40 and still plugged in

WHITTIER — A group of out-state Minnesota teens, freshly minted drivers licenses still gleaming, sets out sans parents to visit the fabled Electric Fetus in Minneapolis.

They’re cruising down Interstate 35W when they see the unmistakable orange-on-white sign floating above the highway near the Franklin Avenue overpass. Then, like a mirage, it disappears because there’s no highway exit nearby, and suddenly they’ve driven half a mile past their destination.

They exit, turn around and head back down the highway, but once again the sign floats past, unreachable.

Electric Fetus owner Keith Covart said the store used to get at least a dozen calls a day from frustrated, would-be patrons — not to mention a few record label reps driving in from the airport — who wanted desperately to get there but couldn’t figure out how.

People do eventually find their way to the Electric Fetus, a place that can and has inspired pilgrimages. They come because of its reputation, built over four decades, for being the best independent record store in the state.

The store celebrates its 40th anniversary this month with sales, in-store performances and a June 13 birthday celebration at First Avenue. The Doomtree crew and Polara are among the acts that will help Covart and his staff say “Thank you” to customers who, in many cases, have shopped at the store for decades.

Customers like Tony Gleekel who, on a recent Wednesday afternoon, was standing at a listening station dressed in a gray suit and clutching an Old 97’s CD. Gleekel started shopping at the Electric Fetus as a college student 20 years ago and now stops by during lunch breaks from his job with a local law firm.

“They don’t know my name, but they recognize me,” he said.

Gleekel said the store and its knowledgeable staff helped shape his musical tastes over the years, which these days tend toward Americana. In college it was REM, Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson.

Store manager Bob Fuchs said Electric Fetus employees share a love of music and a burning desire to share it. (That may be why Fuchs is just one of a dozen employees who’ve worked at the store 20 years or more.)

“Almost everyone here is a musician, a writer, a hardcore fan or a DJ,” he said.

They’re a big reason why Gleekel keeps stopping in, he said. Now, he sometimes brings in his three kids, aged 8 to 13, who may not quite get why dad loves the place but come along anyway.

Covart said it’s not uncommon to see the next generation in the store, and he loves it.

“The best is when they introduce you to their kids,” he said. “I’m waiting for grandpa to come in.”

Three generations? Could he have imagined that back in 1968?

Covart was 22 when he and three friends pooled about $3,000 to open the first Electric Fetus store on the West Bank. Covart said he was interested in opening a business — any business, really — and they settled on a record store.

“I said, ‘At least I get my music wholesale,’” he recalled.

That was a big deal for a guy who, now 62 years old, still looks forward to weekends when he can throw some old LPs on the turntable and indulge his passion.

“I love music,” he said. “I can’t even imagine life without some of my favorite albums.”

Covart keeps an office with a cluttered desk and a few Bob Dylan posters in the back of 2000 Fourth Ave. S., where the store moved in 1972. After sharing the space with a hardware store for many years, it took over the full building in 1995.

Two outposts in St. Cloud and Duluth were established in 1987, introducing the store and its odd-sounding name to new audiences.

Speaking of that name, Covart said there really wasn’t much to it. It just sounded good at the time (which, we will remember, was the summer of ’68.)

“It was electric times,” Covart said. “[The name] wasn’t so strange back then.”

It certainly has been durable, weathering 40 years of ups and downs in the music industry.

The industry is in the midst of an undeniable down period now, although Covart maintained the national slump in record sales hadn’t hit Electric Fetus too hard. Still, many in Generation iPod seem to have little or no use for physical albums.

For the foreseeable future, there will still be people like 21-year-old William Thompson, who first came into the Electric Fetus with his mom when he was 10 or 11 years old. Thompson said he downloads digital music, but still buys CDs and vinyl at the store a couple of times a month, just for something to hold on to.

Pieter Martin, 35, was flipping through used LPs nearby.

Martin argued there would always be a place for record stores. It’s an experience that can’t be recreated online, he said.

“Record stores are like social places,” he said. “You interact with the people who work there, the people who know the music.”