Published September 17th, 2021 at 6:00 AM
SALINA, Kansas – Every year, retailers face a dreaded task: inventory.
At the House of Sight and Sound in Salina, though, this was a hallowed time. Loyal customers would flock to help count records, CDs and packages of incense.
It wasn’t considered tedious work so much as an opportunity for hours of conversation, laughter and memories with owner Tom Headlee and his equally charismatic employees.
This was the atmosphere Headlee cultivated in his store every day for the almost 40 years it was in business.
The shop closed in 2011, but dedicated customers and former employees keep its memory alive. One loyal record buyer created a tribute song to the store. Someone else started a Facebook page in the store’s honor, where former customers still wax nostalgic about the hippie outpost on the High Plains, which some dubbed the “House of Song and Bong.”
Chad Kassem, the owner and founder of Acoustic Sounds and Quality Record Pressings in Salina, is thankful for the House’s role in starting his own record collection, which ultimately morphed into thriving music businesses in a seemingly remote section of the heartland.
Those who knew House of Sight and Sound remember being overwhelmed upon first entry.
Like most independent record stores, it was aggressively eclectic. There were jars of incense scattered around. The yellow walls were plastered with posters. There were crates and crates and crates of records, clothes, stereo equipment, CDs and (ahem) tobacco accessories. And, of course, rock and roll poured out of the speakers.
But above all, the House is remembered for it’s soft-spoken owner, who always wore a cardigan and walked around the shop, talking to customers and puffing on his pipe.
Years of rock concerts and loud music now make it difficult for Headlee to hear through his phone’s receiver, but he’s happy to reminisce.
Headlee was in his early 20s when he opened the store in 1971. At that time, he thought it would be the first of many record stores he would start across the country, but he ended up staying in Salina. For almost 40 years the House of Sight and Sound was the hub for music and culture in the middle of the Sunflower state.
Headlee grew up in Colorado and learned to sell tapes from a friend in California. When his buddy decided to head east, he asked Headlee to come along. Not long after, the two decided to split up and start opening record stores across the Midwest.
Headlee’s buddy ended up in Iowa. Headlee, meanwhile, settled in Salina because a record store had just closed in town and he saw the need for a new one.
“I went to Salina and it looked pretty nice and had a good industry,” Headlee said.
Growing up in Colorado, he said everyone would always joke about Kansas. “But it was good to me,” he laughed.
He pulled into town with just $1,000. The previous store in town had a bad reputation, which initially made people skeptical of the House of Sight and Sound. Even his Realtor thought the shop’s stay would be short.
“It took a while to get everything going,” Headlee said.
The first six months in Salina were filled with hard work. He started a tab at the local hardware store and began to build the shelves that would line his store for years to come.
Today, hand-built shelves could be a marketing point. But in the 70s, that’s just what you did.
Eventually, the store became too crowded, so he moved. His final location was about 3,000 square feet plus a garage where staff would install car stereos. At the House’s peak, Headlee said its inventory was around 300,000 items.
“We just kept building and building and building and finally bought a location that had plenty of room – actually we needed more – but we made it work,” Headlee said.
What he was really good at building was a rapport with his customers. When someone asked for something, he ordered it. When someone came into the shop, Headlee and his staff talked to them, made recommendations and then stocked what they thought customers would enjoy.
It kept them coming back, even if it was just to hang out with Headlee and his staff.
“Good customers (were) the best part,” Headlee said. “I happened to have a lot of good help (and) good customers.”
He chuckled about a time he caught a kid shoplifting and had to call his mom. Another time, someone ran their car into the back of the store. But mostly, he remembers the good times at the stores and all of the great people he met.
He attributes the shop’s lasting impact on its customers to his staff.
“I remember telling my employees that whoever comes in, make sure they smile at least once before they leave,” Headlee said. “It’s memorable, that makes a difference. We liked the people too.”
Jeff Comfort worked at the House of Sight and Sound for about seven years.
“Everybody knew Tom,” Comfort said.
Comfort got to know Headlee “like everybody did” by hanging out in the store. He and his music buff friends would go in to pick up records and chat with the soft-spoken man behind the counter.
Headlee listened to just about everything, and he knew just about everything about the music. It was his job to know. But Comfort said he remembers Headlee’s love for the blues and artists like Kenny Wayne Shepherd.
If he’d met the artist in person, or if they were local, he’d always try to help promote them in the store.
Later on, Headlee asked Comfort to work part time for him, repairing and installing car stereo equipment (yet another service the House offered). A couple years later, Comfort was working downstairs in the store, full time.
“One of the funnest jobs I ever had,” Comfort said.
The House was like a common meeting ground where socio-economics were left at the door.
“Bankers, lawyers, drug dealers, college kids, parents, (Headlee) just drew everybody in,” Comfort said. “People would meet in that store – they wouldn’t go there to meet each other – but these people from disparate lines of work and lifestyles and income levels all became one thing when they came in there: they were music fans.”
Headlee was directly responsible for the creation of such a cohesive atmosphere. Comfort said his genuine care for everyone made it a special place.
“Tom is the quintessential customer service guy,” Comfort said. “He’s not a salesman, the first thing he wants to do with his customers is truly, be friends with them.”
Headlee’s instructions to his employees were never about selling records or posters. Instead, Comfort said he asked them to “make them feel at home.”
The store was known throughout Salina and about 100 miles outside of it too. If the House didn’t have what you were looking for, the staff would order it and get it to you the next day. It was a reputation that customers knew.
Aside from the stellar customer service, there wasn’t another store like the House of Sight in Sound in Salina or surrounding areas. It was like an oasis in a desert.
“It was a cultural focal point for Salina,” Comfort said.
The inventory was vital when Kassem first moved to Salina in 1984. He quickly found a home with the House of Sight and Sound.
“I’ve been to many cities all over America and this was definitely a premium store,” Kassem said. “The store was Tom and then the inventory, you know? And both of them were top notch.”
It says a lot that the House could compete with big city stores considering Salina only has a population of 46,000.
Kassem started shopping at the House to expand his personal collection, but it started growing and growing. He’d find a rare record at the store, and buy duplicates. One for himself and one to sell.
“A lot of the beginnings of my inventory were what I bought from him,” Kassem said. “So I have to give him a lot of credit.”
Kassem is hard working and has been on the forefront of innovation in his field since he started, but he’s also incredibly appreciative of everyone who supported him in the beginning.
“There’s a possibility that if Tom didn’t have that inventory, we might not be talking now,” Kassem did. “It … was a huge help.”
Headlee also helped Kassem by giving him phone numbers of distributors as Kassem’s business grew. Kassem said these numbers were like pieces of gold in the pre-internet era.
Not long after Kassem and Headlee became friends in the business, things started to change. CDs had entered the market.
“I have to say it was the early 80s, I had one small rack of CDs and eventually they just took over,” Headlee said.
This was partly because of their popularity. But it was also because of the record labels’ new policy, which prohibited returns on vinyl.
The policy meant that if a record came in damaged, he couldn’t send it back. If the new artist he’d taken a chance on wasn’t popular with the Salina crowd, he was out the money.
Before this policy, Headlee would return about 10% of what he bought either because of defects, or because it wasn’t selling. Without the possibility of a refund, purchasing and stocking vinyl became a lot more expensive.
Buying an LP from a new artist now carried a lot of risk for small, independently owned stores like the House. It effectively meant that new music went to CDs and only tried and true classics were sold in a vinyl format.
“No questions asked, there would be no problem with (returns). And then all the sudden they (record labels) eliminated that,” Headlee said. “So you had to watch more on what you’re buying.”
Headlee was also pretty old school. He relied on his immaculate, small handwriting to do all of his bookkeeping until the 90s, when Comfort finally convinced him to get a point-of-sale system.
As CDs began to take over the industry, Headlee started having more and more people come in trying to sell their vinyl collections. He didn’t necessarily want to stock used vinyl, but people were getting rid of their collections so he helped them out.
“Just more as a favor to them, to help them get rid of them,” Headlee said. “They were getting rid of their records and replacing them with CDs, sadly. Now a lot of them regret it I think.”
The music industry tried to dry up vinyl sales, but thankfully, it was unsuccessful. People like Kassem and Headlee continued to believe in the sound and ritual of listening to a vinyl LP. Now the tables are turning (literally) as vinyl sales outdid those of CDs last year for the first time since 1986.
Vinyl sales increased 23.6% from 2019 to 2020, which saw total sales reach $620 million.
If Headlee had held out just a little bit longer, the shop could have prospered in the vinyl revival, but he was ready to retire.
In the mid 2000s it became apparent that without internet sales, a small shop like this couldn’t sustain itself for long and Headlee wasn’t ready for digital sales. The mountains of Colorado were calling him back, so he closed the doors in 2011.
People reacted as though a friend had passed away when they found out. One person wrote an obituary about the store. Comfort said it was big news in Salina because almost everyone had a connection one way or another to the store.
“If you lived in Salina, you heard that they were going to close and it was a tough day,” Comfort said.
It’s been 10 years since it closed, and people still remember the store. When asked about their favorite bygone record stores, the Central Kansas Vinyl Collectors Facebook group spoke lovingly about the House of Sight and Sound.
In retirement, Headlee is buying old vinyl collections and reselling records online.
“He’s figured out a way to share music – and maybe make a little money on the side – but to share music with people,” Comfort said.
Vinyl collectors remember Headlee when they pull out a record and drop the needle down. They think about the conversations they had in the House and the smell of the incense when they bought it. For a second, a cardboard cover and a thin sheet of paper can take them back to the shop’s community, evoking the warmth and elemental power of the spinning vinyl record.
Cami Koons covers rural affairs for Kansas City PBS in cooperation with Report for America.