“We just like the awkwardness,” explains Kurt Legler, co-owner of Warbler Records & Goods. “It’s friendly. It’s warm. It’s just what we wanted in a record store,” adds Leigh van der Werff, Warbler’s other co-owner and Legler’s fiancée. Though the name “Warbler” only won out by a hairsbreadth over “Population II” (after the Randy Holden album), it’s already hard to imagine calling Santa Barbara’s newest record shop anything else. Busy gaining a foothold in the community and preparing for their November 13 grand opening celebration, Legler and van der Werff took some time out to chat with The Indy about their stock, their music-selling principles, and the surprising return of the vinyl business itself.
In transplanting themselves from Portland, Oregon, to open Warbler in downtown Santa Barbara, the pair took advantage of the void that had, over the past few years, opened in our city’s small musical universe. “We knew local record stores had closed,” Legler said. “We’ve got family in Carpinteria, so we knew this town a little bit. We thought there was a need. Everyone we talked to seemed to express that need. Right off the bat, people just walked through the door and said, ‘Thank you!’ A lot of those folks were making a weekly pilgrimage down to Ventura or L.A. to go record shopping. I think they’re excited there’s a place in town they can go, as well.”
Indeed, some of Warbler’s most enthusiastic early customers seem as excited at the very concept of a record shop as they are to actually buy records. “Part of our intent with opening the shop is that a record store is such a community center,” van der Werff said, “a place to gather and hang out with like-minded folk in a different setting. Plus, having amazing music doesn’t hurt!” The critical importance of a well-curated stock isn’t lost on these owners, who combined their collections to form the core of their inventory. “That’s really the tricky part, being able to come up with enough good stuff to draw people in and keep them coming,” said Legler. “But there are certainly things you’ll have to tear from our cold, dead hands.”
A small selection of CDs line part of one wall, but Warbler’s heart is clearly in the vinyl, hundreds of which fill the store’s bins and shelves — bins and shelves the owners built by hand. The shop’s choicest pieces of black plastic take places of honor, mounted on shelves high above the regular browsing space, but they’re available for purchase, too — at the right price. “There is some really expensive stuff there, but there’s also just stuff we love that we want people to see and grab,” van der Werff said. “I’m a big fan of that Pharoah Sanders,” Legler said, pointing to a particular album 10 feet up, “but truth be told, I have the alternate cover of it, so I could part with that one.”
“Obviously, we’re not in love with every record in the store,” Legler continued, “but we’re trying to have a well-curated environment, trying to keep the junk out. I shouldn’t say ‘junk’—we’re trying to keep out the records you can find at thrift stores or when you go antiquing.” So while those desperately searching for yet another dusty copy of Jackson Browne’s Hold Out or Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass’s Whipped Cream & Other Delights should look elsewhere, those on a quest for oddities, rarities, and timeless classics might do well to flip through Warbler’s bins on a regular basis. “You can find something you’ve been looking for for a while, or maybe something you never knew you’d been looking for all your life.”
“We only stock albums we see people wanting,” van der Werff explained, “or new stuff people want to hold on to and have become rare records. We don’t carry stuff that’s better suited to the MP3 format. That’s not what we’re about.” But despite their mission to appeal to collectors, they’re actively trying to dispel the poisonous air of supercilious cool that Nick Hornby so incisively skewered in High Fidelity, his novel about the maturation of a hipster-obscurantist record dealer.
“It seems like that’s an aspect of most record stores,” said Legler. “Actually, now that I think of it, not most successful ones.”
“It doesn’t have to be a holier-than-thou thing,” van der Werff continued. “In a lot of record stores, the clerk has to feel cooler than the customer. That’s just not necessary.”
And it’s not just Warbler Records; it’s Warbler Records & Goods. The goods, and there are many, include well-designed turntables, wooden earbuds, T-shirts emblazoned with Moog synthesizers, and placemats with diagrams indicating which part of the pig to eat. But wait. Formerly Portland-based vinyl dealers with a love for awkwardness, bicycles, and do-it-yourself aesthetics? Mustn’t they be vegetarians?
Van der Werff comes back instantly with the answer: “Oh god, no.”
Warbler Records & Goods is located at 131 East De la Guerra Street. Their grand opening celebration, featuring live music and guest DJs, takes place this Saturday, November 13, from 4-7 p.m. For more information, call 845-5862 or visit warblerrecords.com.