Raven a blast from the past

A few of the records for sale at Raven Records and Rarities. (Photo by Hard Knox Wire)

Buying and selling memories may not be the world’s oldest profession, but it surely ranks in the Top Ten.

Call it nostalgia, call it better times, call it what you want — it’s what Jay Nations and Jack Stiles have for sale in their brick-and-mortar corner of the Happy Hollow community (for the uninitiated, that’s the gentrified section of Central Avenue a few blocks northwest of downtown Knoxville). 

It wasn’t always this way, of course. Jay is a Knoxville institution, at least for those who know what it’s like to have their life revolve around music in one way or another. Few people who spent any time in Knoxville’s music scene in the 1980s or 90s don’t have memories of Raven Records, and even fewer don’t have a story or two to tell about the legendary shop’s amicable founder.

The store is a little different now. It’s called Raven Records and Rarities, for one thing, as it’s no longer primarily a place to buy used records, cassette tapes and CDs. The shop’s walls are now lined with enough toys, magazines, and paperback books from the sci-fi and horror genres to stock a pop culture convention, thanks to Jay’s business partner, Jack Stiles.

Jay will tell you it’s a good anchor for a good life, even if Raven’s no longer the place where the cool kids hang out. 

“I love being something that’s been stable for much of the last 37 years,” Jay said during a recent discussion over a stack of LPs from The Runaways, Cherie Currie and Blue Oyster Cult. “I used to be a little more visible in the 80s and 90s, back when I was throwing parties and stuff. But now I’ve got something that supports me, and it supports others’ love of music, and of vinyl — which is, you know, the way God meant you to listen to it.”

“Everybody knows we have the good stuff”

If there’s one thing that Jay might know better than listening to music, it’s how to sell it.

He first got into the business back in 1985, when he was a recent college graduate working retail to make ends meet. 

“I was 25, out of college, just bouncing around. I was working at Circuit City and hating every minute of it,” he recalled. 

He ended up getting a job managing a record store on the Cumberland Avenue “Strip” whose owner was about to head to prison for selling pot and who ended up leaving a colorful series of messes in his wake. 

“The guy gave me a great education on how to run a used record store in about a week or so,” Jay said. “I learned a lot.”

To make a long story short,  Jay ended up moving his retail know-how and extensive collection of vinyl records up the street to a cramped, subterranean space tucked behind Walgreens that became the original Raven Records of local legend.

Jay Nations explains the history behind Raven Records and Rarities. (Photo by Hard Knox Wire)

It’s probably impossible to convey to those who don’t remember the 20th century what a record store like Raven could mean to a community’s youth. Suffice it to say that, for a generation or so of Knoxvillians (including the author of this article), Jay’s shop was a place to hang out, meet like-minded fans and obsess over the latest arrivals. Customers could buy, sell or swap used vinyl, tapes and (eventually) CDs to their heart’s content under the wary eyes of a colorful assortment of employees who rarely missed the opportunity to let you know just what they thought of your taste in audio entertainment. 

“I always called it ‘The Armpit’ down there in that alley,” Jay said. “I had a great time owning a record store there.”

By the end of 1994, though, the vicissitudes of economics and music technology had finally forced Jay to throw in the towel despite numerous attempts to keep Raven going, including a move to new digs.

“I was in debt, the Disc Exchange was eating my lunch,” he explained. “I was great with records, but not CDs…In the last three years, the floorspace went from being 80 percent vinyl to 20 percent vinyl. Plus the margins were less, and everybody was getting paid but me. I was just getting burned out.”

Jay continued to sell used music through a series of small consignment shops for well over a decade before partnering up with an old friend, Jack Stiles, to open their shop on Central in 2011. 

Jack brought with him several storage sheds worth of movie posters, comic books, toys and other collectibles. 

“It was nice to get this stuff out of storage and into the public’s eyes,” said Jack, a soft-spoken lover of vintage paperbacks and the once-popular “monster magazines” such as Famous Monsters and Castle of Frankenstein

As Jack walked among the stacks, pointing out items of interest on Raven’s shelves, he seemed determined to let Jay do most of the talking but nonetheless came up with an astute single-sentence description of their business. 

“Pretty much we’re the old guys, everybody knows we have the good stuff, and you’ve really gotta make sure to be here when we’re open,” he said.

Jack Stiles, whose collection of sci-fi and horror memorabilia became the “rarities” half of Raven Records and Rarities. (Photo by Hard Knox Wire)

 “Still the place you go to dig and to discover”

To this day, old customers — both those that Jay remembers and those he doesn’t — come by to talk about better times or, as in one memorable visit, to mend fences.

“A few years ago … a guy came in with a long face who slapped five bucks down on the counter and said, ‘I stole a cassette from you in the 80s and it’s been eating at me ever since. You’re a good guy and I shouldn’t have done that, so just keep the extra buck-and-a-half for interest.’ I thought it was a guy working his steps or something,” Jay said. “That’s a nice feel-good story.”

So, what does the man who helped curate the tastes of so many avid music buffs listen to?

“I’m a child of the 70s,” Jay said. “I love Iggy Pop and The Runaways. A lot of the Detroit sound, the hard proto-punk, and then when punk came in I got rid of all my prog records. My Emerson, Lake and Palmer records didn’t make any sense after I saw The Ramones.”

When asked if he likes any contemporary artists, he laughed and said, “Sure — stuff that sounds like that.”

It’s no surprise, of course, to learn that Jay has enthusiastically welcomed the resurgence in popularity that vinyl has enjoyed in the 21st century. He’s glad that most contemporary Top 40 artists have resumed releasing LPs in addition to CDs and digital downloads, but the really big sellers on vinyl tend to be classics from the Rock era. 

“There for a while I could sell the Led Zeppelin catalog every weekend, but now I can’t quite get all that stuff consistently,” he explained. “That’s the thing — you sell what you can get. When you come in here you can find the classic stuff. I’m still the place you go to dig and to discover.”

One thing you won’t find in his store is music on any format other than vinyl.

“Back in the day I was trying to keep up with all the formats,” he said. “I don’t have any interest in ever touching another cassette, I don’t care how popular they get.”

While many retail establishments have folded in the past few years, Jay said that he and Jack have managed to keep Raven not just solvent but positively healthy.

“When COVID hit it was like stepping off a cliff,” he said. “We got some local support and some government cheese, and we were able to reopen 15 hours a week and we’ve been able to maintain 15 hours a week. The shop’s doing a lot better than it ever has, actually.”

Those hours, by the way, are from noon to 6 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday. They’re also willing to open by appointment if contacted through Facebook or Instagram. 

J.J. Stambaugh can be reached at jjstambaugh@hardknoxwire.com.

Published on June 14, 2022.