Sugar Shack Records to close in April

The Atwood Avenue shop is the latest Madison record store to face displacement.

The Atwood Avenue shop is the latest Madison record store to face displacement.

Photo: Sugar Shack Records owner Gary John Feest works the store’s counter. In the background, B-Side owner Steve Manley can be seen browsing through a crate of LPs. Photos by Andy Moore.

After 41 years and six Madison locations, Sugar Shack Records on Atwood Avenue will close its doors for the last time at the end of April. That is if there’s no buyer for the business. We’ll get to that in a minute. 

Owner Gary John Feest’s decision to close, he says, “wasn’t really mine.” The store’s landlord called Feest last September to say the building, at 2301 Atwood Ave., was for sale. Soon thereafter, realtors appeared in the store, showing prospective buyers around the space to the sounds of Miles Davis and Dave Brubeck. In January, the building owner accepted an offer and told Feest to pack up and move out by April 30. There’s talk of the storefront becoming a wine shop.

“I kind of figured it would be coming sooner rather than later,” the soon-to-be-70-year-old Feest says. “I’m kind of resolved, but it’s also bittersweet.”

Go into Sugar Shack and you enter a space that looks like it’s run by a hoarder with an organization fetish. Feest (who also does sales online) oversees a playhouse of media. LPs, CDs, audio cassettes. You want a movie on VHS? You get one free for a purchase of over $10.00. 

Business was steady this past Sunday afternoon. The store was brightly lit by sunshine pouring through the plate glass. A couple customers browsed and then approached the counter with LPs. One guy bought several albums for his father’s birthday. I did a double take upon entering. There, behind the counter, Feest was joined by B-Side Records owner Steve Manley, creating a picture of Madison record-store royalty. 

Steve Manley, left, and Gary John Feest pose together for a photo at Sugar Shack Records.

Landlords appear to be the kryptonite of record stores. Coincidental to Feest’s situation, Manley, too, is facing an ouster from his B-Side location on State Street, to make way for a new mixed-use development. If the development goes forward, B-Side would be displaced just ahead of its own 40th anniversary. Unlike Feest, Manley intends to move his inventory to a new location. I asked the record-store veterans why anyone would be crazy enough to get into the business in the first place. 

“Ever since I was a kid, I collected records from paper route money and I would hang out at record stores,” says Manley. “I’d just hang out and talk with the owners and I just loved everything about records and music.” Manley says record collecting and trading became an obsession: “I have kind of a collector mentality anyway. Getting into a record store… it was a dream and it magically worked out to not only work in one, but to eventually own one.”

Like Manley, Feest says records were a pre-occupation before they became an occupation. And, like his counterpart at B-Side, Feest began buying albums as a boy with paper route earnings. Feest earned a degree in Agronomy at UW-Madison. After college, he took a job working with a departmental professor. 

“I hated the job with a passion and my favorite part of every day was stopping at the used record store on the way home,” Feest says. One day Feest came home with a large armful of LPs. Bob Dylan records. His wife Susie yelled at him: “What do you think you’re doing spending all this money on records?” Feest recalls: “So I decided one way I can buy a bunch of records and she can’t yell at me is by having a record store.”

Feest, who has a mischievous cat-that-ate-the-canary-smile, actually dims a bit when asked what life will be like without the shop. What will he miss? He sighs. “I’ll miss people being excited to hear something that I’m playing or having them find something they’ve been looking for for a long time,” he says. “That’s always been great.”

But after six moves, Feest says he’s just too old to do it again. “I’m either just gonna have to sell what I can and go out of business or find somebody else to buy it and open it somewhere else,” he says.

Which brings us to the scenario of a what-if buyer for the Sugar Shack business. A lock, stock, and barrel purchase and new location is not completely outside the realm of possibility. “There’s too much here to just disappear,” Manley says, sweeping his arm across the front room. The two emphasized that it’s just talk now, but admit that maybe between the two of them they can figure out a way for Sugar Shack to live on into its fourth decade. They both know the love of the business and have never taken their occupation for granted. 

Manley laughs. “I’ve never once said, ‘oh damn. I have to work at the record store today.'”

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