Hippie counterculture was on the wane in 1977 when Mary Morgan got a job at Sqecial Media, the bookstore that David Adams started five years earlier to sell groovy things not available from other Lexington retailers.
That psychedelic era is now history — as are most Lexington retailers of the time — but Sqecial Media is celebrating its 45th anniversary on South Limestone.
The store was crowded with customers when I stopped by. Morgan, who fell in love with the boss, was tag-teaming the register with their 30-year-old daughter, Morgan Adams.
“We used to say it’s nothing you need, just things you want,” Morgan said of the shop, which proudly maintains its counterculture sensibilities. “I would describe it now as a collection of ideas and toys.”
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David Adams, who died in 2005, was a math and physics teacher before he went to work as an actuary — a job he hated. As his fifth anniversary with Kentucky Central Life Insurance Co. approached in 1972, he quit and opened a bookstore at the corner of South Limestone and East High Street.
Adams named it Sqecial Media — the “q” is pronounced like a “k” — after a typo he saw in an insurance magazine ad that was supposed to say “special”. To him, it symbolized the importance of “minding your p’s and q’s,” Morgan said.
Adams soon bought The Store next door, which opened in 1967 as Lexington’s first head shop. He operated both for a while, then merged the businesses in an old house two blocks south on Limestone near the University of Kentucky campus. When the Baptist Student Union next door left in 1980, Sqecial Media moved to its building. The shop now shares 371 South Limestone with Sami’s Music (The Album) and Han Woo Ri, a Korean restaurant.
“Downstairs in the basement on the sewer drain pipe, there’s still ‘Jesus Saves’ in fluorescent paint,” Morgan said. “It’s like part of the archive of the building.”
Morgan Adams literally grew up in the store. She had a crib in the corner, and there are holes in the ceiling where her bouncy swing hung. “I learned math by learning how to use the cash register,” she said.
In 1990, the couple opened Morgan Adams Books, named for their daughter. Morgan sold that store in Meadowthorpe Shopping Center to writers Crystal Wilkinson and Ron Davis in 2011, and the new owners renamed it Wild Fig Books and moved it to 726 North Limestone four years later.
Morgan Adams (the daughter) graduated from Berea College and earned an master’s degree in fine arts in creative writing at Indiana University. In addition to working at the store, she is a poet and runs Osedax Press, a small publisher.
Sqecial Media doesn’t sell merchandise online, although it does have social media accounts for promotion.
“I think that’s one of the reasons why we’ve lasted,” Morgan said. “This place is an experience, an atmosphere, an environment. It’s not just about sales.”
Sqecial Media is filled with a carefully curated selection of curiosities: incense, herbal oils, Buddha statues, paper lanterns, gemstones, greeting cards, tarot cards, art supplies and jewelry. There are pipes and smoking accessories — for tobacco only, please. Kentucky passed a drug paraphernalia law in 1982.
“We carry things we like that we think our customers will like,” Morgan said. “Somebody was asking recently if we could bottle up the smell (of the store) and make incense out of that.”
Colorful socks with naughty slogans have been popular lately, Morgan said. And there are hundreds of books and magazines for every open-minded philosophy, religion and lifestyle.
“We have Wiccans, we have Christians, we have Buddhists; certainly atheists,” Morgan said of her customers. “It’s nice that they all say they feel comfortable here.”
College students make up a large share of the customer base, and they sometimes come in with parents and grandparents who shopped there decades ago.
“People bring their friends who haven’t been here before, like it’s some little hideaway secret,” Morgan said. “The Internet may have everything you’re looking for, but people find things here they didn’t know they were looking for.”
Morgan, 62, still enjoys coming to work every day, but eventually she plans to travel more and turn the store over to her daughter and longtime manager Ed Franklin.
Morgan Adams looks forward to that someday, but she says she probably won’t change much about Sqecial Media. After all, the store shaped her entire life, and she has been more actively shaping it since she returned home from grad school.
“We think carefully about the things we carry and the ideas we want to make available, the cultural symbols that people might be interested in or the cute notebooks people might want to write in,” she said. “One of the strengths of the store is that it can adapt. It has always been adapting.”