Lawrence's downtown record store, Love Garden Sounds, has been in operation since 1990. It started out upstairs at 936 ½ Massachusetts Street, before moving to its current location at 822 Massachusetts in 2009. Current owner Kelly Corcoran has been an employee of the store since 2000, and has owned the venerable vinyl emporium since 2004.
It was originally just t-shirts and stickers for Love Garden merchandise, but over the course of Corcoran's time at the shop, customers have seen a variety of merchandise made: messenger bags, pint glasses, coffee mugs, stickers, hats, and of course, more t-shirts.
“Why am I willing to try new stuff? Because I think it's fun,” Corcoran explains over iced coffee. “I think it's worth the energy, because then [customers] go, 'Oh, they have these hats!' and then they're gone. It's fun to try different things. People like the logo. And, frankly, people bring me different ideas all the time.”
Corcoran points to the trucker hat that he's wearing, with the Love Garden logo embroidered onto the front. He explains that a customer was working with his landlord for a company that did graphics, and had the graphics company turn the Love Garden logo into an embroidery file, which the customer then just gave to Corcoran. A particularly novel example of how Love Garden sells merch is also tied into those trucker hats. The hats were stored in this place where one of the shop cats, Chardonnay, would hide from another cat, Stuffing.
“She would go and hang out there, and she would knead the hat. She would mess them up, but you could still wear them – but, they weren't like, new, so it was like, 'How am I gonna have fun with this? Okay, I'll just make them incredibly cheap.' Made them five bucks, so it was like you don't care that it's kind of messed up.
The 18 hats went in two days. Corcoran says that Love Garden experiments with merch in ways like this because they can get away with it and it's fun to do different stuff.
“For a while we had deals where someone would call us and say, 'We have a bunch of leftover shirts,'” he says. “I'd be like, 'What do you need for them? If you put the logo on them, what do they cost?' I don't get to pick sizes or colors, and then I'd put them all on a rack and see what happens. Some of them would be atrocious.”
The Love Garden logo is recognizable and distinct. Someone might be able to puzzle out what the squid enveloping a planet might be, should they come across the version saying “Sonic Reverberation Studies,” but for the more common “Lawrence, Kansas” incarnation, the Love Garden logo is a secret handshake for record nerds all across the country. Corcoran explains that if you know what it is, it's like code.
“If you know what that is, you know that it's a record store, but if you don't know the brand, you don't really know what it is at all,” says the store owner.
Blue Collar Press is actually the impetus for Love Garden's merchandising push, Corcoran continues, saying that when he bought into the store in 2004, the only shirts available were full-color logo t-shirts. The single-color Love Garden logo was mocked up at Blue Collar's Eudora home at the time, and changed it to the “Lawrence, Kansas” style. The low price point for basic shirts was also a great selling point.
“We started doing single-color shirts, and we would just sell them for $8,” Corcoran says. “And it just turned into us not being able to keep up, and we had to start making enormous quantities. That was the beginning of the merchandising aspect, and I just stumbled into it, because I was like, 'Can we make a cheaper t-shirt?'”
At first, Corcoran didn't think it would go on forever. His initial thoughts were that it would be a novelty, but it became clear that this was something which customers were very interested in. To that end, they keep things at a reasonable price.
“I don't know if there's something culturally different in people wanting to buy local business t-shirts, from 2010-2018,” he muses, but recognizes that the merchandising game, and the idea of brand building wasn't something that was discussed in 2000. It was just a case of making t-shirts for your shop.
“It's great that people want to promote your store,” Corcoran says. “I like that there's a layer of mystery behind the logo if you don't know what it means. It's intriguing, and I like that, and it meets the dynamic of Love Garden, in that you can come in and do your business, and we will interact with you, but we will leave you alone if you want to be left alone. It's important to me. I like to go to places where you get a little recognition, and then you get to explore – that's what I think record stores should be.”
Love Garden's owner understands that people want to buy merchandise, because they identify with what it represents. He points to the fact that people buy sports gear all the time, and it's because of similar reasons, thinking of how common it is to see a new KU student wearing one of the eight free t-shirts they got.
For Corcoran, seeing a Love Garden t-shirt on someone, or a sticker on the bumper of their care, doesn't offer up just a thrill of recognition that someone supports his store, but also a reinforcement that he's doing something right.
“I'm glad that they like the store well enough to represent it, but it's nice to have the reinforcement on those days where I'm like, 'Ugh, I don't really wanna work,'” he admits. “The motivation is great: 'Oh, you're doing a good job,' and I can keep going. It reminds me of the value of the store, the things that come with it, what it's supposed to do, and what it's supposed to represent to people.”
Essentially, Corcoran says, it's more a pleasant reminder of the thing that he does and that he takes pride in it than anything else. He tries not to get caught in the ego boost of it, and uses it as a reminder that he's doing a good job and he needs to continue doing that job well. To that end, charitable giving is simple and easy.
“Anytime a charity comes in asking for something for a raffle, I say, 'Cool! Take a t-shirt,'” Corcoran explains. “I do that all the time, for any charity I think has value.”
It's a smart choice: not only does it reinforce the secret code, but when people see it in the context of a charity raffle for a cause which they appreciate, the store's brand is further strengthened by association.
“It's just a lot more fun to buy interesting merch and see what happens,” concludes Love Garden's owner. “And, if it fails – there's always sidewalk sale.”
by Nick Spacek
photos: Austin Snell