging LPs for sale online.
“We had a lot of stock to sell, so even the days we were closed [during the initial shutdown] I came in and just listed, listed, listed,” he said.
While some record stores have pivoted to a strictly online model, discarding of brick-and-mortar spaces and all of the associated costs of rent, utilities and so on, Lewis has no interest in abandoning Elizabeth’s Indianola Avenue address and the related community he has built around the space.
“I have probably 60 to 100 friends that I never would have known had I not opened the store,” said Lewis, who can trace his obsession with music to some of his earliest memories, including the time at age 3 when the Beatles came on the radio in the family car and he started screaming out of sheer joy at the sounds he heard coming through the speakers. “I’ve created my own support group, and that’s an important thing. … I can’t cut that connection with the public, with my friends. There’s no way for me to do that. And, you know, Jonesy wouldn’t allow it. He’s too people-oriented.”
This turn of events is something Lewis couldn’t have foreseen when he first started to consider returning to music retail following years spent in warehouse work with Borders Books, an idea that hatched during an early 2000s session with a grief counselor, whom Lewis was seeing in the wake of a divorce. “My therapist said, ‘You need to reconnect with something you love doing,’” Lewis said. “And when I said that I really loved music and selling records, he was like, ‘Then get a part-time job doing that.’”
Soon after, Lewis nervously approached a clerk at Used Kids, a campus-area shop for which he has an almost religious reverence — “Those people were like gods,” he said — asking if the store might be looking for weekend help. Rather than advancing these dreams, however, Lewis said longtime Used Kids staffer Tom Shannon instead told him, “You don’t want to work here,” telling him that he should consider opening his own store.
“I don’t know Tom very well. We’re not great friends,” said Lewis, who transferred from Pittsburgh to Columbus in 1998 while working for Borders and has been here ever since. “But I’m thankful for him planting that little thing in me that later grew, because I didn’t want to work in warehouses my whole life.”
Prior to landing on a location for a brick-and-mortar, Lewis spent about a year selling records via a booth at flea markets, working alongside friend Rod Sounik, whom he described as “my secret partner” in the business. After signing on to the Indianola location, the business then went through a few early permutations before finding its footing. At one point the shop was going to operate in tandem with a stereo business starting next door, but that relationship quickly fizzled. And Lewis said he initially planned to carry new LPs, but the associated costs led him to make an early pivot to almost exclusively used vinyl.
In the years since, Elizabeth’s has both settled in and grown, with Lewis now optimistic the business will sustain to where someday in the future he can pass operations on to his daughter. But until that day, open or closed, expect to find Lewis logging long hours inside the shop.
“I have this long history in music retail, and I don’t know what else I would do,” he said. “Now that we’re doing this and succeeding, and hopefully I have a while, but I want this to be the job I’m doing when eventually I pass on to that great record store in the sky.”