It’s Good to Be ‘Indie’ Kings

In the age of big-box retailers and online shopping, few would expect to find a flourishing independent bookseller or indie music store anywhere, much less in a small holiday town on Florida’s Gulf Coast.

But Sundog Books, managed by Jenny King, and Central Square Records, owned and operated by Jenny and her husband, Tom, are anything but typical. After all, how many other retailers include the front porch in their business plan?

The entrepreneurial couple mix retail savvy with a creative approach to shop keeping to anchor one side of downtown Seaside in a two-story building, with Sundog Books on the bottom floor and Central Records above. The subtle mix works, providing all ages with something far more inspired than just a place to grab a bestseller or a recently released CD — it’s a gathering place where creativity is celebrated.

Tom and Jenny started their life together when they met in Seaside. He was working in a restaurant; she was working the muffin counter in Modica Market.  “Tom came up and asked me some silly question that he claims he doesn’t remember,” Jenny said.  “And we started talking.”

Each had worked in businesses along county road 30A. Tom’s entrepreneurial roots go back to his grandfather’s DeFuniak Springs hardware store, King & Co., that closed in 1999 after almost a century of operation. Some of Central Records’ fixtures are relics from the venerable family shop. Jenny hails from the Atlanta area, lured by the Gulf coast’s beaches from college in Georgia, where she was studying elementary education.

Where else but The Red Bar would the couple have gone on their first date?  “My parents actually met in the building that is now The Red Bar,” Tom said, with a nod to the historical synchronicity.

Internet dating sites, matchmaking friends and syrupy pop songs sing the praises of “two hearts that beat as one” in a perfect lip-lock-and-load for life. In the real world, things are much more interesting. The story of Tom and Jenny King is as much about their complementary differences. The simple comparison is that Jenny’s job revolves around words, while Tom’s business focus is on music.

Tom grew up mostly overseas in Asia and the Middle East, coming back to spend summers in Grayton Beach. He is likely to mention that while living as a young teen in Damascus, Syria, he traveled to Kuwait for a basketball tournament. Jenny has never left the country, although she’d like to travel one day. Tom, also an accomplished musician, has a strong entrepreneurial gene. Jenny eased into retail as she worked in various Seaside businesses. “I learned something every day,” she said. “And it’s all worked out.”

Day-to-day, Jenny is the family organizer, the couple agrees, drawing up the work schedule for both businesses. She said, “Tom looks at me every night and asks, ‘When do I work tomorrow?’”

With a four-year-old, a 20-month old and a 22-year-old who lives in nearby Tallahassee, keeping things running smoothly can be a challenge. The result is a kind of tag-team relay system, under which one of the couple may work until 2:30 p.m. when the other pulls into the parking lot for a parental hand-off.

Some places — libraries, gourmet groceries, museums, toy stores — simply demand that a visitor spend a little browsing time. Don’t be in a rush when you enter Sundog Books or Central Square Records. Park the hurry-up mentality those big boxes encourage on the front steps, and prepare to savor nooks and crannies, clever signage and the unexpected.

Given the sprawling mega-bookstores that have gobbled up many indie shops, it’s impressive to look over the range of titles on offer in Sundog Books. Best-sellers and beach books, must-read classics, local writers’ works, weighty reference tomes, children’s and humorous books fill the floor-to-ceiling shelves and display tables. Jenny and the other shop employees maintain shelves displaying their current favorites. “Every day is something different,” Jenny said. “It’s far from stagnant. It’s a challenge to find things that people enjoy.” Handcrafted cards, artsy toys, games and gifts tucked in various spots elicit smiles and trigger conversation with other customers. Barefoot browsing is OK.

Sundog Books sponsors a monthly book discussion group that draws participants from up and down the beach, both locals and visitors who may be around. Local free publications can be found near the front door. Writers stop by to sign copies of their works on the shady front porch — a good place to frequently check the bulletin boards to see what’s going on and who’s in town.

Follow the foot and paw prints on the wooden floor to the stairs up to Central Square Records. In some ways, the shop’s name is misleading. Yes, it’s a place where you can buy honest-to-goodness vinyl record albums (old and new) and even 45s, and show your kids how they produce music on the shop’s turntables. A significant breadth of newer CDs is also on offer, along with classic discs. Promotional poster art covers the walls, some enduring classics while others tout new releases.

Perhaps more unexpected are things like guitar string lubricant, finger strengtheners, replacement strings, guitar straps, tuners and other items musicians require. Into music from well before he made the decision to join the high school band for the trip to New Orleans’ Mardi Gras, Tom found he was frustrated with the dearth of musician’s supplies available any closer than the state capital. To keep local and visiting musicians happily making music, Central Record Store stocks these supplies on their “musicians’ wall” near the main counter.

As part of the fun, locally designed T-shirts share shelf space with mini-ukuleles in bright primary colors (with matching carrying cases). No home should be without the wall-mounted inflated moose heads for sale. “We live in a log cabin, so it’s perfect for us, too,” Tom noted of the faux game trophy.

Shoppers never know who else may be flipping through albums or having a cup of Jittery Joe coffee in the store.

“We have a strong Nashville connection,” Tom said “Roseanne Cash was in here using the Wi-Fi
in the back. John Prine comes in when he’s in town.” In mid-May, recording artist David Lowery gave a rare solo acoustic performance featuring music from his new album, “The Palace Guards.” Central Square Records just marked its busiest day ever when it joined other indie shops participating in a national Record Store Day.

The economy has many retailers singing the blues, but Tom and Jenny find reason to be upbeat. “The economy has triggered creativity again,” Tom said. “Things have come full circle. People are taking creative risks that they weren’t a few years ago.”

The couple credits the unique character of 30A for the quality of both their business and their way of life. “It’s a zone of unique culture,” Tom said. “There are crazy interesting people here.” The sense of community and the encouragement of creative expression, coupled with the fact that visitors have time to savor these characteristics, make it possible to be an independent success, they believe. Tom and Jenny are quick to point out they are enjoying right now, but looking forward to a future where their family grows along with their business.

Tom’s Top Music Picks
“Scandalous,” Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears
“Low Country Blues,” Greg Allman
“Broken Hearts and Dirty Windows, Reinterpretations,” John Prine
“Cannibal Courtship,” Dengue Fever
“A Friend of a Friend,” Dave Rawlings Machine
Kids’ music by They Might Be Giants

On Jenny’s Bookshelf
“Nine Lives:Death and Life in New Orleans,” Dan Baum
“Zeitoun,” Dave Eggers
“Molokai,” Alan Brennert
“Room,” Emma Donoghue
“Snow Flower and the Secret Fan,” Lisa See
“Shantaram,” Gregory David Roberts
Anything by Dr. Seuss

Categories: Music