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Love, Life and Yellow Vinyl

A person holds up a bright yellow record to the camera. It's a copy of Elton John's "Goodbye Yellow Road."
David Dudley
/
Wyoming Public Radio
A rare edition of Elton John's "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road."

Mom-and-pop shops across the U.S. have been hit with a one-two punch from online services like Amazon and closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While the economy shows signs of improvement, one in five small businesses fail within a year of opening. And half shutter within five years, according to a report by Forbes.

In Wyoming, 3,239 small businesses opened across the state between March 2021 and 2022. During that time, 2,433 others closed. While some economists say that's a positive trend — it's a net increase of 796 new businesses — the owners and employees of the businesses that went under may feel differently.

But those numbers didn't stop Chuck and Kay Bybee, partners in marriage and business, from fulfilling their dream of owning a record shop.

The Bybees' dream came true last year when they bought Downtown Vinyl in Cheyenne, where former owner Don McKee sold vintage records and books for 18 years.

Two people laugh together surrounded by records and tapes.
David Dudley
/
Wyoming Public Radio
Chuck (left) and Kay Bybee bought Downtown Vinyl in Sept. 2023, fulfilling Kay's lifelong dream of owning a record shop.

“Open Arms”

But before we get into that, let's rewind to Morrill, Nebraska, 1983. It's prom night at Morrill High School. Chuck and Kay danced to many songs that night, but only one remains in their collective memory: "Open Arms" by Journey.

The teenagers had fallen in love. Even then, Kay knew she wanted to own a record shop. She shared her passion for records, and music, with Chuck.

"She really opened my eyes to a lot of different things," said Chuck. "I was more just all country at that time. And then she opened my eyes."

They married after graduating high school. Chuck joined the U.S. Air Force and was trained to do body work on helicopters. Kay went to work as a secretary at F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne.

Kay's dream of owning a record shop would have to wait.

Records stacked on shelves.
David Dudley
/
Wyoming Public Media
A random selection of records on the shelves of Downtown Vinyl in Cheyenne.

“Thunderstruck”

Fast forward to 1990, when Chuck was deployed to Desert Storm. That was during the Walkman era, and he had only a few cassettes with him.

One day, as he was preparing to enter the war zone, he played a song that still conjures memories of that time in his life.

"We were waiting in what was called the neutral zone, we were gonna get ready to go into Iraq," Chuck said. "As we were getting ready to leave, I started playing AC/DC's 'Thunderstruck.' So, every time 'Thunderstruck' comes on it takes me right back there."

Kay says that they were apart for much of that year, and the years that followed, as Chuck was deployed to various war zones in the Middle East. They went up to six months at a time without seeing one another.

"It was hard," said Kay. "He wasn't very good at keeping track of the time difference, and he didn't always have access to a phone."

Even when he did, things could go wrong quickly.

"I remember getting a call from him one night around midnight," said Kay. "Not long after we got on the phone, he said, 'Oh, shit.' The line went dead, and I didn't hear from him again for a while. I didn't even know if he was okay."

Kay learned later that he had called from an airport in Kuwait. Not five minutes into the call, missiles struck the facility, forcing Chuck to take cover before evacuating.

A stack of 8tracks.
David Dudley
/
Wyoming Public Media
The Bybees sell more than records. They also have 8-tracks, cassette tapes, CDs and audio equipment.

“Runner”

The Bybees spent the next 30 years working, traveling and collecting vinyl. They were looking for a place to settle into retirement when, last year, the longtime owner of Downtown Vinyl, Don McKee, asked Kay if she'd like to buy the store.

She knew it well, as the Bybees were among McKee's best customers. Downtown Vinyl had been an institution in Cheyenne’s music scene for nearly two decades, a staple for rare records. They loved the store, and saw a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

"It's always been her dream,” said Chuck. "When does a person actually get to live their dream? So, I'm like, 'Oh, absolutely, absolutely.' You know, we're going to do this."

McKee announced his retirement and Chuck and Kay's new ownership in a Facebook post that drew waves of appreciation from the community.

Today, Chuck says that Manfred Mann's "Runner" captures the spirit of this time in their lives.

"It's about your whole life, you know?" Chuck said. "It's running your race, and then passing on the flame."

McKee had passed the torch. Now, Kay strives to keep it lit. Each day when she opens the shop, Kay says she's living her dream.

But it's not without risk. She knows that consumers can find almost any record on Amazon. She knows the grim stats about small businesses. But she learned something new, too.

"It was scary," said Kay. "It really was. You just kind of hope that people want to buy local. And, I think the best thing for us is, people do want to buy local."

A man holds a record up to the camera. A woman next to him looks through a stack of records.
David Dudley
/
Wyoming Public Media

“Funeral For a Friend”

The Bybees have over 9,000 records between them, so they’re never short on stock. Kay opened the shop early on a recent Tuesday morning. She sorted and priced a 1,500-record haul that Chuck brought in the previous week.

The Bybees say that business is up and down.

"One day, we're breaking our sales records," said Chuck. "Another, we don't have a single customer."

The Bybees said that, though the dream has come true, they're grounded in reality.

"We'll do this for five years or so, and see where we land," said Chuck.

No matter what happens with the business, they've got their music and their beloved records.

When asked what her favorite record in the shop is, Kay pulled a U.K. version of Elton John's "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" from a sleeve.

It was pressed on vibrant yellow vinyl. When asked about her favorite song, Kay paused.

"Oh, that's a toughie," she said. "I think, honestly, 'Funeral For a Friend.' It's not one that's played very much, but it's just a – I don't know. It kinda speaks to me."

Kay added that when she dies, she hopes someone will play "Funeral For a Friend" for her, "and play it loud!"

Chuck carefully placed the record on the turntable. He pressed play. The arm hovered over the yellow vinyl, then dropped slowly. The needle slid into its groove as the record spun round and round. Kay closed her eyes, listening, as she waited for the first customer of the day to walk through the door.

David Dudley is an award-winning journalist who has written for The Guardian, The Christian Science Monitor, High Country News, WyoFile, and the Wyoming Truth, among many others. David was a Guggenheim Crime in America Fellow at John Jay College from 2020-2023. During the past 10 years, David has covered city and state government, business, economics and public safety beats for various publications. He lives in Cheyenne with his family.
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