This weekend is full of stuff to do in celebration of the 25th anniversary of Shangri-La, a Memphis institution that has taken on many forms: a "flotation tank emporium," a record store, a welcome center for the world's music pilgrims, a record label, and a film production company.
Along the way, Shangri-La has become a sort-of Morgan Library of bonkers Memphis culture, serving as a touchstone in the days before the internet and the Stax Museum. In the 1990s, it was a place where everybody who wanted to make records went.
The store at 1916 Madison is hosting a weekend-long anniversary throwdown. From Friday through Sunday, November 29th to December 1st, there will be a sale at the shop with everything 25 percent off. There will be live music in the afternoon with Dead Soldiers. Also playing will be Shangri-La employee and Flyer contributor J.D. Reager, who is only one of many in the record-making community to work at the shop. The Grifters will play at Minglewood Hall's 1884 Lounge on the night of Saturday the 30th.
In the late 1980s, during a semester in Pomona, California, Sherman Willmott met Eric Friedl, and the two began publishing a 'zine, in the parlance of the day, called Kreature Comforts. They parted ways, with Friedl going to Boston to work with bands and Willmott famously introducing Memphis to flotation tanks in the shop on Madison. The tanks tanked, but Willmott had another business model in mind.
"As I learned more about Memphis music, it really pointed toward what Ruben Cherry did at Home of the Blues," Willmott said. "Where the Elvis statue is on Beale Street, he had a record shop and a niche-oriented record label that was strictly R&B with people like Willie Mitchell and the 5 Royales. They didn't have to be from Memphis, but most of them were. I'm sure it helped promote his record shop as well as making money as a record label. So I wasn't doing anything new. But it hadn't been done in a long time."
"I was up in Boston and not really doing anything," Friedl said. "So moving to Memphis and working in a record store seemed like a good idea for some reason. Sherman had his flotation-tank business, and even when it was busy, it was dead in there. So, he was into music and started selling records. Sub Pop was taking off, and we got a box of those in and brought some people in. It grew from there. We were selling a bunch of them. There was no other place to get it — maybe Cheapskates at the time. But there was definitely a lack of record stores."
"In the late '80s, there was a big explosion of independent labels, what they later called alternative rock," Willmott said. "There was very little distribution for it in Memphis at the time. Coinciding with that was the local band scene. We wanted to provide a place where people could buy that kind of music, and things just kept growing and exploding in the '90s with indie rock and the resurgence of independent labels here in Memphis."
The store spawned not only its own label but was a hub of activity for one-offs and imprints such as Sugar Ditch Records, started by Andria Lisle and Gina Barker in the early 1990s. Scott Bomar, owner of Electraphonic Recording, also worked in the shop. Friedl left the store in 1995 to start his own label, Goner, which spawned its own store in 2004 and a yearly festival.
"We're proud of Goner because they kind of came out of this," says current Shangri-La owner Jared McStay, who bought the store in 1999 when Willmott became the curator of the Stax Museum of American Soul Music. "We obviously compete with all of these places. But it's friendly competition. I send people to them every day."
Before the internet, the store served as a guidepost for musical travelers who today would go to the Stax Museum.
"That was a very exciting aspect of the store and still is to this day," Willmott said. "I guess it was underground at the time. But there was a niche of music fans who weren't just into Elvis. They were into Charlie Feathers. Or people who now come to the Stax Museum. Back then you couldn't even find [Stax Records]. It was either boarded up or torn down."
"People from all over the world were coming through there," Scott Bomar said. "I'm trying to think of all the crazy people I met. Courtney Love would come in and ask about Alex Chilton. I learned a lot from the people who would come in from all over the world looking for Memphis music."
The tourist market has only grown stronger.
"It's a real big part," McStay said of that market. "Our local customers are our bread and butter, but we've kind of become a tourist destination now. We do well when they come through, and we appreciate them. It's significant."
But the local aspect endures in what is a larger community and economy.
"It was a great time to be here," Friedl said of the local alternative music scene in the '90s. "When I moved down, I didn't know anybody besides Sherman. Everybody came through the store. I ended up in the Oblivians. It was a great way to meet people. The Antenna was rocking."
"Shangri-La was the epicenter," Bomar said. "It was like going to the library before the internet. That was where you had to go to find out what was going on."