Transistor Solves the Cultural Omnivore’s Dilemma

By Patty Wetli | Thursday, June 21, 2012

"I'm definitely someone who would shop here," says Transistor owner Andy Miles. Credit: Patty Wetli

Lots of people turn their passions into businesses, opening up bakeries, bike shops or pet boutiques. Andy Miles just happens to like music. And art. And books. And movies. And photography. And live performances.

When he founded Transistor in 2009 (originally located in Andersonville, now at 3819 N. Lincoln Ave. since fall 2011), the idea was to bring all those interests together in a single place, and the result is a bookstore that doubles as an art gallery that doubles as a stage, that doubles as a teaching space, that doubles as a record store that doubles as a … you get the picture.

“Sometimes people are stumped and leave,” says Miles, though why people should be mystified by a shop that eschews niche merchandising befuddles him. “I mean, there are department stores.” OK, so think of Transistor as Marshall Field’s, if Field’s was situated in a storefront and carried Captain Beefheart LPs, offered classes in home digital recording and sold chandeliers made out of tiny cosmetic bottles.

Essentially what Miles has created is a hub for cultural omnivores — both those who consume it and those who produce it.

“I love to make opportunities for people,” he says, whether that means featuring the work of roughly 70 artists — representing photography, print making, painting, and handmade electronics, lamps and jewelry — hosting recorded and live music sessions, or running Transistor Radio, a daily webcast that draws from the shop’s library of 16,000 songs. Miles, whose background includes a stint producing radio talk shows, frequently takes a turn in the rotating lineup of DJs.

“We help out different communities of creative people. We’re a venue for people, a stepping stone or launching pad,” he says, noting that the vast majority of contributors are Chicagoans. “We look at people’s work, not their resume,” displaying the efforts of a self-taught photographer alongside those of an instructor at the Art Institute.

While Transistor’s approach may seem scattershot to the first-time visitor, the shop’s multiple personalities provide a hedge against the current economy. “Some of those components are not a good business model,” says Miles. “Books are on the decline, CDs are certainly on the decline.” Pooling these various elements is a way of appealing to a broad base of customers — “A 30-year-old hipster might come in with his grandma, who would buy jewelry” — and diffusing risk.

One segment of Miles’ inventory that’s on the upswing: vinyl records. “The numbers are impressive for vinyl,” he says. “There’s more sold now than in the ’90s.”

Not surprisingly for someone who still uses a corded phone that plugs into the wall and has an actual ring, not a ringtone, Miles is a fan of the vinyl revival (most LPs also include download codes for the MP3 version). “If I was in this business in 2002 and it was all CDs, I would have found it boring. CDs don’t have the same romance,” he says.

The allure of vinyl is its tactile quality and the rituals associated with what we old-timers used to call playing a record. “Pulling it out of the sleeve, putting it on the turntable, lowering the stylus, listening to that first crackle — it’s much more participatory,” he says.

As nostalgic as all this sounds, in Miles’ experience, it’s newcomers to the medium who, oddly enough, are driving the trend. “One thing I will say is people who come in from a past vinyl-playing generation [Ed. note: What a sweet way of saying 'old people'], they haven’t noticed there’s new vinyl. They just expect Fleetwood Mac Rumours.” Instead they encounter M. Ward and as a result, “we sell very, very few records to people over 40.”

Miles prefers to stock indie rock, some electronic and certain “archival” artists relevant to the current music scene, listing New Order, Joy Division, R.E.M. and the Velvet Underground as examples. He describes his typical record buyer as someone who likely “goes to shows at the Empty Bottle and probably rides their bike there.” Sporting an “ironic” beard, we would add.

“It’s definitely what I like, but at the same time … I’m not fond of Adele, I’m not a fan of Fleet Foxes and I don’t particularly care for Bon Iver, but it goes with what we sell,” he says. A huge admirer of jazz and popular song (think Ella Fitzgerald), Miles would love to expand his selection but is limited due to budget and space constraints. “I would just as much like to appeal to a 55-year-old listener of WBEZ and WFMT as a 24-year-old listener of CHIRP.”

Credit: Patty Wetli

That kind of eclecticism is better represented in the movies that Miles programs for free Monday night screenings (BYOB). The upcoming schedule features classics like Sunset Boulevard, documentaries (we’re geeked for Urbanized), foreign films and even the latest Oscar winner for Best Picture, The Artist. Miles has used events like these, along with Friday night concerts, to help establish Transistor in its new home.

Home is an apt word, as Miles personally relocated to Northcenter along with the store. Though the transition hasn’t gone as smoothly as hoped — “It’s more of being a new shop than I expected” — Transistor boasts the cozy appeal of a favorite sweater, with comfy touches like couches and quirky accents like a tin ceiling painted chainlink-fence silver. Neighboring businesses have laid out the welcome mat, with Miles often popping into Knit 1 next door and eating dinner during open knitting hours.

“We didn’t look for spaces,” Miles says of the move. “We looked at this space. We needed to be here.”

Upcoming events at Transistor:

  • Monday night movies, 8 p.m. Miles has programmed the schedule through September. Next up, Young Goethe in Love, June 25.
  • Friday Night Live at Transistor, June 29. An evening of live literary readings, 7:30 p.m., free, BYOB.
  • The City Life Supplement, June 30 (reservations required), 8:30 p.m., $10, BYOB. The City Life Supplement is a live performance and a podcast, the metropolitan answer to the radio hit A Prairie Home Companion, a naughty collection of songs, sketches, stories, musical guests and general hilarity, all loosely based in the fictional neighborhood of Raven’s Park, Chicago.

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