God on her side

She's run this record shop for nearly 50 years — and still it's like candy land

A woman enters the record store, walks past the wall of CDs, past the sign that says "Buy 12 tapes in 1 year, get a cassette free," and over to the counter at the other side of the store to get what she really came here for.

"Hi, Miss Simpson!" says Charlotte Laurry to the woman who owns the place. "I want me some Jolly Ranchers. I'll take the dollar bag. And I want some fruities, and I want some of the fishes and the watermelons. You know you're the only one with the watermelons?"

Simpson's Records, just off the corner of East McNichols and Joseph Campau in Detroit, is two places in one. Most of the space is devoted to music, as it has been since 1966. But along the west wall, there's a thick wood bar still leftover from this old building's past as a saloon, and behind it is a kaleidoscopic array of colorful little candies bursting out of bowls and overflowing from boxes, all for some small change.

Both the candy store and the record shop are run by Dorothy Simpson — gray-haired, soft-spoken and grandmotherly. And any place where an 82-year-old grandma gives you candy when you come see her becomes cherished by those who grew up nearby.

"Miss Simpson is like mama to everybody," says Deshone Legion, 42. "Not just to her own kids, but she's mama of this whole neighborhood. And everybody recognizes it."

Legion is behind the CD counter on a sunny winter afternoon — stocking shelves, sweeping the floor and answering questions from customers, all after coming in early to shovel the morning-fallen snow from the sidewalk. And he's not even an employee. "I just come in and help out whenever I can. I love Miss Simpson."

The candy counter has been here nearly as long as the music. Simpson added it to draw the kids the way the music brought the adults. "I know you've seen the neighborhood — there's not many stores around here that sell this type of stuff, that kids can gather up a few pennies and buy some candy," says Laurry, 32, who grew up nearby but now lives miles away. She takes the long drive back regularly, though. "I think that's the appeal, having two different things to be able to attract different age groups and bring everyone together. It creates an atmosphere."

But now, after almost 50 years, the adults who spent childhoods here come back sometimes only for a handful of sweets, often with their own kids in tow, to relive their childhood memories and share a now-rare experience.

A back wall features snapshots of regulars through the years, some faded from being up for so long. At first there were just a few, but then customers started bringing their own pictures in, asking for them to be placed with the others. Now that wall is covered with hundreds of them, a collage of a community based on the woman everyone simply calls "Miss Simpson."

"This is family the way a family and a neighborhood is supposed to be," Legion says. "That's what's important and that's why this shop is so important. This shop is blessed. It's a wonderful thing." 

Half a century ago, Simpson's husband Calvin worked for General Motors and a security patrol company on the side. But his wife wanted something owned by the family that their kids could fall back on. So a record store was born.

In the beginning, Simpson would get a list of the top 30 requested songs from local radio stations and visit the local distribution offices of labels like Atlantic and Motown, who'd let her buy popular records just two or three copies at a time, all she could afford. Gradually she'd come back for more as her stock sold out and business took off, and soon she'd established the neighborhood hangout.

Kids would come in and excitedly ask how old they had to be to work there, drawn by the seeming connection to the singers they heard on the radio and the rainbow of candy behind the counter. She hired dozens of them over the years to teach them good work habits, and would ask them to bring her their report cards or lecture them if they got into trouble.

"She's done a lot of good around here," says Germany Bennett, a 33-year-old who grew up nearby and came by with his wife one afternoon for some candy. "She kept a lot of people out of trouble. Everybody respects Miss Simpson."

Meanwhile, the adults came for the store's obscure jazz, Delta and Chicago blues, and R&B. But the specialty here, announced in block letters on the outside wall, has always been gospel music.

"I always wanted to specialize in gospel," says Simpson, a regular churchgoer. "To me it's a great inspiration. Some of the gospel sounds like some of the blues in a sense, but when you listen to the words there's a difference, and I just think we're talking about a higher being in there, and you're giving honor and respect to him." All day, gospel songs pour out of a primitive outdoor speaker mounted on the front of the store, echoing down Six Mile like a soulful call to prayer.

Some customers still come in and sing only two or three words of a song they're searching for, or hum a few bars, and someone here will likely know what it is and find it for them, or special order it. Simpson's proud of that face-to-face service, and the institutional knowledge a half-century-old record store embodies.

"They can't do that over the Internet," Simpson says, with a trace of defiance. "They won't ever get the service anywhere that they get up in here, I promise."

What do you do when people no longer want the things you've devoted half your life to selling?

For a long time, Simpson answered that question by adapting to whatever changes her business faced. When cassettes came along, she started stocking tapes along with the records. Then CDs showed up, supplanting them both, and she filled the store with them. Now digital music has taken over, but she's got no way to stock that.

"They want to do it all over the Internet, I guess, cut everybody else off," says Simpson, whose store's very name embodies an obsolete product. "Especially if you want to be a retailer or something, there won't be room for you. They'll do it all themselves."

But some people are still drawn to its old-time record shop ambience, where they can listen to music and talk about it with staff and other customers. And since most record stores around town have closed, Simpson's is one of the last where that kind of social scene takes place. Add candy to that mix, and the place keeps a lot of loyal regulars.

Still, business has slowed in recent years, and Simpson's husband passed away a few years ago, so she narrowed the stock and cut the store's hours. At 82 she doesn't need the uncertainty of owning a record store in a mostly empty neighborhood, but this has been her world for so long she doesn't want to step aside. 

"I don't know what my life would be like without it," she says. "I'm sure I would find my way; I have children and grandchildren, and I could find a lot of things to do. That's not the problem. I just like what I do. I love the people. They take very good care of me and always have." 

The store holds a half-century of grandmotherly charm. Houseplants on the ledge bask in the south window's sun. Graduation pictures of relatives and customers hang proudly on the walls. Little paper signs on the wall declare that God is watching out for the store and those in it. And hundreds of little sweets form a rainbow on the wall, ready to be handed out by the neighborhood's grandma.

The door swings open and Simpson hears a customer walk to the long wood counter. "You want something over here, baby?" she says, as she turns and looks.

It's another grown man waiting for Miss Simpson to give him some candy.

Scroll to read more Culture articles

Join Detroit Metro Times Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.