Inside The New Sub Pop Record Store At Seattle-Tacoma Airport

“Hey, hey, hey! Hello and welcome to Seatte-Tacoma International Airport!” says Quincy Jones, prerecorded and played back over the airport’s overhead announcement system. Linger inside long enough and you’ll hear Jerry Cantrell announce that smoking is not allowed (“Major bummer, dude”) and Ben Gibbard encourage travelers to connect to SeaTac’s free WiFi.
As of yesterday, you can take Gibbard home with you from the airport — on vinyl, at least. The Sub Pop Record Store opened at SeaTac’s Concourse C, next door to the Exofficio store and across from a Starbucks. It’s not the first of its kind — Waterloo Records has operated a shop at the airport in Austin, TX for years and in the 1960s Motown founder Berry Gordy opened the original label-owned brick-and-mortar store in Detroit. It is, however, the best-smelling — thanks to that new record store scent.
“When I rolled up the doors at 6AM people started applauding,” said a perfectly coiffed Mark Pickerel. Dressed in a black vintage suit and red pearl-button shirt, Pickerel, a solo artist who also played drums for early Sub Pop signees Screaming Trees, is the store’s senior assistant manager.
The pre-dawn opening is one of many concessions made to the SeaTac merchants’ code — every outlet opens at 6 and closes at 10 PM. All the store’s merchandise is inspected by the TSA and each employee has been vetted for security clearance. Despite the unusual hurdles, the store seemed bound for success on opening day.
“The first sale was a classic Sub Pop baseball cap” bought by an airport security guy, Pickerel said. “The first record I sold was Father John Misty. And I sold Nirvana Bleach about 20 minutes ago.”
The 1,768-square-foot shop occupies the space vacated by Borders Books (ironic?). The front portion is a neatly displayed explosion of wildly diverse Sub Pop-branded merch: standard T-shirts, hoodies and hats plus never-seen-before, upscale travel-oriented items like Sub Pop neck pillows, Sub Pop flasks, Sub Pop canvas luggage, Sub Pop lap blankets…
“All this stuff is exclusive to the airport,” said Jeff Kleinsmith, one of the label’s principal designers for more than 20 years. “We’ve never offered this stuff before. It’s all new.”
“We didn’t wanna just slap our logo on a bunch of crap,” said Kleinsmith’s design partner Sasha Barr. “We wanted to branch out to things that represent not just the label but the Northwest. Stuff that people who are just casual passers-by could be into, who wanna get something that reminds them of Seattle, not necessarily just Sub Pop.” Hence the Sub Pop coffee beans, custom roasted by Lighthouse Coffee in Fremont (reportedly Dave Matthews’ favorite coffee spot), the Sub Pop chocolate bar and the Sub Pop decorative dinner plate. 
The back of the space houses the record store, emphasis on records: Dozens of albums set into recessed shelves looked like a well-lit mosaic. In addition to recent Sub Pop releases, the store stocks vinyl by other Northwest labels like Light in the Attic, K and Barsuk. (Noted as well were Macklemore’s debut album and Built to Spill’s Keep It Like A Secret.) Books and DVDs lined an adjacent wall, stacked above Vestax turntables. Meaning yes, you can buy fresh vinyl and a brand-new record player before your flight. Islanding the center of the space is a carved wooden bench and a pair of iPad-operated listening stations complete with custom-made headphones.
“The idea was to make it a little social back there, where you could just sit and have a listening station like at any record store,” said Andrew Sullivan, bassist for Seattle band Unnatural Helpers and Sub Pop’s head of IT. “If I was in an airport and saw this I’d go have a seat and listen to some music.”
Or perhaps stand around and catch a live performance. After his album-release show and gallery opening the night before, Chad Vangaalen was airport-bound on Thursday. He arrived a few hours early to play a short set next to the flight information board outside the store.
“Congratulations to you guys. This is a pretty surreal experience for me,” he said to the crowd of 50 or so Sub Pop and SeaTac staffers, as well as an audience of curious gawkers. His flight back home to Calgary was at 3.
After ceremonially cutting the ribbon, Sub Pop founder Jonathan Poneman said that the SeaTac store idea was a long time coming facilitated by the Seattle Music Commission and its initiative to integrate local music into public areas. The Music Commission was also responsible for the PSAs by Gibbard, Jones and about 40 more Seattle musicians, plus the stream of 400-some songs by the same. Poneman’s favorite item in the store? A T-shirt emblazoned with a map of the US that has a “disproportionately huge” Washington state outlined. “That kind of says it all,” he said.
And if it didn’t, the logo emblazoned above the Sub Pop sign above the store entrance encapsulated the auspicious occasion: Spanning The Globe For Profit. Sub Pop has always had a knack for disguising business savvy as blind luck and ineptitude for punk-rock ethos. Tongue in cheek or not, now that the label has a home in a major international airport, Sub Pop is that much closer to world domination.