Since opening in 2003, Mississippi Records hasn’t just become one of Portland’s favorite record stores and labels—beloved for its thoughtfully curated selection, it’s the glowing center of a community that celebrates music (and musicians) at the fringes of popular culture. To commemorate its 15th anniversary, a two-part music and film event at the Hollywood Theatre will feature a slideshow of Mississippi Records’ “most entertaining failures” and performances from local legends like Toody Cole, Michael Hurley, and Ural Thomas, along with a set from the Space Lady (who’s possibly the most interesting busker in the world).
The Mercury spoke with founder Eric Isaacson about what’s changed since he opened the store in 2003, what hasn’t, and how he’s continuing to prioritize “love over gold.”
MERCURY: Mississippi Records’ storefront has never had a computer, credit card machine, website, or advertising—what, if anything, has changed since you first opened?
ERIC ISAACSON: The neighborhood around the store has changed dramatically, and that’s definitely affected the clientele. We used to be primarily a local store, catering to people who happened to live within a few blocks of the place. Nowadays 70 percent of our customers are tourists! It’s a pretty dramatic shift. We went from being a local business to a global one. I’ve made my peace with this change and enjoy meeting people from all over the world. I’m honored so many people visit the shop from far off-lands.
The store itself has not changed at all. Even the prices are more or less the same as they were in 2003. We keep every old, weird thing in its place just in case it’s the thing that is holding up the building. (You never know.) We moved the store from the Mississippi Avenue business district to six blocks down the street seven years ago. In the move, we made sure to meticulously take every scrap of paper that was taped to the wall off and put it up in the same place at the new location.
Not taking credit cards has been the only aspect of our store that has really pissed people off. Lots of people storm out in disgust after being confronted with this reality. I still believe that one day everyone is gonna wake up and realize that giving these foul corporations three percent of all our money just so we can buy and sell shit is completely insane. For us folks at the bottom of the economic ladder, three percent can hit hard. I can assure you the keepers of the electronic transaction industry are terrible and do not use their profits for the good of humankind. If people hate me for my obstinance, they can go shop on Amazon.
What are your three favorite records the label has released?
Always near impossible to pick favorites! I’m usually most excited about whatever is new. If you talked to me tomorrow, this list would be completely different. We’ve put out over 230 records, and I dearly love around 105 of those with all my heart. Here’s an arbitrary list:
Michael Hurley, Blue Hills —Michael is one of the greatest songwriters around. This record hits me in the gut every time I hear it. The songs are all of one mood. It’s a therapy record for me.
Dead Moon, The Book —We just put out a two-record set with a 300-page book about Dead Moon. It was a major pain in the ass to make, but now that it’s here I am very proud of it. I believe that Dead Moon are Portland’s most important cultural touchstone, and I am so honored to be involved with their legacy.
Abner Jay, True Story of Abner Jay —This record is the flagship of Mississippi. Abner was making his own records all his life and selling them all over the country out of his trailer that folded out into a stage. I am really proud of this release because it felt like Abner’s spirit hand-guided us through making it just like he would have wanted.
What are some genres/sub-genres you’re passionate about right now?
I stopped thinking of music by genre or geographic location long ago and started categorizing it by emotional tone. A dark and tasteless part of me wants to get rid of the categories in the store and just organize all the records by mood setting. Have a “Sad Sack” section, “Meditative” section, “Angry” section, “Nostalgic” section, and so on. I don’t think this would go over very good. We would be accused of the sin of twee “Keep Portland weird-ism” of the highest order, and the accusation would probably be just, in this case.
If I had to name one genre I am getting deeply involved with these days, it would have to be American soul. I just put together a 10-LP series of double LPs (20 records total, 240 songs) of this music and feel like I could do another 10 volumes after this. It is as deep a well of music as there ever has been. Definitely America’s greatest accomplishment and our best hope of bringing everyone together one day.
Can you explain the origin of Mississippi Records’ “Love Over Gold” motto, and how that continues to affect your approach to the business?
We painted that over the door at the original shop when we first opened. At the time, I was 27 years old and had operated outside mainstream capitalism pretty consistently for my whole life (working minimum wage jobs only and finding ways to live well without a dime in my pocket). Becoming a business owner was terrifying to me. I hated money and all the ugliness that goes with it. I felt like I had to remind myself of where I come from every day to keep me on the path, and so I had my friend Sweet Jimmy T paint “Always - Love Over Gold” above the door. It was there to remind me that I was not allowed to make any decisions in the interest of money over love throughout the day. It is still above the door and I will admit that some days I look up at it and curse it a little bit for all the discomfort and stress it has caused me over the past 15 years.
As cheesy as it may sound, Mississippi Records was started as more of an art project than a business. My original intention was for it to go out of business within six months. I had no goals towards sustainability or any kind of permanence. It still exists despite me and not because of me. The community that formed around it decided it was a good gathering place for diverse voices in a city that lacks spaces that welcome the fringe. I opened the doors and got lucky that all the right folks showed up and decided it was their space and label, too. I suspect the “Love Over Gold” sign helped the store’s cause and gave us something higher than just being a business to aspire too. We’ve toed the line, too! I daresay we have not betrayed the sign yet.