“When everyone is running one way, I go the other,” says Johnny Kass, the 54-year-old proprietor of White Bear Lake’s only record store. “In a world as square as it is today, sticking out like a sore thumb is easy. All you need to do is exist, be yourself, do something original.”
An analog daydream in a plastic world, GoJohnnyGo records is sandwiched between a taekwondo academy and a quilt shop. They say that pets often resemble their owners, and if that is the case, the store might as well be Kass’ mutt, the two encompassing all that is rock ’n’ roll: simplicity, originality and, most importantly, chaos.
In a retail demolition derby equal parts Lester Bangs and Hoarders, Kass has somehow managed to cram a couple thousand records, hundreds of magazines, piles of stereo gear, hundreds of cassette and VHS tapes, and a few CDs into his 300 square feet of retail space. Any trace of breathing room long ago was filled with music T-shirts, guitar picks, action figures and microphones. Equal parts cluttered attic and unfinished basement, GoJohnnyGo is precisely the sort of space capable of setting your imagination on fire. Not to mention a welcome break from background noise, which is hard to find in a modern world always buzzing.
Kass sits behind a desk, basking in music while stroking his unruly sideburns and matching mustache. His all-consuming love for vinyl was piqued as a young boy after seeing his cousin’s album collection in the mid-1960s; he knew then and there he must have his own. The store itself doubles as an office; he does the bulk of his business online, some of it international.
Kass is all about keeping it local. His desk is covered with business cards from White Bear companies he calls “friends.” He’s more than happy to share a referral with his customers, explaining his love for his adopted hometown; he actually hails from the east side of St. Paul. “We have a real downtown with some feel to it,” he says. “That’s why White Bear Lake is cool; it’s magic having all that in one place.” Kass has even started making White Bear Lake bumper stickers that read “55110: It’s a State of Mind,” featuring a groovy white bear in sunglasses.
Kass wants to stay in White Bear Lake for good and is actively looking for a new space. But the storage facility where he stores the bulk of his vinyl is now under new ownership and he fears for the worst. “I could see them leveling it in favor of a new Starbucks,” he says. “It’s the natural order of things.” But Kass hopes his local connections will help him find a new home for his five semi-truckloads of records (approximately 500,000 albums), if it comes to that.
Kass affectionately describes his customers as “young hipsters and old burnouts,” before giving a glimpse into his greater cause. A former rep for Warner Music Group, Kass’s framed gold record sales awards hang throughout the store; there’s even one in the bathroom. Explaining his career change, Kass shares his passion for recycling. “All of the stuff in this store could have ended up in a dumpster. One of the things I love to do is get stuff from people and give it to someone else.” Kass smiles before finishing his thought. “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”
It seems GoJohnnyGo is ours.