A buddy from the University of Minnesota asked Keith Covart if he wanted to get into the music business. That sounded a lot better than Covart’s job of cleaning out rat cages at a University of Minnesota experimental lab.
So Covart went to work at the Electric Fetus a few months after it opened in 1968. A humanities major at the U, he soon become a co-owner and eventually the sole owner. Now he’s celebrating the music store’s 50th anniversary.
“Oh, I had no idea it would last this long,” he said the other day in the Fetus’ executive corner office. “I didn’t think that way. It was going to last as long as I enjoyed it.”
The Fetus still reeks of incense the moment you walk in the door. Nowadays more space is devoted to gifts — books, clothes, Prince souvenirs, you name it — than ever, but the music, both vinyl LPs and CDs, remains the shop’s calling card.
“It’s totally different yet it’s the same,” Covart says of the Fetus. “It’s really about the people who work here. The customer base has been great. We’ve been lucky both ways.”
Covart doesn’t work there anymore. He retired three years ago, turning over that corner office to his daughter, Stephanie Covart Meyerring.
“This office is so damn neat,” Covart said of the president’s space. “I didn’t have files. I had piles. I didn’t have a computer.”
Meyerring started her Fetus career at the very bottom — cleaning toilets. Now her husband, Aaron, Fetus’ general manager, fixes their toilets just because he’s handy. In a bit of a role reversal, Covart sometimes babysits Meyerring’s kids, which has included cleaning up their you-know-what.
Dressed in a well-worn T-shirt and jeans with tufts of reddish hair over his ears, Covart, 72, reminisced about the Fetus with his daughter and son-in-law. He sounded like the perpetual hippie who could.
He smiled when recalling the night in 1969 when some employee neglected to lock the door at night.
“We came in the next day and there were people crashing on the floor and notes saying ‘How come you’re open and nobody’s here?’ ” Covart remembered. “There was even some money left on the till. What’s changed in 50 years? I don’t think that would go over so big anymore.”
Nor would the naked sale. Covart came up with his everyday loss-leader strategy of “buy three albums and get 10 percent off.” But the Fetus dreamed up a one-day promotion in 1972 — take your clothes off in the store and get a free album and smoking pipe.
That so-called “naked sale” garnered headlines and the wrath of the store’s landlord. A few months later, the Fetus moved from Minneapolis’ West Bank to its current location at E. Franklin and 4th Avenue S. But the store wasn’t evicted because of the naked sale, as was rumored.
“There’s a lot of fake news on that,” Covart insisted. “The eviction notice had already been served. It doesn’t help to have a rent strike. We’d already been asked to leave because the landlords wanted to bring in national brands. Earth Shoes. Remember those? They got our space. The landlords paid our $5,000 moving costs.”
Then there was an advertising campaign starting in 1975 featuring an 86-year-old actress named Ruth Sherman who, in radio ads, proclaimed the Electric Fetus “the mother of them all.”
“She got famous,” Covart pointed out. “Warner Bros. called me up and said ‘We’d like to use her.’ They used her nationally but not in Minnesota. She would come here for anniversary sales and cut apple pie and give it to the customers.”
Covart could spend hours looking back on the Fetus’ halcyon days. But he’s looking forward, too.
“I want this thing to continue on,” he said. “Fifty? It’s just getting going.”
“On Record Store Day [April 21] this year,” Meyerring interjected, “it was our biggest single sales day ever — by a lot.”
Twitter: @JonBream • 612-673-1719