Behind the Music: Judy Mills

Photo by Zach Bauman

Ten years ago, Judy Mills decided it was time to leave the corporate/retail business universe and apply her wisdom and experience to a more fulfilling pursuit—the world of recorded music.

In 2011, Mills was buying most of her new vinyl in other cities and trucking it back, awkwardly, on flights home to Kansas City. Tired of that, she took matters into her own hands, and the concept of Mills Record Company was born—a place where music fans could buy new releases on vinyl.

It was a fortuitous move, but one based on solid numbers. In 2013, by the time she opened Mills on Westport Road, just east of Broadway, vinyl sales had risen slightly but steadily since 2008. They have risen precipitously since then. In 2020, vinyl sales exceeded CD sales for the first time since 1986.

The rise in vinyl popularity was great news for Mills, but to keep up with rising demand, it meant expanding her space, then moving to a considerably larger space around the corner, on Broadway, where she and her staff oversee an inventory of more than 50,000 albums plus other music-related merchandise.

She is no longer alone in this pursuit. Mills Record Company is now just one of many music stores in metropolitan Kansas City and Lawrence selling vinyl albums, both new and used, a retail renaissance that also includes turntables and other stereo equipment.

Mills recently answered questions from IN Kansas City about the life that led her into music retail and what it has taken to keep her business prospering, especially during a pandemic.

Where were you born and where did you live growing up?
I was born in Miami, Oklahoma, and have lived mainly in the Midwest—Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma. I grew up in Pittsburg and went to school, both graduate and undergrad, at Kansas State. I went from desperately not wanting to be a small-town girl into being OK with that and now, having deep feelings for the small and often-forgotten towns of the rural areas where my family is from.

What was your childhood like, your family life?
I am the older sibling with a younger brother, and my parents were very strict. My dad owned auto-parts stores. It was a very typical division of responsibilities in that household, so my father worked very long hours. My mother and I had a difficult relationship, so at an early age I learned the safe escape of books and then music. I loved school and learning, and I worked hard to make my teachers happy.

When did music enter your life and what role did it play?
When my dad took a day off, and when everything was perfect, he’d pull out his records. You knew that was going to be a good day. Or at least a fun morning. Playing records meant we were happy, and my dad was around.

Later, I remember hearing the alarm clock/radio play in the morning from my parents’ bedroom next door and the plaintive sounds of John Denver singing “Take me home, country roads” and feeling so sad. I think music helped me understand feelings and my own emotions and feel less alone because other people felt these things, too. Sort of a community, I would say.

What were some of your earliest favorite songs, albums or artists?
My first favorite song was These Boots Were Made for Walking. Nancy Sinatra was so beautiful and tough and cool. But I quickly settled into the Carpenters because I could sing in Karen’s range, and, god knows, I had all those same feels, at least the angst and sadness part.

My older cousins shamed me into liking Alice Cooper because he was edgy and dangerous, and my first purchased record was the Stylistics’ You Make Me Feel Brand New. So I have always loved dramatic pop music.

What about your first big concert? What do you remember about it?
My first big concert was Journey in 1980 at Arrowhead with my boyfriend. Horrible seats, but the sheer number of drunk people all in one place, singing together, gave me a taste of what freedom would feel like since college was just a year away.

Describe yourself as a teenager.
I was a serious student in a lot of organizations—debate, newspaper, student government. But all I wanted was to get out of there. My most memorable moment was fighting to get the school paper to publish my article on Planned Parenthood because our school needed that. I lost. But the fight made me stronger. Overall, teenage years were about getting ready to get out on my own.

And what was college like?
I loved the books, the anonymity, the freedom, and the classes. I never wanted to leave college.

You have a lot of experience in the retail/management world. What has that taught you about life and about running a business?
I liked the tangible results around retail and, therefore, management. If you do it right, you get results. The criteria are set, and it’s up to you to be smart and work hard enough to get there. I feel like I’ve had to adjust that mindset owning my own businesses. The criteria aren’t always clear, so you have to keep looking up to see above what you’re doing, be fast to adapt, and you have to do work that’s aligned with your heart.

What inspired you to open a record store? What was the retail-music landscape in Kansas City like back then?
I was flying back home a lot with new vinyl under my arm, which is annoying to carry on a plane, but no one was selling new vinyl in Kansas City at the time. I was sort of heckled at a store for wanting to buy a new record on release date. I was sick of corporate retail, saw a hole in the market, and thought, “Let’s try it.”

Kansas City has seen several beloved record stores come and go: Recycled Sounds, the Music Exchange, Capers Corner, Village Records among them. What did you know about that history?
I had been to each of those record stores. Recycled Sounds was my favorite, but I always felt very self-conscious in all records stores. I never felt cool enough to be in there, which is the opposite of how I wanted people to feel in my store. I wanted to exactly not be the High Fidelity image. And so, I didn’t really let past records stores guide me. I wanted to carry on the in-store show tradition that wasn’t really happening in Kansas City at the time, and “New Release Day,” also not a thing at the time. Other than that, I wanted it to feel different.

Knowing now what you didn’t know then, what, if anything, would you do differently?
I would have opened in a bigger space. Having to expand one year later, then triple again the year after that, was expensive. But I love our block and our landlord, Tom Platt, and I wouldn’t have wanted to miss that. I also would not have listened to all the people who dismissed me for not being one of the “record guys.” I underestimated myself at the beginning, and when I got over not being from that culture, my job became immensely more fun.

Like most industries and businesses in our culture, yours is dominated by men. How often do you confront gender bias?
Gender bias works both for and against me daily. Men who ask me to speak to the owner, men who like to say, “I bet you don’t even know who (fill in the blank) is,” and I’m like, “Sir, I bought that record so you could buy it, so, yeah. I know.”

But it works for me, too, because the perception is that women can be more heart-on-their-sleeves, and I can create a home and a family at the store. Men can absolutely do this, too, but it’s expected of women, so there’s less resistance. And probably most importantly, the composition of vinyl nation is changing. And I’m here for it. Women buy vinyl, kids buy vinyl, families buy vinyl: The stereotype is dissolving, and I’m proudly here to help that dissolution.

How has the pandemic affected your business?
People are home more, and for many of us our turntables have never been more important. It’s an escape and an outlet and an activity. So in that sense, I’m lucky as a small-business owner.

However, you can never recoup being closed for two months, for needing to shorten hours, for having to limit the amount of people in your building at one time, for alienating the customers who won’t wear masks or properly wear masks, for the decrease in service we’re forced into in order to leave six feet of distance between us and customers. Until the vaccine makes things easier, “Safety is the new service” is our new mantra. I can only hope that keeping people safe will keep them coming back.

Mills Record Company has hosted many in-store performances, by local and touring bands. Which have been the most memorable?
Anytime Ebony Tusks is here, it’s special. Any High Dive [Records] release show is special: Once the team formed a band and played a Christmas set. Casket Lottery on a Record Store Day. Mike Doughty playing Is This Chicago solo. Temples playing to an absolutely packed house here. When Bummer played and chipped paint from a recently uncovered old ceiling snowed over the room. When Gnarly Davidson poked a hole in our ceiling. Anytime Conductor Williams is here in any project.

There are so many more. I think those were just the times when I stopped working and became a part of the audience and let myself have a moment.

Anyone who works at a store like yours gets exposed to much more music than the average fan. Name a few albums or artists you discovered at work that you are especially fond of.
This is the best part of what I do. You don’t need to know everything about music to work at a record store, but you must be curious about music and willing to adventure.

So the Comet is Coming and all the Shabaka Hutchings projects I discovered in the store. Nubya Garcia was sent to us in a promo pack, and I was busy and didn’t notice it and then [an employee] handed it to me and said “You need to take this home.” It was on my Top 5 of last year. The team that surrounds you and surprises you with music is crucial, as is listening to your customers.

Other than music, what have you indulged in during the pandemic?
We opened a bookstore, Wiseblood Books, around the corner just three months before the pandemic hit. So reading books and reading poetry again have become an important part of how I spend my day. Having a morning routine that incorporates that and my journal helps me to feel grounded during a completely insane time of the world. Books were my first love, after all.

You are a proud dog owner and dog lover. Tell us about your pupper.
My boy was found on a country road, and because my last dear pup was Loretta Lynn, I decided to name him Conway Twitty. His first day available to adopt, the day I got him, I found out it was the real Conway Twitty’s birthday. It was fate.

What do you like most about Kansas City and its music community?
Kansas City: It used to be kind of shy about itself, but Kansas City has learned to love itself, and watching that transition has been so fun. And Kansas City supports its locals. I feel that, and my small businesses are still around because of it.

Music: They’re so supportive of each other. I would say that there are several different scenes, and they tend to not necessarily mingle, but each group is there to help each other, from equipment-sharing to member-swapping to emotional support. I’m not a musician, but as a host I’ve seen this play out so often, and it’s always heartwarming.

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