The idea of a store specializing in punk and metal accoutrements might conjure images of tough dudes wearing leather or a surly, unwelcoming atmosphere. But St. Louis' only punk, rock and metal boutique, Tension Head (www.tensionhead.net), is about as far from alienating as one can get. Located at 2619 Cherokee Street, a block west of Jefferson Avenue, it anchors that area's triangle of fiercely DIY underground rock meccas, along with Radio Cherokee (at 3227 Cherokee) and the Slaughterhouse (at 3343 Texas Avenue).
Walk inside, and the atmosphere immediately feels comforting, like an after-school basement hangout with all of the coolest decorations and toys. A well-loved black-leopard-print couch, board games and reading material sit just to the left of the entrance. Band T-shirts hang on the walls next to an eclectic poster collection and rows of colorful vinyl sleeves, with vintage jeans and jackets adding color to the back of the store. An island table holds the store's CD inventory (all new copies, matching owner Sheri Ford's desire to support bands) with badges, studded belts and other trinkets for sale near the door.
But it's Ford herself with her outgoing personality and passion for the store, the customers and the neighborhood who truly makes Tension Head such an inviting place. In fact, it's her hope that the store becomes a hang-out and, in the process, unites the disparate factions of the St. Louis music scene.
"There's so much going on, but it's so separated," Ford says. "We need to bring it together and have a meeting spot. That's one thing the store has been really good at. We've had a lot of introductions done that should have been made years ago, finally because there is a central meeting spot where people are relaxed and hanging out. It doesn't seem like that happens very much in St. Louis, that there are meeting spots, or hang-out spots, especially for all ages."
So far, so good: Ford's shop has become a place for neighborhood kids who might need somewhere to go to alleviate boredom or stay out of trouble. On an unusually warm January day, one such teen, Jeremy who clutches a skateboard as he drowns in an oversize black hoodie waves at Ford through the store window, then stops in to say hello and grab a hug. Ford asks Jeremy about his homework assignment (it's due the next day) and offers to help him with it, but the lure of the sunshine is too strong, and he departs.
As evidenced by her encounter with Jeremy, Ford's demeanor often goes into mother-mode. She expresses worry over teens who are skipping school or who might need extra nudges to take steps to achieve their dreams (even as her red-streaked hair and kicky wingtips reveal a kinship with these youth). But she's had plenty of practice as a nurturer: A former accessories buyer at Vintage Vinyl, Ford says she used to love to hang out and talk to kids who came into that store a practice vital to the modus operandi of Tension Head.
"That's totally the vibe I wanted in the store from day one," she says. "It's like, 'OK, you can come in and hang out. You don't have to buy stuff.' Well, of course, I'd like it if people buy stuff; that'll help keep lights on," Ford laughs. "[But] it is welcoming and inviting, because I feel like there are so many stores that weren't welcoming and inviting, especially to teenagers."
The other secret to Tension Head's so-far success is that Ford listens to what her customers want; items by the Bad Brains are some of its biggest sellers, while paraphernalia from Queens of the Stone Age, the Makers, Crimson Sweet, the Bellrays, the Stooges, Misfits, Turbonegro, Nebula and Buzzcocks is prominently displayed.
"If you just come into the store going, 'OK, I know I'm going to find something cool,' then you're going to find a ton of stuff," Ford says. "It's more about discovery than agendas. We're not about agendas here."
Indeed, the store contains musical curveballs (a Hank Williams shirt, perhaps?) and prides itself on stocking obscurities: limited-edition vinyl (a staple of popular underground labels such as Southern Lord and Hydra Head; currently for sale is a special 2-LP set by Sunn0))), cult stoner-rock sculptors) and releases by lesser-known labels (such as Six Weeks Records, a label focusing on underground punk, grind and hardcore). Occasional in-store performances and giveaways will begin soon the first is April 6 with Earthride, who play later that night at the Way Out Club and there's also a new zine library, christened the "South Side Education" section. (And while not for sale, the impressive binder of photocopied flyers from punk and metal shows of yore is definitely worth a look who knew Sonic Youth's Evol tour stopped at Mississippi Nights?)
Just as important to Ford, though, is that local element. Area musicians are well-represented via show flyers, albums for sale and even chances to plug in and play. The store's grand-opening celebration in November featured performances from the Vultures, LoFreq (drummer Gary, Ford's boyfriend, is another store regular), Eating Rats and Bug.
"We need to break down the cliques, bring everybody together and have that support for the St. Louis music scene," Ford says. "Not for the rockabilly scene or the garage scene or the metal scene or the hardcore scene. But have it just for the St. Louis music scene. If there's any way that the store can help in that, then it's worth it."
While days with few customers bum Ford out, it's clear that her desire to fill a vacant niche in the music community and to have something of her own has made her incredibly happy. When asked what the best part is about opening the store, Ford immediately responds that it's flipping the "closed" sign to "open" every day. She stops herself, apologizing because she's afraid she might cry; a glassy glaze over her eyes seems to confirm that.
"It's the people, that's the best thing," Ford adds later. "From having the Slaughterhouse guys come in, or Eating Rats, having them come in and hang out for hours on a Sunday watching The Young Ones with me. It's people who come in out of the blue and then come back and donate stuff for me to sell. There have been people who have worked so hard at helping me build this store and build the community around the store. It's pretty amazing."