American Dreamers: Mills Record Company in Kansas City

Since 2004, Yelp has worked to connect millions of people to the best in local business. In that time we’ve met thousands of passionate small business owners, a group as hard-working and diverse as any you’ll find. In this series, we share stories of just some of the people who, through their commitment to building great local businesses, are sustaining the vibrant local communities we call home.

Thursday nights are busy at Mills Record Company. Each week, the staff must process the week’s new releases, sorting and stocking copies of between 60 to 100 albums, cataloging them into the store’s inventory of more than 50,000 records. It’s an arduous task, but for Judy Mills, it’s also a labor of love. After all, you don’t quadruple the size of your business without hard work. And you don’t revitalize an industry without passion.

The idea for Mills Record Company was born in June 2011. Mills traveled to a nearby record store to buy the new Bon Iver album. After being curtly informed by the clerk that the album wasn’t in stock, Mills was dismayed to learn that there wasn’t a single shop in Kansas City that sold new albums. Instead, would-be shoppers had to either travel 40 miles to nearby Lawrence, Kansas or make their purchase online. For Mills, neither option was acceptable. She decided it was time to create a better way.

Mills comes from a family of small business owners and looked to them for inspiration. Armed with her professional experience as an executive for Clinique and then Restoration Hardware, Mills crafted a business plan. Because she believed that customers would support a local business over online shopping if you gave them a good reason, Mills Record Company would sell new records and provide a top-notch shopping experience. Mills chose values over experience and employed music lovers with a passion for sharing their knowledge. She would host regular in-store performances, nurturing a community of local musicians and fans alike. And she would look to the top record stores nationwide, and apply lessons of their success to her Kansas City dream.

When Mills Record Company opened in May 2013, that dream became a reality. The company’s four years of business have been marked with success and growth. Mills Record Company has expanded twice, incorporating a dramatically increased retail floor and a permanent stage for concerts. Mills’ early support of the local music scene has paid off handsomely. The store has a policy to sell any and all locally-produced music, regardless of format. Mills estimates that 80% of Kansas City bands have played upon that stage, including local favorites like Making Movies and Madisen Ward and The Mama Bear. National acts have followed, with in-store performances by bands such as Temples, Mike Doughty and The Mowgli’s. Mills Record Company is a stage for the rapidly-expanding Middle of the Map music festival. Supporting local has been sound business for Mills. She now owns the largest locally-owned record store in Kansas City.

Though the record store industry is decidedly male-dominated, Mills sees this as an opportunity to distinguish herself from the competition. She fiercely believes in being true to herself, and strives to be open, honest, and vulnerable with her clientele. While the occasional closed-minded customer will prefer to take recommendations from men, Mills fosters an inclusive environment. She’s noticed a sharp increase in female vinyl collectors, to whom Mills enjoys exposing her favorite female musicians.

As Judy Mills looks to the future of her business, she sees an even stronger commitment to her community and to philanthropy. Inspired by the success of shows benefitting causes such as
Standing Rock and combatting domestic violence, Mills has set a goal to host similar events on a more regular basis. Furthermore, she wants to parlay the success of her in-stores to attract even larger national talent. Finally, Mills Record Company will double down on their music blog, which provides coverage of the local music scene and reviews of new releases. Wherever Mills Record Company spins next, you can be sure that it’ll be a positive note for Kansas City and its entire music scene. 

Want to know more? Check out Mills Record Company on Yelp!