The Oak Cliff Record Store That Witnessed the JFK Assassination Survives in the Internet Age

Fifty years ago on November 22, 1963, records like “Louie, Louie,” The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby,” and Jan and Dean’s “Surf City” lined the shelves at Top Ten Records when owner J.W. Stark watched Dallas Police Officer J.D. Tippit enter the shop and use the phone. Tippit left hurriedly, his mysterious call unanswered. And while some have disputed Stark’s claim that it was Tippit who ran in and out of the store that day, what is not disputed is what happened next. Tippit was shot dead, his alleged murderer, Lee Harvey Oswald, was arrested up the block at the Texas Theatre within the hour. Then came Jack Ruby, the Warren Commission, and Dallas’s cemented reputation as a monument of tragedy. The entire ordeal would make the little record store a footnote in the saga of the Kennedy Assassination.

Processed with VSCOcam with b5 presetIn an age when most record stores have succumbed to the pressures of internet music distribution, remarkably Top Ten is still open on Jefferson Blvd. where it has operated, but for a handful of months in the mid-1970s, for 55 years. In 2013, the store is noticeably empty. The phone Tippit used still hangs from the counter. A vintage Dr. Pepper machine stands near the entrance. Old mementos and photographs line the shelves. A faded poster advertising Shaquille O’Neal’s 1998 album, Respect, hangs on the wall. But the store hasn’t always been this quiet or museum-like.

J.W. Stark bought Top Ten Records in 1958, and at the time it was called Davis Street Records. When he moved it to its present location a couple of years prior to 1963, there were other record stores in the neighborhood that sold country and classical recordings. Top Ten Records was party and rock and roll record shop, and while Stark never kept books, he operated the shop successfully for almost 20 years. In 1977, he hired Dallas native and Adamson High graduate Mike Polk for 100 dollars a week, room and board. A year later, Stark sold Top Ten Records to Polk.

Processed with VSCOcam with b5 presetToday, Mike Polk still owns Top Ten. A persistently friendly man with a full head of close-cropped, white hair, far from hardening him, age seems to have made Polk fearlessly gregarious. The comedy of owning a record store for the last 35 years is not lost on Polk, who claims not to be much of a music fan. “I don’t listen to anything,” he says when I ask him for some of his favorite tunes. “I don’t have a radio or a stereo or a cassette or a record in my house at all.”

When Stark sold the store to Mike Polk in ‘78, he left him with two pieces of advice: “Watch the pennies and the dollars will take care of themselves” and “music’s like food; ask the people what they want.” It was that last bit of advice that would shape the next two decades of Top Ten Records. Polk never built up his own inventory. When someone visited Top Ten and place an order, he would buy two: one for the customer and one for the store.

Processed with VSCOcam with b5 preset
Mike Polk

In the ‘80s and ‘90s, Top Ten Records experienced a renaissance of surprising influence. A combination of falling house prices and White Flight generated a mass influx of working class Latinos into Oak Cliff. In the late 1970s, the Jefferson Boulevard’s retail landscape was also changing, resulting in the quinceañera shops and Mexican restaurants we see today. The overwhelming majority of patrons walking into Top Ten Records when Polk acquired it were Latino and they were ordering Tejano and Freestyle, a form of dance-pop that gained popularity in the 1980s.

One of those patrons was Steve Ragan, a neighborhood kid who visited Top Ten Records mostly to buy tapes from the Beastie Boys and Run DMC. Polk recognized that someone like Ragan, not he, should be behind the counter. One day, Polk asked Ragan, then 16 years old, if he wanted to work at the store. “I’ve never hired anyone who asked for a job,” says Polk, who says he hired Ragan because of “how he carried himself and what he knew about music.” Polk made a deal with Ragan, “You take care of the front and I’ll clean the toilets.”

Ragan hired more friends and locals who knew Tejano and the staff grew to 10 employees. “He’s the reason I’m here right now,” Polk says of Ragan. Top Ten Records also received ample promotion from KNON Latin music DJs like Jim Evans and the late Simon “The Diamond” Molina. Listeners would hear cuts on KNON and order them from Top Ten Records.  Hispanic DJs also poured in to buy records for their clubs. By 1995, the record shop was a Mecca for Latin music. “It was always family-oriented, always a friendly place to come,” says Ragan. “It was never coming to work.”

toptendrpPerhaps the height of Top Ten’s success came with the height of the popularity of Latin singer-songwriter Selena, who signed with a major label in 1989 and, by early 1995, was poised to be the biggest Latin crossover star since Gloria Estefan. However, Selena was murdered by the president of her fan club that same year. When her album, Dreaming of You, was posthumously released that summer, people lined the block leading to Top Ten Records, all of them waiting for the store to open at midnight so they could buy it.

Four years later, the file-sharing service Napster appeared and torpedoed the music retail industry. The affect at Top Ten Records was palpable. “It took a long time to let everyone go, because I wouldn’t do it,” says Polk. The drop in business eventually necessitated the cutting of all personnel. Even Steve Ragan, who had built Top Ten Records into a successful music store for the first time since the ‘60s, had to go find other work.

Polk runs the shop by himself now, although Ragan volunteers to fill in when Polk needs time off. Though the revenue stream is much leaner, Top Ten Records still operates the way it has for the past 35 years: listening to the customer, ordering what they want. It remains something of a boutique store for Latin music aficionados. During my visit to the store, a couple walked in looking for Lubbock conjunto band The Hometown Boys. And many of the kids who visited Top Ten in their teens are now bringing their own children.

Processed with VSCOcam with b5 presetBut the battle against bootlegging and the download generation is an uphill one, not to mention development plans for Jefferson Boulevard. Polk is positive about life in general, but takes a sober view of North Oak Cliff’s transformation into a city-wide destination. “What [the City of Dallas] did was gather enough statistics to legally declare Oak Cliff a ‘crime-ridden area’ so they could legally devalue the property,” says Polk. When asked if he thinks Top Ten Records could have a place on the “revitalized” Jefferson Boulevard, Polk remains grave. “Nobody will ever be part of this right now,” says Polk. “The rent is outrageous already.”

When Polk says there’s a very real chance Top Ten Records could close at the beginning of 2014, he says it without an ounce of regret or bitterness. “My name is Mike. I work here,” he says. “If this burns down, my name will still be Mike. What I have is not who I am.” Yet what Mike Polk is and has been to the community of Oak Cliff is invaluable. Despite the Jefferson Boulevard’s reputation for crime, Polk claims he has never called the cops in his 35 years as owner.  That is a testament to the respect the neighborhood has for him, a respect he earned by showing it first to every person who walked in the door. If Polk walks out that door for the last time next spring, he will likely recite the same adage he leaves every person as they exit Top Ten Records: “Be kind to each other and the world will get better.”

Processed with VSCOcam with c1 preset

Photos by Erin Rambo