Story/photos by Chris Ayers.
A Salt Lake music store that sells heavy-metal/hard rock music exclusively, and is a local business? Sounds like a recipe for disaster in 2015. But these obstacles have not stopped Kevin Kirk, who has been the sole owner of The Heavy Metal Shop and has been “Peddlin’ Evil Since 1987!”.
Although a fan of many music genres, harder and heavier music has a special place in Kirk’s heart. Kirk likes a wide variety of music, but the most popular genres at the time he opened his first store (The CD Shop) in 1986, such as jazz and new age, were not his shot of whisky. “I’d rather know about everything I sell,” he said. In 1987, he changed the direction of his shop and rebranded. The Heavy Metal Shop was born.
Living in an age of digital and piracy makes survival difficult for music stores, especially local music stores selling specific genres of music. In 1994, Kirk ordered 1,000 copies of Slayer’s “Divine Intervention” and sold them all in a matter of weeks. Today, he would be lucky to sell at least 50 copies of any big band’s release. Kirk doesn’t dwell on what should’ve been done to combat piracy: “I think it’s too late to fix that problem!” he laughs. Although still a record store at heart, Kirk followed the lead of many famous bands whose record sales have slowed down: merchandising.
The classic skull logo came from a former customer from The CD Shop. Not knowing much about heavy metal (Kirk payed him with old jazz CDs), the illustrator originally drew half a record as part of the logo, which was a great idea—for a normal record store. After hearing Kirk’s feedback, he changed it to the half-skull logo we now know today.
Kirk sold store t-shirts to his customers, like other businesses. Except most businesses don’t have their merchandise worn by famous bands and musicians. Tom Araya and Jeff Hanneman of Slayer, the pioneers of thrash-metal were among the first to wear THMS shirts, and the store’s phone line was flooded with orders after Araya represented the shop on the cover of the September 1991 issue of “Kerrang.” The increasing popularity of the logo ended up creating an entire line of merchandising such as hats, coffee mugs, sweatshirts and sweatpants, patches, and even booty shorts; none of which Kirk ever planned on.
Perhaps the biggest metal celebrity to wear the store’s shirt is Kirk’s favorite musician of all time: Alice Cooper. Kirk first met Cooper when he came into his shop in ’87, and met him again in ’91 during the “Operation Rock ‘N’ Roll” tour with Judas Priest and Motörhead. Cooper casually mentioned that he wore a t-shirt with the store’s logo during an interview with KUTV. Kirk contacted the news immediately after the concert and got a recording of it. “That was probably one of the biggest thrills, you know, in all the years I’ve been in business; just having him do that… that was really cool.” Cooper continues to wear the shirt and sees many of his fans in the audience wearing the shirts as well.
“Metal people are real loyal to their bands and it seems like they’re loyal to me too,” Kirk said about the die-hard loyalty of metal heads (some of Slayer’s fans are crazy enough to carve the band’s logo in their body). Customers that have been around since the beginning of the store still come in to buy the latest album releases; a tradition that is passed down to their children as well. No doubt a factor that has helped keep THMS in business.
Despite being smaller than a gas station convenience store, there is just enough room for a small gig. The original Heavy Metal Shop was a combination of a record store with a small venue in the back. “I’d have ‘Open for bizand then the back room would be for shows. And then when I moved to Sugar House we started doing a lot of in-stores with bands where they would do signings…” Having a band already in his store? Might as well have them play their music there live too. After the landlord sold the property, and the new owners tore the building down, Kirk relocated to where the shop has stood since 2001. Moving to 63 Exchange Place, the heart of downtown Salt Lake, turned out to be a blessing in disguise. He again built a small stage and continues to have local groups perform a short concert for people and sell their records. “It’s funny how that works, because things come back around.”
Cooper is not the only musical god that Kirk met because of his store. When asked who he hasn’t met, he had to actually think about it. “Uh… God, you know, I’ve met most of my heroes. I’ve met Iggy Pop, Alice and Ozzy [Osbourne, known as “The Godfather of Heavy-Metal”], [Ronnie James] Dio… I haven’t met Tony Iommi… that would be pretty awesome… I can’t really think of anyone else.” That dream might become a reality when Black Sabbath visits USANA Amphitheater in September 2016 on their “The End” tour. Slayer, Lemmy of Motörhead, and the late great Dimebag Darrell of Pantera and Damageplan are also on the list of Kirk’s heroes he has met. Having the actual “Metal God” Rob Halford visit his store also makes his list of “biggest thrills.”
The spirit of record stores will always live on. Those who are “old school” will continue to shop there and will make it a tradition for their offspring to go there as well. Owning a piece of merchandise is a great conversation starter for some, and because it’s free advertising many will give the shop a visit. And with a record store that plays live concerts for local bands, The Heavy Metal Shop will, no doubt, continue to thrive for many more years to come.