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Present history: The Conservatory and the tradition of Black-owned record stores

Chogie, left, and Tony Fields, owners of The Conservatory Vintage & Vinyl, celebrate the second anniversary of their shop in downtown Flossmoor. The store offers vinyl records, events and mid-century modern furnishings. (Andrew Burke-Stevenson/The Conservatory)

Note: This Q&A is part of an occasional series linking today’s local Black-owned businesses to their historical antecedents. The series was started in 2019 by the village of Flossmoor’s Community Relations Commission. The interview was conducted by Quinton A. Arthur. History research and writing was done by Rosalind Henderson-Mustafa of Flossmoor. The Fields just celebrated the second anniversary of their store in downtown Flossmoor.

The present: The Conservatory weathers flood, pandemic to succeed in Flossmoor

When did you start your business and what inspired you to start your business?

Chogie: We opened in July 2019, but prior to that Tony’s been in the music business as a collector or record label owner and in various areas of music for over 30 years. I started collecting vintage furniture close to 10 years ago. 

Why did you choose Flossmoor to open your business?
 Well, I grew up in Flossmoor and when I was younger, there was a record store in Homewood called Records Wow, but it’s been gone probably at least 30 years.  When I was really into collecting records, as I got into my later teens and early 20s, I always had to go to the city to buy records, so I wanted to put a record store in this neighborhood so that people who grew up here didn’t face the same issues that I did. I started collecting records in maybe 1984 or 1985. 

As a business owner, what is the legacy you hope to leave?
 I would say the legacy we hope to leave is that anything is possible. Or for anyone in this community to understand that they are capable of starting a business, whatever it may be, giving back to their community in this way, and serving other people who live in this community. Also, we want to serve as a source of inspiration for students at the high school who aspire to be entrepreneurs or business owners. Lastly, for those students of color, to remind them that there are several African American business owners and pioneers in this community and the path is there for them to follow. 

Tony: You also don’t have to be traditional. I feel sometimes that we play it safe or copy what’s already been successful instead of trying to trailblaze or create your own lane. It can be risky, but it can also be rewarding. 

What black history moment are you proud of?
 You can think of almost any musician from Black history. Who came to mind originally was Nina Simone and how she broke barriers. She established her own voice and wasn’t afraid to advocate for civil rights during that time. I could literally go down the list of so many artists and groups who broke out against something. Whether it’s The Clark Sisters and how they brought almost a secular sound to gospel music in defiance of the church but still stayed true to what they believe in as Christians. 

Tony: Colin Kaepernick. I think that would be more modern example, and the one previous to that would be Muhammad Ali, who decided not to go into the (military) draft.

Chogie: I think of Stacey Abrams and how she came up. She was very much focused on social justice. She started out at a young age, through high school and through college, and she is still on point. She inspires me as a Black woman. She has done so much for voting rights and other areas. 

What lessons have you learned that can help someone else start a business?
 The viaduct near us floods. In September 2019, the water came all the way up. It was the worst flood that hit the area in about 50 or 60 years. 

Chogie: They couldn’t get funding for it to be considered a state of emergency. The viaduct here on Flossmoor Road flooded so high, that the (former) Caldwell Banker (an office a half black south of The Conservatory) had 5 feet of water on the street level and another 8 feet of water in their basement. It took out all of the heating in this entire building because of the boilers being flooded. We lost 85% of our records and furniture that were in the basement. All the businesses in the area had a loss. It was devastating. 

Tony: What would you say we learned from that?

Chogie: Resilience. I can give Tony credit for this, but he came in and immediately started cleaning. It wasn’t a time to mourn at all. We also learned what it means to get support from a community. People stopped by that day and just checked to see if we need help. 

Tony: We already thought this, but good advice for someone starting a business is to design your business so that it can have multiple revenue streams. 

Chogie: That’s a great one. We would have to constantly pivot, but luckily we had some of records already were being sold online, so from that, we had to pivot, so our customers knew about our online site. We’ve done photo shoots, private parties, book signings, poetry readings, DJs and livestreams. 

As is relates to your business, who is your business role model? Is there a favorite quote or saying?

Tony: For me, there are a lot of people I look at who are a boss at more than one thing. I look at Kanye West who does multiple things. Virgil Abloh, Theaster Gates, Eric Williams of The Silver Room. One of the things you do can be really time elaborate, but you can still be involved in other things. I think the old school model was I spend time at this job, and that’s all that I do. JayZ is perfect example; he runs xyz but he is still an artist as well. 

Chogie: Rihanna is a music artist that has a cosmetic line, a clothing line. That in our eyes is the way to go. Have all these parallel lanes, multiple revenue streams and being your own brand, knowing your brand extensions and your capabilities. 

Howard Bailey was one of our first African American colleagues to own multiple business. Howard Bailey has influenced our business in many ways. Having a business that is a bit upscale and not traditional are direct influences.

Are there any recommended resources that someone can access to learn more about a business?

Chogie: We’ve had other businesses. Women’s Business Development Center which is located downtown Chicago for any women entrepreneurs is a great resource. There are so many ways to make connections there. 

When we were starting this, we were having discussions with so many other like-minded people and some not like-minded people who we are inspired by and who own their businesses, from our parents, to other local business owners. 

Tony: I listen to a lot of interviews, and you can kind of pick and choose the information that you want to use from the information that they give. There’s a lot of celebrities who have a lot of knowledge to give. Tyler Perry for instance, has a lot of wisdom. 

Chogie: And we’ve even talked about, from a female perspective, how folks navigate business in general, relationships. Jemele HillCari Champion, those are two favorites where I feel they have relevant, more modern, everyday things that they deal with in how they foster relationships that are translatable to how you navigate yourself as a brand and run a business.

Tony: We weren’t really involved in a lot of the history; we saw it from afar or we heard about it. But when Barack won, and he spoke down at Millennium Park, that was kind of a moment that you’ll always remember. It was pretty unbelievable. And especially because we were from Chicago and he spoke here, so it was closer to us than someone who was in Detroit or D.C. because it had a local feel to it as well. 

Chogie: And I just connected to that after reading “Becoming” (a memoir by former first lady and Chicago native Michelle Obama). I’m from the Southside of Chicago, so having that history of her childhood on the Southside of Chicago, going to the Southside schools, to tag on to what Tony said, was great. 

I read The Magnolia Story (by Chip and Joanna Gaines of “Fixer Upper,” a home renovation television show). That book was inspirational to me. Talk about resilience. I didn’t realize her husband was just a hustler … and didn’t even finish college. She talks about how they wouldn’t eat until they paid for all their employees first. Just those kinds of concepts and where they are now, having their own (TV) network. But they were broke for a very long time and they would live in these houses while they fixed them up. How he pursued business as do-or-die because he didn’t come from money, and she was along for the ride. But at some point they saw what she added as a designer and as a collector, they figured out how that worked together. For me, that was inspirational to see how they navigated through that as a married couple.

The history: From John Von Battle to Howard Bailey

By Rosalind Henderson-Mustafa

Howard Bailey is the new generation of Black business owners bringing back economic stimulation and hiring residents within his community. He was inspired by the Chicago music scene of the ’70s and ’80s, which also inspired iconic venues and personalities, including Frankie Knuckles, godfather of house music.

At 16 in the late ’80s, Bailey was working at a Lincoln Park burger joint when he was offered a gig working for Dave “Medusa” Shelton as a doorman at Medusa’s, a north-side hub for house music that hosted performances by crucial local and national bands. 

Shelton had been among the first to book Knuckles at the Warehouse, the space that gave house its name.  Bailey’s time at Medusa’s changed his life. He threw his first party at Medusa’s in the early ’90s; Shelton encouraged and mentored him. 

Bailey honed his musical and business instincts in the midst of DJs who mixed subterranean sounds to suit the varied tastes of all walks of life, including Black house heads, white suburban preppy teens, Latinx punks, the LGBTQ community, runaways and even sailors.  

Bailey, barely into his twenties, became one of the owners of the popular book store, Literary Expressions — Lit X — in Wicker Park in the early ’90s. After growing beyond that storefront, he decided to relocate down the street to begin a new business venture — The Beat Parlor. 

The Beat Parlor (from 1993-98) was one of the hipper independent music stores that invited DJs to spin live in-store, selling collectible vinyl and contributing to breaking new music. 

Wicker Park soon fell victim of gentrification — forcing small businesses to shut down or relocate. Bailey moved on to establish the Goose Island nightclub, Slick’s Lounge in 2000. 

Slick’s Lounge was the hottest nightclub that catered to a diverse group of hip patrons and broke the segregation mold — various groups came together under one roof to party. Celebrities and national recording artists would drop through. After over six successful and challenging years as the only African American club owner in an increasingly gentrified neighborhood, he felt it no longer benefited to keep the doors of Slick’s Lounge open. He closed the business in 2007.

More recently, Bailey relocated to Englewood where, with a partner Terrence Ross, he opened Dream Café and Grille in in the heart of a South Side community that has struggled with violence, unemployment, shuttered businesses and abandoned buildings. 

Besides offering rare healthy food options, the two want their café to give some hope to those desperate for opportunities.  For his latest venture, Bailey said he chose Englewood because  he thought opening a business there would make the biggest impact. His experience brought him friends and connections from all backgrounds, and they have remained faithful and patronized the café, he said.

“Our youth need more examples than the streets, athletes and artists in the music industry,” Bailey said. “They need to see a person who looks like them aiming to make their community stronger.”

Howard Bailey built upon the long history of record stores within the Black community: the feeling of community that forms in a record store.

For Black Americans living in the South in the 1960s and 1970s, record stores represented more than music. Black-owned record stores in particular, numbering as many as 1,000, according to historian Joshua Clark Davis, formed “a consumer culture in which African Americans found respect, community, and a vibrant public life.” 

Record-store ownership, particularly in the South, was part of the larger trend during the Civil Rights Era of connecting political freedom to economic freedom, according to Davis. 

The search for a Black-owned space represented more than just freedom to shop, it meant “freedom to be.” White-owned stores “commonly treated African Americans as an inferior class of shoppers”; many would not serve Black shoppers at all. Separate entrances and listening stations were common, even when white and Black shoppers loved and purchased the same music. 

Black-owned stores not only had clerks who knew more about Black music, they also sold other items, like beauty products and clothing. Some owners even branched out, starting their own record labels, selling those records in their stores.

Bailey’s career connects with the legacy of Joe Von Battle, who epitomized this type of record store owner as music entrepreneur. Battle recorded in Detroit under his own labels from his own shop. Born Joseph Battle, he added the Von as a middle name and quickly learned that the Eurocentric “Von Battle” made it easier to do business from a distance with record and radio executives who would not have given him the time of day if they had suspected he was African American. 

Battle is believed to be the first African-American post-WWII-era, independent record producer in the U.S., and one of the first record store owners, the legendary Joe’s Record Shop, at 3530 Hastings Street in Detroit.  He established JVB Recording, Von Recording and JVB Publishing. 

Black Swan Records was the first Black owned recording company that sold popular music to black audiences. Black Swan Records specialized in jazz and blues recordings. The company released over 180 records, a number not surpassed until the 1950’s.  Joe Battle released about 75 recordings.

As the first producer to record Rev. C.L. Franklin and his daughter Aretha, who would go on to become a music legend, there is no disputing his significance. From 1945 to 1967, he was a producer of gospel, blues, early R&B, and what came to be known as Rock ‘n Roll and was influential in the career of John Lee Hooker and many other blues musicians.

He was considered the “Chess” (after Chicago’s Chess Records) of Detroit and is credited with establishing the “Detroit sound.” At the end of WWII, he became one of the last hired, first fired after G.I.s came home from the war. Vowing never to work for another man again, Joe purchased a storefront and opened up shop, selling all the records he had gathered from his home collection. 

Musicians from far and wide found their way to Joe’s Record shop. By the ’50s, Joe Von Battle was famous in Detroit and beyond for his record shop/studio, a teeming part of the Detroit metropolis, with people of various ethnic backgrounds and businesses. Many Motown artists visited the shop for a good conversation and a drink in the back room: Mary Wells, bassist James Jamerson and other Funk Brothers, and many others recorded there. 

With African-Americans moving from the South to the North, hungering for connections back across the Mason Dixon Line, Rev. C.L. Franklin and Joe’s Record Shop became mythical in thousands of Black households in the U.S., as they tuned in for the ritual Sunday night sermon and Gospel music.

By the mid ’50s, Joe’s Records was a focal point of the Black Bottom community and the place for hanging out with folks like Berry Gordy, Wilson Pickett, Jackie Wilson and B.B. King. 

Changing tastes in music and competition slowly pushed him out: large retailers like Sears and Roebuck that previously wouldn’t sell Black artists had begun to sell the same records cheaper. 

Joe Battle died in 1973 in relative obscurity six years after his store and its inventory were destroyed during violent rioting in 1967. 

He deserves special recognition for his role in recording the final songs and sounds as Black people moved from the rural South into a new, urban community. He etched in vinyl and sold the post-war sound of Detroit, some of the earliest works of those who became household names, as well as those whose music would never have been recorded but for him. 

Howard Bailey and many other Black record store owners stand on Joe Battles’ shoulders.

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