Every day, some 20,000 pairs of eyes pass the Easy Street Records store at California Avenue and Southwest Alaska Street in West Seattle.
They look over while they’re waiting for the light to change, glance over as they walk past or stop cold in front of the store to take in the work of longtime visual artist Kevin Larson.
On and off for 25 years, Larson has been dressing the store’s two front windows in a style that reflects not only the tastes of the people who work there, but the store’s customers as well, while celebrating new and established artists in a way that few stores do anymore.
“The window is Easy Street putting forward our stamp of approval, our recommendation of a particular album,” Larson said. “It’s a challenge to catch the essence of a record.
“Sometimes it helps to listen, sometimes it doesn’t help at all. I used to install after the store closed and play the record on repeat.”
Larson does it on a small budget, but with big ideas and boundless creativity, fueled by a life spent in the record business. In the process, he has made Easy Street’s windows — and the store itself — one of the city’s musical taste makers.
“When the window goes up, the artist and the community knows the record is out. It’s official,” said Easy Street owner Matt Vaughan, who opened the landmark store in 1988. (Last year, Rolling Stone magazine named it one of the 10 best record stores in the country.)
“It’s a celebration for the artist to have a window,” Vaughan said, “especially one done by a creative force like Kevin Larson.”
Like anyone who lives his art, Larson, 56, is always on the hunt for props. He once fished a three-panel screen out of a dumpster, knowing he would use it someday — and did, for a window devoted to Ezra Furman’s new album, “Twelve Nudes.”
Larson visits the dollar store every week, and often asks neighborhood merchants to lend him items for the windows. A lamp. A gorilla suit. A motorcycle.
He’s become a master at creating letters that mimic the album cover art: “Blow it up, cut it out, glue it onto paper, cut it out again, spray paint them.”
These days, he’s preparing a window to mark Angel Olsen’s newest release, “All Mirrors.”
“She’s a store favorite,” Larson said. “We’ve watched her grow and grow and grow. Right now, she’s niche. But with this new record, she could break out nationally. And we’re gonna help.”
That means buying a clutch of plastic hand mirrors and gluing photos of Olsen’s face to the back. Borrowing a floor-length mirror from one of the stores along California Avenue. Emptying his own dresser at home and lugging it to the store in his Volvo. But it creates a theme: All mirrors.
The staff decides which artist gets the window based on their favorites, which is how, last spring, the fringe-masked country singer, Orville Peck landed out front in mannequin form, surrounded by a fringed lamp and a fringe-masked chicken in honor of his debut album, “Pony.”
“I love someone who can take a passion for music and bands and put that into another form,” Peck said of the display. “Creates new art from other art and isn’t that really just what we all do? The display [Larson] did for me … it was incredible. There was a chicken with fringe on it.”
“Pony” went on to become the store’s best-selling album of the year.
The store’s 20,000 Instagram followers — which include recording artists who have been featured in the windows — help expand the store’s reach. Larson sends out teaser photos of windows in-progress and completed, as well as shots of the artists themselves standing in the windows: Peck, Reignwolf, Macklemore, Noah Gunderson and Kyle Craft, among them.
“We are old-school in that we have these windows that we maintain and we’re throwing our personality out there,” Larson said. “And now with Instagram, we can do it with a lot more people. It’s our window to the world. I take a picture and 20,000 more people see it.”
So do the artists, who share it on their social media — and so do the labels.
“When our labels have windows at Easy Street, it’s a huge thing,” said Terry McGibbons, the director of national sales for record distributor The Orchard. “When Kevin finds an artist that he truly loves — and they don’t even have to be established — with him doing a window and pushing an artist, it goes a long way.”
Over the years, Larson has had his favorites: A Christmas window for Beck featuring neon-painted snowflakes, a tinsel tree and a blow-up doll dressed as an angel. A real motorcycle for the newest release from the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. (“The label was so blown away, the band came in,” Larson said. “They had never played an in-store before then.”)
Larson grew up in Yakima, where he started his record-store career at Budget Tapes & Records there.
“It was the first time I felt like I fit in and found my people, especially as a not-popular person in high school,” he said. “I was like the weird kid in the ’80s movies who loved music and smoked cigarettes in the alley.”
One day, his boss asked him to create a window display around “Reel Music,” a compilation album of Beatles songs used in movies. Larson got a pile of “flats” — pieces of cardboard that look like album covers, provided by the label — and tried to make them connect, like reels of film.
“It was not very good,” he said. But he kept at it and over time, got the attention of record labels. He won a national contest for his display for Sting’s “Dream of the Blue Turtles,” when he set up a turtle pond in the middle of the store.
He came to Seattle in 1985 to work at Budget Tapes & Records’ Lynnwood store and met Vaughan in 1989, not long after he had taken over the old Penny Lane record store, turned it into Easy Street and moved it to the corner of California and Alaska. Larson joined the staff soon after.
“I fell in love with those two front windows,” he said. “I get inspired by one tiny thing on the album cover, or what we know about the artist. Just living with them for a while.”
In 2002, Larson left Easy Street to become an artist-development representative for the EMI record company, which kept him connected to the stores and what customers wanted. He created enter-to-win contests, promotional items and posters for bands like the Dandy Warhols, Roseanne Cash and the LCD Soundsystem.
When Universal Music bought EMI out in 2012, Larson took a year off, spending time in Nashville and Memphis to soak up the music heritage there. Once back in Seattle, he started driving for FedEx. It was, he said, his dream.
“As a kid, I always wanted to be a mailman,” Larson said. “Here’s a guy, walking around, always smiling, people always happy to see you. FedEx was that, on speed.”
When he blew his knee out, Vaughan asked him to come back to the store full-time — and do windows.
These days, there are only a few record stores that put staff time, energy and money into displays.
“The art is very much dying,” Larson said. “With streaming, all of that is going by the wayside.
“But I love music. And I love to try things I’ve never done before.”