Back in a more rugged Seattle in 1993, Sub Pop Records had a Mega Mart. It was located on 2nd Avenue in the Belltown neighborhood, which is a place where you see a lot of folks staying up all night or sleeping outside, and you get propositioned for a cigarette even if you are clearly not smoking.
The Mega Mart was a physical retail space that sold the kinds of things labels now sell on their websites. It was sarcastically named. It was a shoebox. On a similar tip, the same year, Southern California punk label SST opened their very small “Superstore.” Looking back, these names were kind of middle fingers to the Virgin Megastore. Like Mudhoney sings: “I like it small!”
The original Mega Mart ran until 2000. By the end of its life, it had migrated to the touristy but still classic and awesome Pike Place Market, where they throw the fish. It was never a fantastic moneymaker.
Steady vibes emanate from the new, 2013 version of the Mega Mart in Seattle’s brick/concrete Georgetown neighborhood, the last remaining place where artists can live cheaply. The new Mega Mart is a pop-up shop, only open in the weeks before and during the 25-year Sub Pop Silver Jubilee, Saturday, July 13. Shopkeep Tim Hayes is there. He’s chilling, playing drone rock by the band Earth, one of the acts on Sub Pop whose music has aged particularly well. He can talk to you about records if you want, or not. You are free to browse.
The new Mega Mart feels like it should be permanent. Maybe a satellite wing of the conjoined Fantagraphics Books and Georgetown Records, across the street. Hey, while we’re wishing, maybe we could all be communists! Then money wouldn’t matter!
In this sentimental mood, we pass the mic to Kerri Harrop, pioneering employee of the Mega Mart, currently in charge of making money at Seattle’s crucial radio station KEXP. She always has a story to tell:
“It was before cell-phone cameras, and I don’t have any personal photos from that time at all. I have maybe a few Polaroids, buried. I know Sub Pop doesn’t have any good pictures of the Mega Mart itself. But we did have a Polaroid camera there, and when people would come and visit, we’d take their picture. I took so many of them. They’re all framed together in the Sub Pop offices now. It’s cool to see Krist Novoselic…with hair! Everyone looks super young. Obviously. It was 20 years ago.
“Ones that are memorable to me: John Doe from X—which if you told me when I was a 16-year-old girl that I’d be working at a record store and John Doe would walk in, I’d’ve been like ‘no f—ing way’ because I loved X, so much. And he totally ripped his shirt off! I wasn’t expecting that. Ripped it open, I should say. He was bare-chested in his photo.
“The Soundgarden one stands out because they were doing promo for Superunknown at the time, and at the Sub Pop office, that record was getting non-stop play. They were huge and about to get huger. They came in with an MTV crew, and it was just an exciting time.
“Bun E. Carlos from Cheap Trick came by, and I was like holy sh–. Jonathan [Poneman] was a huge Cheap Trick fan. So I hit him up, and let him know. And I’m chatting with Bun E., and he’s talking about all these records on the wall, saying he was playing a show that night at Under the Rail. Three significant things happened because of this. He put me on the list for the show, plus one, which totally ruled. Second thing is I played him Soundgarden, which he had never heard before, and he loved it. And third, Sub Pop got to do a 7” with Cheap Trick.
“I worked there from opening day in ’93 for a year and a half, and then moved across the street and worked at Sub Pop for around four more years. The beauty of Sub Pop was and is that they promote from within. It was like going to indie rock college. I worked in the sales department, then band merchandise, R&D, international product development…”
“The beauty of the store was it was
across the street from [correction] next door to the Moore Hotel, which was in a lot of ways a flop house. Crazy sh– would happen all the time. And the Mega Mart became the water cooler. Jonathan [Poneman] would always come over, and talk about whatever story happened that day. It was tiny. Hence the name Mega Mart. We tried to do in-store concerts, and we did the Spinanes, and the store was so packed that someone fainted. I was like, ‘wow, this rules!’
“I always remember Bruce [Pavitt] saying his concept for the Mega Mart was for it to be a Christian Science Reading Room. We got so many tourists. The label was huge, Nirvana was huge. So, you couldn’t get access to the label, but you could get into the store. There were so many Japanese tourists. Always something charming about these young, cool Japanese kids who would travel all this distance to show up, and ask a million questions, because they loved Seattle bands.
“The tourists that came after Kurt died, that was kind of gruesome. Even more so for people who were connected to the fabric of Nirvana.
“Opening day of the store we were giving away copies of Nirvana’s Bleach. It was bonkers. It was such a different time in Seattle. You used to be able to walk down 2nd Avenue and be able to see the water on every block. Now there are high rises blocking the view of the ocean. You know you’re old when you start missing parking lots.”
[Below, watch Sub Pop's Lacey Swain eat a sandwich—and discuss the finer points
of the new Mega Mart and its retrospective art installation, along with
Sub Pop art directors Jeff Kleinsmith and Sasha Barr]:
The current incarnation of the Sub Pop Mega Mart is open
for a limited time at 6003 12th Avenue South, Seattle, WA 98108.
Not in Seattle? Shop Sub Pop merch the old-fashioned way: online.
[Text and interview by Andrew Matson. Andrew writes about music and culture for publications including The Seattle Times, NPR, and The Stranger. Follow Andrew on Twitter here. Photos by Robin Stein—see more of Robin's work here. Vintage Mega Mart ad courtesy of Sub Pop's official Tumblr page. Video courtesy of Sub Pop's Youtube page.]