Electric Fetus: Still relevant after 40 years

The store reveals its secrets of vitality

Woodstock, skin-tight bell bottoms, braless summers, and Janis Joplin; sometimes it's hard not to be jealous of those who hit their prime during the '60s and '70s. But learning of the Electric Fetus's "Naked Sale" in 1971 makes building a time machine that much more of a priority. Clerks and customers alike showed up to the beloved record store on that particular Saturday morning wearing nothing but their birthday suits, celebrating the last days of the Fetus's West Bank location. About 40 people came in with bare bottoms, each receiving a free LP for their enthusiasm.

Fetus owner Keith Covart says it was a "last hurrah that just kind of happened."

"The naked sale wasn't something we advertised in any way, but it somehow ended up on the radio," he says. "Things just happened back then. You didn't need a plan."

This month marks the 40th anniversary of the Electric Fetus, and when asked if there are any plans for a nude celebration, Covart answers with a shrill "No."

"At this point, we don't want to scare any customers away. I mean, I'm 62 and, you know, the neighbors would complain."

Unfortunately, exposed skin isn't what's taking away business from the quadruple-decade-old record shop these days: It's the records themselves. In a digital world, the popularity of mp3s is turning record shops around the country into ghostly abandoned storefronts. Forty years ago people spent their extra cash on the latest Beatles or Stones LP, but today kids beg for iTunes gift cards, downloading their computers full of American Idols and soundtracks to CW shows, never receiving a physical copy of their purchase.

Store manager Bob Fuchs began working at the Fetus in 1986, and has since seen sales both dramatically rise and dramatically fall. Only a mere eight years ago, he says, there was nearly too much business to handle—that is, until iTunes came into play.

"People are listening to music more than they ever have, they're just not buying it," he said. "People are previewing, not purchasing."

With the grim reaper peeking over their shoulders, neither Fuchs nor Covart are worried.

"There will always be room for record stores," says Covart with a shrug of confidence. "You can't compare the experience of a store to your computer screen."

Not a niche store, the Fetus carries everything from hot electropop to weird old country stuff, totaling about 65,000 titles. The Fetus has continually been praised for carrying a broader selection than the typical chain store, with a healthy supply of local artists. Since the Fetus opened in 1968, Covart says, the goal has always been to ensure that music lovers of all types could find their fancy. To keep up with modern trends, advertising director Dawn Novak says, the store constantly works toward appeasing all kinds of music buyers. Soon, the Fetus will begin offering a digital store on its website.

"With our new online capabilities, people will be able to buy digitally and locally," Novak says.

Along with its impeccable selection, the Fetus is also picky about who works behind its counters, resulting in loads of compliments for the staff's almost bizarre amount of knowledge. Job applicants must complete a comprehensive music quiz prior to being considered, and from personal experience, I can say it is ridiculously thorough: Average music enthusiasts, move aside. Full-on junkies only.

"We're all just a bunch of dorks here," says Fuchs, wearing a Fetus T-shirt. "Our passion is music. Our job is music. And we love introducing people to music."

Across town and state lines, people visit the store for that very reason—to hear personal recommendations from people who live, breathe, and make love to music daily, instead of computer-generated suggestions. Voted a favorite Minneapolis music shop for years, the Fetus consistently treats people like they're people, and this is why, as with bars and coffee shops, there are Fetus regulars.

Like clockwork, Carl Peterson, 59, and his wife Phyllis, 75, pop into the Fetus every Tuesday morning. Each week, Phyllis reads the list of new titles to her blind husband and together they browse and mingle throughout the store. Carl has been coming to the Fetus for 33 years, his first visit on October 23, 1975, when he vividly remembers buying albums by Elton John and the Bee Gees.

"I had just moved back to the Cities and I was so surprised when my friend told me about the new record store in town," says Carl. "The best part about it was passing by my favorite café on the walk there. We could shop for records and pick up éclairs and the best corned beef, all at the same time."

Carl currently owns over 5,000 titles, every week adding a couple more. On a recent visit he was excited to find a live Smithereens album and Sting's Fields of Gold.

"He likes all kinds of music. Almost everything except rap—which he spells with a 'c'," Phyllis Peterson says about her husband with a chuckle, apologizing for her language.

The happy couple has become as much a part of the Fetus as the smell of incense, and each Christmas the Petersons bring popcorn tins for the staff (which once came in surprisingly handy for an in-store performer who forgot his drums).

Last year when Carl had heart surgery, Phyllis picked up the weekly list and brought it to the hospital. In his notable absence, employees of the record shop sent along a stack of get-well cards.

"How many other places will do that for you?" asks Carl.

Just like the Petersons, there are a host of other customers who incorporate the Fetus into their weekly routine, another stop between the grocery store and gas station, getting their fill of music. Over the years, the Fetus has built all sorts of relationships, resulting in friendships, marriages, and memorable meetings with musicians like Billy Bragg, Bon Iver, and Patti Smith during in-store performances.

Like a proud dad, Covart says he's been blessed.

"Damn, it's crazy. I don't know a better word for it," he says in a moment of reflection.

Although many of us are used to it by now, plenty still wonder what's behind the name, "Electric Fetus."

Covart smiles when asked, and says it can't really be explained.

"It was the '60s. It just made sense."

Well said, man. 

THE ELECTRIC FETUS celebrates its 40th anniversary with Doomtree, Polara, the Hypstrz, Tony Glover, the New Standards, and more on FRIDAY, JUNE 13, at FIRST AVENUE and the 7th ST. ENTRY; 612.332.1775

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