Living A Creative Life, According To This Michigan Record Store Owner

 In Culture, Feature

If you live in Hamtramck, Michigan it’s not unlikely that you’d refer to your local record store as a community sanctuary. Richie Wohlfeil—founder of record store and bookstore Lo & Behold!—began the business ten years ago from his bedroom, and his creation has since become a refuge for artists, musicians, record enthusiasts and the surrounding community.

The store has since grown into a malleable space that offers a creative refuge for the neighborhood. We caught up with Wohlfeil to find out how he transformed his dreamy childhood passion into something real.

Music is at the center of everything you do at Lo & Behold. What influenced that decision?
I used to make music in my bedroom when I was a teenager. I would hide down in my grandma’s basement after school when she wasn’t home and listen to her jukebox. I spent a lot of time down there. Vinyl and 45s fascinated me. I couldn’t afford CDs when they came out, but my grandma bought me a record player and let me take records from her basement.

Back in the ‘90s, five or ten dollars could buy you a whole box of records. I discovered a lot of old music— The Doors, for example. I came across Soft Machine and thought, “Who is this?” I didn’t get it. But now those are my favorite bands.

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What were the biggest challenges you faced when you were starting out?
I never had a business loan. A few friends were renting the store’s space and they brought me into the fold. At the time it was just a junk shop. Everyone had their own intention. Mine was to sell records and books. People argued and eventually left. At the end, it was just me and one other guy. He decided to take it over.

I went on tour to play with the group Chain and The Gang, and everything lapsed while I was away. When I got back, the landlord had lost the building and a mortgage company picked it up. The place was shut down. I used all the tour money to catch up on the bills and bring it back to life.

You open up your space for 12-step recovery groups. Why did you decide to do that?
Some AA groups approached me about using the space, and I just said yes. The group is tailored mostly towards musicians in recovery. Being a musician myself, I can tell you that you end up supporting the liquor industry, which doesn’t support the arts. It’s making alcoholics out of artists. That kind of lifestyle is glorified, but it’s not sustainable. It’s not reality. There’s this idealized version of a drunk Hemingway or Jim Morrison, but they died because of addiction. That’s what this industry has done. It’s really hard for artists to sustain in that sort of environment.

Musicians are made slaves for their labor. At first it sounds great. You think—”I’m a nobody. I’m just happy to play a show. Free drinks? Great.” But after a number of years, you can end up an alcoholic, not making any money and giving your art away for free. At that point, you’re just dying.

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What is Lo & Behold’s connection to the surrounding community?
Community is the most important part of what we do. We are the product of the labor of thousands. One person might have an idea or initiative to do something, but it’s the people around you, the people that nurture you, that help everything roll together into a larger being. That becomes community.

I don’t want to push out people in the neighborhood. When a city is gentrified, people move in and start charging prices the neighborhood can’t afford. I saw that happening in Detroit. I don’t want it to happen in Hamtramck. I’m really conscious about my relationship to the community. I don’t want anyone to come into the store and feel like they shouldn’t be there.

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You have started doing shows at Lo & Behold. How did that start?
It started in defiance of bar culture. A friend would contact me and ask if I could help set a show up for them, so I’d hook them up at a bar. I realized they weren’t making any money. If I have a show at the shop, I can give them all the door money. Plus, it brings in people who have never been at my shop before. And that’s good for me.

I feel an obligation to the neighborhood. It’s important that people can utilize the space for their endeavors.

Why do you think you feel such a connection to this location?
There’s a beauty to the neighborhood and this area. I hope that I can help to keep it from becoming gentrified. All the different ethnic groups have a stake. They are doing a lot for families. Of course, people do things for their own interest. But it’s still a place where someone like me, a record store geek, can make a change. Here, you can actually make a change. You can run for office. You can do things. You can change things. I really appreciate that energy and those options.

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I feel like what I do can be done anywhere—the publishing and making music part. But at the same time, what I’m doing with the shop, what it has become and the people that it has helped—that, I can’t do anywhere else.

Things happen on a daily basis here that just blow my mind. A lot of artists come through, and bands from out of town. There’s just so much happening. Magic occurs. That’s all I ever wanted to know: if magic was real. It is. It has shown itself here.

Photography by Attilio D’Agostino

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