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Two years in, new owners look to expand on Mother Murphy's legacy

Mother Murphy's.jpg

There's an old Facebook post from February 2020 in which former Mother Murphy's owners Mike and Becky Williams describe the people they sold the 1968-era business to early that year: a "couple of young cats who share our love of the place almost as much as we do."

"We are thrilled that it is being taken over by some locals who just couldn't bear to see it close," the post reads. "Like so many other past customers they share fond memories shopping here for skateboards and most everything else!"

The two people the post was referring to were Griffin Burns and Colton Walsh, who now are co-owners of the storied headshop, along with Noah Anderson, formerly of Anderson's Classic Barbershop.

When Mother Murphy's went up for sale in late 2019, offers came in by the dozens, according to Burns. And with those offers came different visions for the store itself, with some people saying they'd turn the store into just a glass shop, or move it from its location in Uptown Normal to somewhere else.

"They said that we were the first ones that were authentically sincere about maintaining the culture — that counterculture spark that Mother Murphy's has — and that's what they were looking for," Burns said.

In an interview with WGLT, Burns and Walsh describe their unexpected journey to ownership of the legendary store — including some changes they see on the horizon.

WGLT: A great place to start would be what prompted you to take it over in the first place — besides the fact that it was for sale.

Burns: I've always wanted to do something like this. I'm an alum of ISU for business and, at about 23 years old, I set a really hard goal for myself: I was like, 'OK, by the time I turn 25, I want to have a small, functioning business that I can plant my flag in and do my thing with.'

I'm not kidding, it was the day before my 25th birthday and I knew I didn't hit the goal. So I went into what was Anderson's and I was getting my hair cut and (Noah Anderson) was casually like, 'Hey man, did you hear Mother Murphy's was for sale?' I think the clouds parted, light started shining down, there was a chorus of angels. This is it — this is that opportunity I've been waiting for.

Walsh: I'm living out in Washington state at the time, so the other side of the country. (Burns) calls me up and he says, 'Hey man, sounds like they're selling Mother Murphy's and I want to look into it.' I'm pretty familiar with it, I'd gone to Mother Murphy's for a number of years and I was like, 'OK, that sounds interesting. I'd love to know more.'

Burns: We went to Mike and Becky and they were like, 'Listen, it's awesome that you're excited and that you guys want to get in on this. But, we're going to be honest with you: There are about 50 other serious offers.' We were like, this is a one-in-a-million shot because we've got people that have way more money than us. We're broke 20-something year-olds without a pot to piss in and there are people with way more experience than us.

How could we stand out? We literally just brought our authentic selves to the table: We're townies, we've been coming to Mother Murphy's, and we felt that we were kind of formed by the culture of Mother Murphy's ourselves and we wanted to bring that back, full-circle. And here we are today. Obviously, that was what they were looking for.

Walsh: There was basically a three-week period of time between him calling me and saying he wanted to look into it and ... then him calling me on the road back to Washington after the holidays and saying, 'Hey man, they accepted our offer. We're buying Mother Murphy's.' It all clicked, it all lined up immediately — and I uprooted from where I was at and made my way back here within a month's time.

You took over essentially right as COVID-19 hit and everything shut down in March 2020.

Burns: Mike and Becky helped us learn the ropes for a little bit, but the first day that they said, 'You're on your own,' was March 1 — and the strangest thing happened a week later, in that we had to shut everything down. 2020 came swinging. Here we are with no cash flow, no idea what's going on. We started to realize after awhile that ... this might not let up.

So, we took the time to basically renovate up here. We did the floors, redid the lighting. We just tried to get Mother Murphy's back to what we thought it was.

When we have people who come up here and say, 'It hasn't changed a bit,' that's kind of like looking through rose-tinted glasses because it definitely has changed. But we wanted to capture what they imagined it used to look like.

What does it mean to be 'counterculture' in 2022? I feel like for awhile part of the 'edge' to a store like this is that it sells things like bongs. Now, you have (cannabis) legalization, which is a separate thing, but that edge gets a little bit dull because that's not as hush-hush anymore.

Burns: You can actually call a bong, a bong, right? Whereas before if you said 'bong' —

WGLT: You'd have to leave!

Burns: Exactly. We've wrestled with that. At that time when we took over, it became legal and we were like, 'What does that mean for us?' It took about these last two years to figure this out. That will forever be a part of what Mother Murphy's is — there's no getting around that. It just might be a little less of the overall pie.

Whenever somebody would ask, 'What do you do?' I would say I was a partner at Mother Murphy's ... then say something about it being the oldest headshop and maybe list some of the products to try, but it just never felt right. It always felt like I was missing something, I wasn't doing it justice.

What I realized is that Mother Murphy's is not a normal store. A normal store is a group of people that create a brand, or a culture, and they say, 'You should buy from us because you know you want to be like this and you want to conform to our vision.'

What we're saying is we actually want you to come in and put your mark on us. You are creating that culture — we're not just telling you the culture that you should be a part of. What other places can you Sharpie the wall, slap sticks and posters all over the place at your own free will? By doing that, you are participating in the beauty of life and culture and you're forming a part of who we are. You can call it 'counterculture,' but it's just the culture that we make. We are a blank canvas.

How will you bring that culture to Champaign — and why did you decide to open a second location there?

Burns: It started with us having a lot of people coming from Champaign. It was really cool and humbling that they would drive 45 minutes just to come here. We had enough people doing that that we eventually got to the point where we wanted to bring that blank canvas to Champaign and give them something to put their mark down on. We'll see what that becomes.

It's kind of stressful: People are going to expect an authentic Mother Murphy's experience and it's taken 54 years to build this place. So that's a big burden, but I think we got it.

Walsh: We're going to be close, anyway.

Burns: We want to share this culture with as many people as possible. For me, specifically, it was very freeing because I came from a very soul-draining job before this. This place was freeing to me. This was everything I could have ever imagined.

And it's kind of funny: We haven't had the issue that a lot of businesses are having right now. I get 2-3 people daily messaging me, 'Hey do you have a job?' It doesn't stop. The people that work here participate in this to the same capacity that we do. We're just trying find a way to harmonize, like, business and art.

How do you do that?

Burns: Our manager ... designs a lot of our stuff for us. The shirts on the rack, the pins, a lot of things we have in here, he's done, which is really cool. Our new guy that we have here is a drummer-guitarist and he's awesome. No one really has a title here. We all ... sweep the floors, take out the trash. There's no set job here, it's just (answering) 'What does the store need? Can you take care of it? What else do you want to do?'

Walsh: There's a lot of cool stuff out there, there's a lot of cool people out there and we just kind of say, 'Alright everybody gather together, start doing cool things, just put it all together.' You're not just a person that checks people out when they want to get stuff. You're a part of building Mother Murphy's and being the ambassador of what all this means.

Burns: There's no textbook on this. We're just doing it and it's just working.

How big is your staff right now?

Burns: Six. I would love to have more people. We're trying to figure it out to make sense — it's still a business, it still has to make money. We don't want to waste money by hiring people that we don't need. ... The more people the more culture, right?

With so many generations loving Mother Murphy's, how do you bring in the next generation to the store?

Walsh: It's been almost 10 years since we started going to college... I would say that, within an age range of 17-22, a large chunk of everybody is just out discovering what they want to do, who they want to be, where they're trying to go in life. When they step into a place like this, they're like, 'Wow. There's something to this," although they may not necessarily understand in what capacity that relates to them.

Burns: We enable people to just wander around and find something that they enjoy.

You had mentioned wanting to talk about Shockwaves separately.

Burns: A lot of people might know Shockwaves — it's actually the 30th anniversary of the skateshop Becky Williams founded. When we came in, we decided that the best thing for Shockwaves was to give it its own identity again, to separate the two. We want Mother Murphy's to be Mother Murphy's and Shockwaves to be Shockwaves.

With the expansion of Mother Murphy's into Champaign, it's been a lot of work. Doing one thing really well is already, like, super difficult. To do two things really well is near impossible, or at least it feels that way sometimes. It's an issue of time-resource for us. We just don't have the time to focus on it in the way that it deserves to be focused on.

So, we've decided to put it up for sale. We don't really know what that means for its future, at the moment. We don't know what's going to happen. Hopefully, we find somebody the way that Mike and Becky found us and we put it in the right hands so that someone else can take care of it and continue its legacy.

How does Becky feel about that?

Burns: She totally gets it. It's a lot, it's not like a normal business, it's always changing, there's always something happening. They understand. It just doesn't feel right that we should be focusing on Mother Murphy's and let that run. We think it deserves the same love and attention that we give Mother Murphy's. This is our scene, this is our people. We want to find somebody who lives and breathes skateboarding.

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