By. Caitlin Leiker
Sisters Leah Cunnick and Sarah Cunnick first opened Sisters of Sound Record Store in 2004 in Manhattan, Kan. “Independent Music for Independent People” is plastered on the A-frame sign that stands outside their front door in the Aggieville shopping district. The two love to host live bands in the corner of their 1,200 sqft shop, in a cramped fashion reminiscent of NPR’s “Tiny Desk” series.
As of June 2023, there are just over 1,900 brick-and-mortar record stores in the United States. Less than 1% of them are owned and operated by women. Nowadays, Sarah manages most of the weekly duties at the shop while Leah takes care of their 94-year-old mother full-time in their hometown of McPherson, Kan.
Sarah and Leah, being the youngest of eight children, were heavily influenced by their siblings’ tastes in genres.
“There was always music and records being played in the house,” Sarah said. “Upstairs, my brothers would play The Beatles and The Doors. My oldest brother was always into jazz and spoken word poetry, and Paul was always into rock in the ‘70s and ‘80s. When Paul came up here to go to school in ‘79, he started working at the college radio station, and that’s where he learned about Depeche Mode, The Sugarcubes, and Julian Cope.”
As kids, Leah and Sarah hauled Paul’s two turntables, mixer, and several large crates of records to his DJ gigs through the ‘80s. To this day, they use one of his turntables in the shop to play records over the loudspeakers.
“He taught me and my sister—and pretty much anybody else who wanted to know—how to clean your records and keep them going, how to queue up an album…because this is a technique,” Sarah said.
While Sarah attended Kansas State University (K-State), she worked at Streetside in Aggieville until the store closed in 2001. The old building now houses a Buffalo Wild Wings. Some of the young Streetside employees tried to organize a new shop, but their plans kept falling through.
One late-night hang out and a few adult beverages later, a lightbulb went off in the sisters’ heads.
Sarah reenacts their moment on the couch with a laugh, slurring her words: “I was like, ‘Do you wanna open a record store with me?’ And Leah said, ‘I thought you’d never ask! I already have a name for us—Sisters of Sound.” She also said she chose the name for its acronym, ‘SOS,’ as if the town was crying for help after Streetside closed.
The way Leah sees it, a town without a music store or local music scene is “like cutting an art or music department out of a grade school, or a junior high, or a high school.”
“It takes a toll on those kids, and it takes a toll on the community, too,” she said. “It’s just another part of culture.”
So, the two went looking for a location and stumbled upon an empty brick building by an alley, at the very end of a breezeway, nearly hidden from the well-beaten paths of Aggieville. As they approached one of the large windows, Sarah recalls having to squint at a tiny sticky note taped to the inside of the glass, with “building for rent” scrawled in miniscule letters.
Sisters of Sound officially opened in December 2004. Sarah refers to that time as part of “the lean years,” when she and Leah both worked two jobs to acquire the shop and pay its rent. Around 2009, Sarah took on the store full-time, which she and Leah now call “the retirement plan,” occasionally claiming records for “the 401k” that is their personal vinyl collection.
Their checkout counter, racks, end caps, and other odd pieces were inherited from Streetside Records, as well as an amalgamation of furniture and storage from the local library, a sewing shop, and other Manhattan businesses that were closing. Whatever they couldn’t get for free or for cheap, they built themselves with their family.
Most of the employees at Sisters of Sound are actually volunteers. The store also accommodates a couple internship positions for Manhattan high school students. Paige Shurtz was their most recent intern in the fall. Her favorite part of the store is the sense of creative freedom from the people who work there.
“It just brings so much positive energy to Aggieville,” Shurtz said.
Her obsession with vinyl started when she was 13 years old. Since then, she’s collected nearly every Queen album they’ve ever made. Whether music is experienced through live concerts, streaming platforms, or physical formats, Shurtz believes that everyone’s personal connection to it can bring a community together.
“You can listen to any type of music with any type of emotion,” Shurtz said. “It’s so versatile, and I like that.
Forms of physical music—namely records—are seeing a resurgence with younger audiences. Vinyl sales have increased at a steady rate for 18 consecutive years, with the U.S. reaching $1.2 billion in 2022 alone. Industry analysis company MusicWatch reported that 47.5% of those 2022 vinyl purchases were made by 13 to 25 year olds.
However, despite the steady increase in sales for so many years, over 3,000 independent record stores have closed permanently in the last decade. Competition with the digital music age is a common attribution for this, but many owners simply can’t afford to pay their buildings’ inflated rent, which has doubled or even tripled for some in the last year.
Music stores used to be one of the only sources for new albums, but today’s popular artists can now sell their vinyl releases directly from their own branded websites and social media. What’s more, brick-and-mortar indie shops are now directly competing with big-box stores like Walmart and Target for vinyl sales, as well as behemoth online marketplaces like Amazon and Ebay.
Sarah remains confident that “most of those kids working the counter at Target have no idea what they’re talking about” when it comes to the long-lasting care of records and equipment. She believes indie record stores provide a unique collaborative experience between store owners and customers— something that simply can’t be found in a corporate environment.
Sisters of Sound, like many other record stores, maintains $1, $2, and $5 bins to make vinyl more financially accessible for young enthusiasts.
“This is the experience I had in the 90s, hunting for records, and I want the kids now to have that same experience,” she said. “Take a shot at it…Never underestimate the power of the record cleaning kit and the dollar bins.”
For vinyl newbies looking to collect, Sarah’s advice is to start asking relatives or friends if they have the basic equipment: just a turntable and a speaker or two. She warns against buying the first shiny, aesthetic thing you see.
While newer models of classic-looking equipment are inexpensive, they are made from cheap materials. They are not built to last like the hand-me-downs from the 1970s and ‘80s that have withstood decades and have remained in good condition.
Sisters of Sound is home to many loyal regulars who’ve also withstood the test of time. Michael Whitener lives at Big Lakes in Manhattan, a private nonprofit organization serving individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities in Riley, Geary, Clay and Pottawatomie counties in Kansas.
Whitener became a good friend to the Cunnicks when he frequented Streetside Records through the ‘90s. He continues to grow his vinyl and CD collection when he visits Sisters of Sound nearly every week. With an affinity for death metal and classic hair bands like Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, and Mötley Crüe, he’d always ask, “Do you have anything with heads on it, or blood, or axes and stuff?” This led to Leah and Sarah affectionately dubbing him “Metalhead Mike.”
“We had nicknames for everyone— whatever they looked for or did a lot of, that ended up being their name,” Sarah said.
Streetside also knew Whitener as “Mike Nickels” because he paid for all of his purchases with change— as he still does today.
“We found out he did that because he wanted to connect with people,” Sarah said. “It wasn’t an in-and-out thing. He would get paid at his job…and before he would come to Streetside, he would go to the pizza place, give them a $20 bill, and ask for all coins. If we were counting out change, he was there talking to us a lot longer.”
It became a tradition that everyone who started working at Streetside had to help Whitener out at least one time.
“We love him,” Leah said. “He’s great at teaching what actual service is. We get a full range of customers. We’ve helped four-year-olds buy their first record before. That’s part of the community thing. You can balance just about anyone if you can really help Mike.”
The sisters’ warm welcome to all has made Dean Kinderknect feel appreciated ever since he started working for them about a year ago.
“You can be as weird as you want in our store, as long as you’re respectful to everybody,” Leah said. “That means a lot to me. I’ve always felt weird or uncomfortable all through school…If you want to be you, come in and we’re happy to hang out. But if you start coming in and spreading hate…we’ll shove you out the door with a hockey stick,” she added with a laugh.
When Kinderknecht isn’t cataloging inventory online for the store, he volunteers at True Colors, a nonprofit youth center located in Manhattan that provides direct services, advocacy, and education in support of LGBTQ+ youth.
While getting a piercing at Catalyst from shop owner John Fitzgerald, Kinderknect jokingly complained about how all of the True Colors kids wanted to work at the record store.
He recounted what Fitzgerald told him: “It’s probably because you work there. You are very openly yourself, you’re very openly neurodivergent, you’re very openly queer, and they see you work there and that you’re okay. They know that if you are accepted there, they will be accepted there.”
Thanks to Sisters of Sound, Kinderknecht has been able to connect with people from all backgrounds.
“If you want to meet the people you like, go to the places you like,” Kinderknecht said. “I’ve learned not to judge people— especially not people who come into record stores.”
Repair technician Eric Gudenkauf is one of the longer-standing employees at the store, working there for six years. He’s known Sarah since 2010, back when he was studying archaeology at K-State.
“He’s become a huge part of the shop,” Sarah said. “Especially with me leaving town so much and Mom getting older.”
Gudenkauf said that his increased duties at the store simply feel like taking care of family. “Sarah is a person who helps everybody,” he said. “I really wanted to do that for her. She’s always been good to me…she helped me get out of a dark place.”
Building tight-knit families on the basis of music is the foundation of Sisters of Sound. The same value traces back to the sisters’ days spent at Streetside in their college years.
“We knew if we could recreate that atmosphere with our shop, we would be okay,” Leah said.
Streetside wasn’t just about selling music—the building itself was considered “the music scene” in Manhattan before Sisters of Sound was even a thought. Sarah called it “a catalyst in their lives” that taught her and Leah how to roll with the changes and have a sense of humor, especially about the music industry.
“Streetside was the glue,” Sarah said. “The people we worked with there, met there…many of us still stay in touch. We organize reunions, and live music is almost always involved. We support each other if we need it. Streetside is no longer here, but The Sisters are!”