Jessi Ellerbe, the petite, strawberry blonde, twenty-something owner of Jesse Carl Vinyl in Lakeland doesn’t fit the usual demographic of vinyl record collectors–males in their 30s, 40s, and 50s who started collecting when they were kids and still love it. But the articulate owner of the thriving Downtown business never intended to start a record store in the first place. The demand for vinyl was a niche market that she stumbled upon and decided to capitalize on–to Lakeland’s benefit.
After Ellerbe graduated from Southeastern University in 2012 with a degree in Communications, her goal was to move to Nashville and become part of the music industry by helping bands develop their social media presence. She describes Nashville as a “home away from home,” a place where “every single human being around me likes the same things I do.”
In her spare time, she enjoyed “picking” records–finding hidden gems and either adding them to her personal collection or reselling them for a profit. She soon realized that nobody in Lakeland supplied vinyl anymore, so, in 2015, she decided to “pop up” at the Downtown Farmers Curb Market to “make some side cash” for her move to Nashville.
Ellerbe was more successful at the Market than she ever anticipated. “It was getting to the point where people were waiting for me to set up on Saturdays because they were ready to shop.” She realized Lakelanders were “desperate” for what she had to offer and that the demand might be high enough to support opening a brick-and-mortar store.
With the support of her parents and Broadway Realty, she opened her first store on Pine Street in March of 2016. Her goal was to move to the NoBay development when it opened, so Broadway allowed her to pay a nominal amount of rent while she built up her customer base. In November 2016, she transitioned to her permanent location in NoBay, which is located “North of Bay Street” on Kentucky Ave, and the move was a successful one. “Business has been great,” she said.
At her store, Ellerbe offers a variety of products and services. She sells hand-selected, hand-cleaned, used records. She hand washes them with a “spin-clean” system, which is a brand that’s been around since the seventies. She inspects them, grades them, and places them out to be purchased. She has a turntable in the store that customers can use to listen to the records, so they’ll know exactly what they’re getting when they leave. She also offers new records with either new artists or reissues of older artists that come out every week. Don’t have a way to play vinyl at home? She also sells turntables.
Records aren’t the only older digital alternatives that people are demanding. Ellerbe also has a small selection of used CDs and cassette tapes, which are gaining popularity. “People are buying my portable walkmans by the bushel,” she said. She plans to grow her selection in the future.
Ellerbe can also search and find records that people specifically request. And if customers have some vinyl sitting around that they’d like to sell, she buys records, particularly pure Rock ‘n Roll and Pop music. Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, David Bowie and Prince are always in demand.
With the ease, accessibility, and affordability of digital music downloads, why do people still want records? Because it “sounds better,” Ellerbe said. Analog hasn’t been touched, cleaned up, and run through a computer that takes away all the imperfections. “When you listen to a record, especially an older record, you can hear if somebody makes a mistake,” she said. “It’s more of an experience.”
That doesn’t mean digital is bad, Ellerbe said. She loves all music, and sometimes she doesn’t like to listen to the newer music on vinyl because it wasn’t made for the medium. But her “favorite musician of all time,” Jack White, said that vinyl records inspire a “romantic relationship with music.” When you collect albums, you have to take care of them. You have to make sure they are dusted and cleaned and put in a safe place. You have to be careful with them. “It’s a very different dynamic from just pushing a download button,” she said.
Ellerbe has noticed that the older generations are passing their excitement down to their children–and to their children’s children. Ellerbe’s own love for music–and for vinyl–was a generational gift. “I’m the owner of the store, but my dad is very involved, and my father’s father is involved vicariously.”
Ellerbe’s father “loves, loves, loves music and has always loved music,” and her mother loves music. She grew up with two parents who immersed her in music from a young age. She was only two when she went to her first concert and fifteen when she started collecting vinyl.
Her paternal grandfather, Jesse Carl Ellerbe (the man whom her store was named after), was also a “huge influence.” One of her earliest memories was sitting on the floor at his house, playing with his acoustic guitar. Even though he has since passed on, he is still very much a part of her business. His name is on the front of the store, his picture is inside the store, and his story is on the store’s website. Jesse Carl was a “well-loved, amazing human being,” and her father and her aunts were thrilled when she decided to name her business after him.
The Ellerbe family has lived in Lakeland for many generations, and Ellerbe attributes much of her success to the support of the community. The residents of NoBay, some of whom she went to high school with, shop at her store and have become some of her closest friends. The Downtown community has also become like family. When she goes into Mitchell’s, or Uncle Nick’s, or Purple Onion, she knows all the people who work there, and they know her. The Downtown area has a small town feel, which makes it special in this day and age.
So does Ellerbe still want to move to Nashville, despite her newfound success? “It’s always a possibility, but I’m happy where I am,” she said. If the community continues to embrace her business and if it continues to grow, she could see herself making the store a staple of the Lakeland community.
Jesse Carl Vinyl is open Tuesday through Friday, 11am to 6pm, and Saturday, 9am to 5pm.