Local record shop shines bright in the community
Upon entering the quaint Urban Lights Music (ULM) record store on a bright and sunny day, an uplifting gospel track titled “Better Days” by Le’Andria Johnson played in the background. An aroma of fresh incense lingered throughout the atmosphere.
Local entrepreneur Timothy Wilson is the owner of the store, located in the Hamline-Midway neighborhood along University Avenue in St. Paul. The business is known as the only Black-owned record store in the Twin Cities.
Wilson and his friends put their money together to acquire the business in 1993. “It was originally called Northern Lights; we purchased the store—changed it to Urban Lights because we wanted to be just a light in the urban community, in the neighborhood,” Wilson said.
Before the ULM dream came into fruition, Wilson had long aspired to have a record store. “I was always a DJ. I became a DJ in the 9th grade—got really good; DJ’d everywhere in the city. We were at First Avenue at 15 years old, had no business being at First Avenue,” he recalled. KMOJ’s Ray Seville taught Wilson and his friends how to DJ.
Wilson added, “My locker at school was really a record store.” Classmates would come to his locker, make requests and purchase signature cassette tapes. “It kind of started from there.”
When customers shop at ULM, they can expect exceptional customer service and a wealth of music ranging from R&B, hip hop, rap, smooth jazz, and soul. Wilson emphasized how the ULM is more than a record shop, it’s an experience. “I’ve had people come in shoot music videos, photoshoots. I’ve had somebody do their wedding photos here,” Wilson said.
The shop has an intriguing collage of posters placed on the walls that showcase a myriad of famous entertainers in the music industry. “I just love music,” Wilson said. “Honestly, this is what my bedroom used to look like.” He always wanted a store that looked like his bedroom, so he successfully implemented the concept.
ULM is known for “customer service, longevity and we’re really good people to deal with,” Wilson said. Their reputable business created a buzz in the music industry. As a result, a lot of famous entertainers have visited the store. “Everyone from Beyoncé to Jay Z, 50 Cent, Jill Scott,” Wilson said.
The record shop boasts an exceptional inventory. Customers can purchase CDs, vinyls, unique merchandise, t-shirts, and customized items. The price range is from $3-$50. Wilson said that vinyl is the most popular item.
But the record shop offers more than music. “Recently this has become a creation space. We do open mic every month,” Wilson said. ULM created a platform for artists to gain support. They’ve hosted an array of events at the store: fader DJ battle, open mic, poetry, spoken word, and pop-up shops geared toward supporting local Black-owned businesses.
ULM is committed to providing a platform for artists, singers, musicians, DJs, and entrepreneurs. “A lot of artists have been through here signing autographs, hanging out—we have pictures of those who came through,” said Wilson.
Although Wilson has met many influential figures throughout the music industry, he said, “The person that inspired me the most was George Daniels in Chicago; he owned George’s Music Group—the biggest record store in the United States.” Wilson explained that when he joined the Black Music Coalition and started traveling to events, Daniels was the one to “pull him aside” and provide invaluable information.
Furthermore, ULM record shop is a thriving enterprise despite challenges associated with the COVID-19 pandemic and civil unrest. “They tried to pull us under with the one-two punch. No assistance from any loans,” Wilson lamented. But he remains optimistic and the business is resilient.
Wilson measures success based on “the feeling that I get from making people happy. Music has the power to change your day and put you in a different space, and that really motivates me every day,” Wilson said.
He has another company called Urban World Management. Roberta Ryan is his business partner. “We got this opportunity through the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, through Tyrize Cox, to put a recording studio in Powderhorn Park with the sole purpose to teach youth,” Wilson shared.
The Creative Arts Studio will be hosted at Powderhorn Park in South Minneapolis from Monday to Thursday, for ages 12-20. Registration is online via MPRB website and space is limited.
Wilson shared advice for youth, future entrepreneurs: “Stay creative. If you come up with a good idea, don’t be afraid to fail—get out there and do it.” He added, “I think it’s so important for people to have their own businesses.”
Urban Lights Music is located at 1449 University Ave. W. in St. Paul. Hours of operation are from Monday to Saturday, 10 am and 6 pm. Find more info by visiting Urban Lights Music on Facebook or by calling 651-647-9650.
Ashley Lauren is a contributing writer at the MN Spokesman-Recorder.