was almost 17 when I finally passed my driving test, and there was reason for celebration. We’d hit the town Friday night, Eric and I, in a lipstick red Mercury Topaz. But we didn’t have girls to take out, we were too young to even get into the under-21 dance clubs.
We went instead to Desirable Discs, a thriving independent record store in the metro-Detroit area with three locations. We went to the first, drove twenty minutes to the next. Blew some money on a Deftones t-shirt and a Braid split. It was 1998. Such were the times.
Desirable Discs closed its final location several years ago with little fanfare. The loss wasn’t great—Detroit has numerous record shops, and in recent years my taste had evolved. But the entire experience seems surreal now; 16, Eric, Desirable Discs. It’ll appear moreso to legions of 16 year-olds-to-be. Independent record shops aren’t yet extinct, but they’re increasingly rare, pushed out by a downtick in the industry, an uptick in downloads, and pricing strategies unavailable to niche market record providers.
The over-indulgent, under-funded music fans of America (and if you’re reading this, welcome to the club) grew up in these shops. We have some of our best moments there, moments not always directly related to record buying. Below, Stylus pays tribute to some of our favorite shops. Many of these stores are thriving, and we’re grateful. Some have moved on. Here’s our five-part guide to the best of what’s out there, the little communities that have sold us our lives, $13 at a time.
Part II: South
Part III: Midwest
Part IV: West
Part V: International
1001 Manhattan Ave
About: A huge secondhand store in the Greenpoint neighborhood, The Things is famous for (supposedly) having the largest collection of vinyl in New York City. Walk into the messy, cramped back section that barely allows room for one to walk amongst the vinyl and you begin to believe it. Downstairs yields even more treasures—despite being hot and possibly unsanitary. Be sure to watch your step, the ceiling is only a little over six feet high down there.
Specialty: $2 records. There isn’t a piece of vinyl in the store that isn’t priced at 2 bucks. The main floor holds singles and albums mostly for disco, new wave, R&B, and house, while there is some more rock and pop blended in downstairs.
What They’re Missing: A year or two back, The Thing used to be *the* place for 70s/80s/90s club music, including many ridiculous rare Italo, rare groove, and disco/Hi-NRG singles. After the owners/staff/cratediggers (delete as appropriate) sort of caught on to the value of these records, The Thing began shipping/selling the best stuff over to another local NYC shop, A1 records. Other problems: the in-house turntable was without a needle last time I was there, and of course, there is really no organization whatsoever on either floor, which makes even approaching the store very daunting.
Why We Love It: Even though the amazing finds of highly coveted dance classics have become few and far between, you can still find a great deal of interesting stuff ranging from '80s disco boogie, old and new school rap, weirdo soul and new wave also-rans (synth pop covers of Bachman Turner Overdrive anyone?), and a ton of other stuff you probably didn’t know existed.
Intersection of North 9th St. & Driggs Ave
About: A thrift store in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn that hides a large vinyl section.
Specialty: It’s got a fair enough selection of standard A-Z rock/pop/soul, but like The Thing, most collectors go to dig through the large and mostly cheap selection of dance and hip-hop 12” singles. Deep house and freestyle are in abundance, and you probably won’t go through one rack without coming across a Strictly Rhythm or Nervous record.
What They’re Missing: As with most thrift stores, organization and like-new quality aren’t always a priority, and placing the vinyl right next to the store window where sunlight easily pours in can’t be the best maintenance procedure.
Why We Love It: A rarity in stores these days (let alone thrift stores), Junk has a working turntable and headphones available to preview the vinyl. The vinyl section is manageable enough to go through in an hour or two, and I’ve yet to visit without leaving with a few disco discoveries, the latest being the remix 12" for CeCe Penniston’s “Finally,” and a great dub remix of Claudja Barry’s “Down & Counting.”
6 St. Mark's Place
New York City, NY
About: Although it has a few locations in New York, Kim’s at St. Mark’s is the only one worth visiting for music lovers. Serving as a hipster emporium amid the dregs of one of Manhattan’s strangest streets (there’s Chipotle! And a bunch of dirt-punks busking for money!), Kim’s is where record store cliché’s come to life.
Specialty: It’s hard to say that Kim’s has one particular specialty, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a better spot in the city for hip-hop mixtapes (before last year’s bust), rare Krautrock imports, and the latest Erstwhile release. Oh—and whatever Drag City has coming out this month as well. While you won’t always find exactly what you’re looking for, you’ll undoubtedly come out with something you didn’t know you needed—often from the (by New York City standards) decent used CD section.
What They’re Missing: Record clerks with a pulse. Aside from some notable exceptions, the people working at Kim’s inevitably pull a Paul Rudd picking up his plate from Wet Hot American Summer move if you ask a question.
Why We Love It: Possibly because of those same record clerks. Possibly because if you go upstairs you’re greeted with a cineaste’s wet dream and a host of vinyl (used and new). Possibly because it’s simply one of the stores you have to know in New York City.
319 Bleecker Street
About: A tiny West Village hole in the wall amidst a neighborhood equally comprised of upscale bakeries peddling five dollar lemonade and sex shops.
Specialty: A deep vinyl selection of electronic and dance music—gobs of New Order remixes—complements the across-the-board indie rock selection. Rebel Rebel keep most of their store stock in shoeboxes in the back room; a good question from a customer will send the ultra-attentive staff to the back for serious stretches of album digging.
What They’re Missing: A large soul and funk collection. Browsing space. Any immediately visible selection of hip-hop (though Canal Street’s mix-tape merchants are a hop, skip, and a jump away).
Why We Love It: Even with the limited dimensions, most every customer—from a Chelsea Boy scouring for cheap lounge mixes to a gentle, to nebbish Lower Manhattan dad guiding their equally shy son into Five Leaves Left to a college kid heeding a clerk’s recommendation on The Chameleons’ What Does Anything Mean? Basically—can get in on the fun. It’s a wedge of war, awkward, human messiness, that, on a good day, typifies everything truly cool about the Village.
15 E 4th St.
New York City, NY 10003
About: One of New York’s record shopping institutions. If you’re a fan of independent music—and have open ears—you’ll already know about it. And the fact that they have a staff that’s attentive and willing to give you direction? Icing on the cake.
Specialty: New music. Old music. Everything-in-between music. In all seriousness, Other Music is probably the one place to shop for music in New York if you’re visiting and don’t have time to go anywhere else. They’ll have your new indie release, the import of the Burial record, the new Trapez 12”, that new 3 CD set from the Chilean psych band you’ve been hearing about—everything.
What They’re Missing: Well, OK. Not everything. The shop is incredibly small—and they have a less than stellar used section, and their hip-hop section leaves a lot to be desired, but it all evens out in the end, right?
Why We Love It: Put it this way, I was once asked by a fellow Stylus writer the following question: “What’s it like living near Other Music? How do you do it?”
John Doe Books & Records
347 Warren St.
Hudson, NY 12534
About: The name fits the description for this legendary record store in Upstate New York. Actually the residence of Bunny Brains mastermind Dan Seward, John Doe is tucked away on the main drag of Warren St. and has only a small guidepost that signals the location of this vinyl sanctuary. As this is Seward's home, all of the contents of the store are his collection, with virtually no organizational pattern whatsoever. The shop is, therefore, strictly for serious vinyl lovers—those willing to spend hours sifting through stacks and stacks of records in order to find what they're looking for.
Specialty: An outstanding collection of jazz, along with a profusion of classical, rock, punk, psych, funk, noise, soul, and anything else imaginable from before Sony dropped the Discman.
What They're Missing: John Doe's interest is mostly in used records, most of which are pre-1990. If you're looking for hip white label house releases, then turn your big city ass around and shell out bucks downtown.
Why We Love It: The first time I walked in to JD, I entered the downstairs shop and sifted through a fairly average collection of records, until I was told that there were more upstairs in the apartment. When I ascended the narrow staircase and turned into the man's abode, I happened upon a vinyl lover’s wet dream: walls and walls of literally thousands of classic and rare records. Oft overlooked is the terrific book collection, also boasting some choice selections and seldom seen titles.
496 6th Avenue, 2nd Floor
New York, NY 10011
About: With additional locations in L.A. and Amsterdam, Fat Beats motto is "The Last Stop for Hip-Hop," and they certainly come close to holding that title down. Once located in a basement in the East Village, the new location, closer to NYU's central campus, is still somewhat hidden from the general public. Check around the street, though: once you see the crowds of freestylers and b-boys hanging out in the front, sometimes including legends like Percee P and J-Zone, you’ll know you’ve found it.
Specialty: One of the flat-out best collections of underground and classic hip-hop vinyl and CDs. Also sports a pretty good assortment of breaks, funk, and soul.
What They're Missing: Though much better than a few years ago, Fat Beats could use an improvement with their mainstream and southern rap stock.
Why We Love It: For rap 12"s and independently released hip-hop music, there isn't much of a comparison in New York City. But much of its success is due to its reputation. The first time any head comes to NYC and asks where to get good hip-hop, this is usually the first place that gets mentioned.
320 Bloomfield Ave.
Montclair, NJ 07042
About: Not so much a "record store" as a cultural emporium—growing from its humble beginnings as the Jersey-area source for Techno, Goth & Industrial CDs, Cafe Soundz is also your one-stop in the greater Metro area for Docs, sexy boots and shoes, T-shirts, Guerilla bondage gear, etc.
Specialty: Since its inception, Cafe Soundz has made no bones (hee-hee) about its focus on the darker corners of electronic music—hard-tech, darkwave, EBM, UK/US Industrial, and classic Gothic all find room on the well-stocked shelves. Outside of Generation Records in NYC, you won't find a shop that covers these much-maligned genres with as much accuracy and love as Soundz.
What They're Missing: A little more vinyl would be appreciated (but that's a tall order in the genres that are the obvious focus here). That being said, this is the odd rarity of a record store that you don't want to have a broader selection—the music that gets high priority here gets next-to-nothing everywhere else, so we praise Cafe Soundz for precisely what would be condemnable in others—a narrow body of artists with a deep discography to represent them.
Why We Love It: Beyond the deep catalog of featured artists who rarely get so much as a divider elsewhere, we love Cafe Soundz for main man Bobby Lisi, who is one of the most admirable owner / operators anywhere. A deep impression was left on this child when I sent my parents to Cafe Soundz for Xmas gifts and they discarded my list for the (highly superior) selections made by Mr. Lisi. It's rare to see a record store that knows its customers better than they know themselves.
Princeton Record Exchange
20 South Tulane St.
Princeton, NJ 08542
About: In the heart of sophisticated downtown Princeton, PREX is less a shop with a staid inventory and more a fluctuating nexus of hipster heavy hitters, oddities, and cut-rate deals. Good prices and high turnover accounts for an always-engaging, ever-changing menu.
Specialty: Budget CDs and Vinyl abound, the used CD selection is Jersey's finest (no mean feat), and their coverage of pretty much every genre, from Folk to House is journeyman-at-worst and intensive-at-best. That being said, the Indie / Avante-Garde Rock and Jazz catalogs shine, as is only appropriate considering Princeton College's solid freeform radio station, WPRB.
What They're Missing: The Vinyl selection, though outstanding for rock and oddities, lacks a certain heft in the hip-hop and dance departments, although the odd gem lurks amongst the rubble. My strongest complaint is against the Dollar Bin stickers, which are excessively adhesive and still mar the mugs of my entire Talking Heads discography.
Why We Love It: Even for someone who could kill hours in a favorite record shop, PREX has a nearly tactile warmth—there's a feeling one could curl up atop the ridiculously extensive Dollar Bins and take a quick nap. NYC-rich at NJ prices.
12 N. Pleasant St.
Amherst, MA 01002
About: Going to school for three years at Hampshire College, nearby Amherst was always a bit of a bust as a town. Luckily, Mystery Train and the branch of B-Town-based biggie Newbury Comics brought enough flavor to make it a worthwhile stop on the way to better boutiquery and eats in sister town Northampton.
Specialty: The used CD and vinyl selection at Mystery Train (not to mention, back in the day, their used videos) was always enough to get me in the store. But it's in the realm of black wax that these cats truly excel—multiple listening stations in the DJ-store mold, a new arrivals bin, and respectable, high-turnover prices make for a great digging time.
What They're Missing: New stock is non-existent and the employees have mastered that peculiar art of the record shop clerk being simultaneously invisible and offensive.
Why We Love It: Well-filed, extremely well-bought used vinyl always tempts this crate-Betty. Also, the outstanding dollar LP section has deals on relatively common records, providing bargains not usually seen in the Northeast outside the NY/NJ axis. The behind-glass rarities and overall wallet-friendly vibe of the used pricing give Mystery Train the edge in the crowded Valley market.
3012 W. Cary Street
Richmond, VA 23221
About: Hip Carytown (the Haight-Ashbury of decidedly non-hip Richmond) plays host to the flagship of the Plan 9 record chain. It's not so much the best record store in VA's capital as the only one.
Specialty: Indie Rock, Jazz, Techno, used CDs, and subculture knicknacks all play a part in Plan 9's funky oeuvre, but it's the sordid pleasures of the basement that really make it shine. Budget compact discs and a deep vinyl catalog with a heavy turnover rate and user-friendly pricing make for an environment on which even the most hesitant of music buyers will feel tempted to lavish a bit of cash.
What They're Missing: The staff can be somewhat distant and the music is often waaaaaaaaaay too loud, but the main complaint lies with the Broadtime listening stations, which crap out more often than rock out.
Why We Love It: Besides the delightful Deanna upstairs and the aforementioned downtown pleasures of the basement, the fact that anything in the store can be listened to before buying (whether CD or wax) pretty much seals the deal. Factor in a truly respectable, deep catalog of classic artists and indie favorites and you've got the best record store in Timbaland's home state.
281 Thayer Street
About: The weathervane of Providence’s independent record shops, perched in the middle of Thayer Street and Brown University’s campus, Tom’s Tracks (Yes, still owned and operated by the original Tom) was dishing out quirky indie pop and drone-heavy rock back when Brown really was the quirky, dirty Ivy.
Specialty: A rounded, deep enough selection of vinyl to outfit any neophyte’s dorm room. An unexpectedly good selection of underground and otherwise neglected rap (Kool Keith’s back catalogue, always a copy of El-P’s Fantastic Damage in stock). Always on top of Providence’s blustery noise scene, Tom’s is a great place to check out a band from kids at the Rhode Island School of Design before they get, you know, freakin’ huge (Talking Heads, Black Dice, Les Savy Fav).
What They’re Missing: A decent helping of most canonical band’s CD discography. They’ll either have Let It Be or Tim in store, never both.
Why We Love It: Because even as the East Side of Providence slides down the slope toward the Starbucks/Volvo kingdom, Tom’s Tracks keeps dishing out downtown art rock and affordable vinyl for the suburban kids left of the dial.
332 Newbury St.
Boston, MA 02115
About: Independent chain with 26 locations throughout New England, with storefronts on eBay and Amazon.com.
Specialty: Comprehensive selection of current independent/major label releases, as well as hip-hop/electronic/rock/punk vinyl.
What They're Missing: Back catalogue selection depends on location.
Why We Love It: Few things say Boston like Newbury Comics' smile logo. The vinyl selection is surprisingly deep; I've found rarities there I've never seen anywhere else. Their eBay and Amazon service is amazingly fast and professional, the best I've ever encountered online. The Harvard Square location has a great T-shirt selection. The Newbury St. location is a fixture on Boston's Rodeo Drive (Aimee Mann used to work there); be sure to enjoy some homemade ice cream from J.P. Licks next door.
645 Massachusetts Ave. (moving soon to 538 Massachusetts Ave., across the street)
Cambridge, MA 02139
About: One of the oldest and largest vinyl retailers in the Boston area, located in the basement of a building across from the Central Square train stop.
Specialty: A diverse selection of vintage soul, pre-1960 oldies, rock, blues, country, vocal, and pop on vinyl and CD. Also has a decently sized disco, reggae, and world music section.
What They’re Missing: New stuff. You’ll rarely find anything from the past few years in stock. Occasionally the vinyl crates placed on the floor cramp the walkway and can be a bit of a nuisance for your back.
Why We Love It: Friendly (and occasionally gossipy) staff, including store owner Alan who has extensive knowledge of doo-wop, gospel, rock, country, and soul. Cheapo has also got an amazingly diverse and deep collections of genres you don’t usually find in your average store (soca, doo-wop, early blues, vocal pop/easy listening.) There are many soul, funk, doo-wop, world, and AM radio compilations I’ve never seen anymore else, as well as lavishly cardboarded 3-cd box sets of early country and folk artists I’ve never heard of. It’s all priced decently, and the incoming vinyl selection has lately been even more selective and plentiful than usual.
[Michael F. Gill]
Mass Muzik (formerly Satellite Records)
Currently Relocating (formerly 49 Massachusetts Ave, Boston, MA 02115)
About: Retail and mail order store dealing in electronic dance music. Former sister store to Satellite Records in NYC, now solely run by local DJ Pat Fontes. Their previous location right near Newbury Street and Hynes Convention Center closed down at the end of August, and is looking to re-open at a new location in October. Check out their website for updates.
Specialty: Boston’s only store dedicated to house, techno, and underground dance music on vinyl.
What They’re Missing: The clientele can be a little intimidating, especially when there is a line of people previewing material on headphones and staring you down, and the prices can add up quickly when buying new and imported vinyl. The CD selection is very meager, with only about 30 to 50 CDs at the Mass Ave location.
Why We Love It: While the verdict is still out on the new location, Mass Muzik has been becoming more and more in tune with current dance trends. Where it once stocked mostly prog-house, trance, and deep house, now you’ll see plenty of minimal, electro-house, hip hop, disco breaks, and even some dubstep. With plenty of turntables and an up-to-date stock, it’s very easy for the electronically-inclined to spend an hour or two just previewing and sifting through all the new releases on any given weekend.
[Michael F. Gill]
12b Eliot Street
Cambridge MA 02138
About: Mail order, retail store, and record label located in a downstairs booth in Harvard Square, next to Charlie’s Kitchen. It has a welcome sign saying “We Sell Weird Music.”
Specialty: Boston’s main spot for improv, noise, psych, modern composers, avant-jazz, and many other fringe genres. The owners are not only on Jandek’s Christmas card list, but also were interviewed for the recent Jandek documentary.
What They’re Missing: Mainly anything approaching MOR or anything on a major label. There isn’t that much popular indie rock either. Also, I’ve found that with such obscure items, a lot of things are only stocked once, so if you missed out on buying that Magick Markers vinyl or the Italian tribute to Bach Bacharach, you are probably out of luck.
Why We Love It: Boston’s best answer to NYC’s Other Music, you are always bound to hear some ridiculously out-there music playing when you walk in (last time I was there they were playing some gospelish krautrock,) and amusing and/or smug banter from the customers (“Oh, I’ve been over Sun City Girls for years now.”) There is also a growing selection of reggae and dance music on vinyl, mostly courtesy of local distributor Forced Exposure. I’ve found some great oddities over here in the past few years, like the complete works of musique concrete fiend Todd Dockstader, as well as albums of voodoo drumming, vegetable orchestras, and acapella cowboy songs.
[Michael F. Gill]
In Your Ear
957 Commonwealth Ave, Boston, 02215
72 Mount Auburn St #A, Cambridge, MA 02138
About: A large store for used vinyl and CDs, with two locations in the Boston area: in the basement of an ATM booth next to the Paradise Rock Club, and in a basement booth a couple blocks from the Harvard Square mini-mall The Garage.
Specialty: Rock/Psych/Prog-Rock/Noise on vinyl and CD, as well as cheap mainstream pop/soul CDs. New vinyl reissues and compilations turn up too. The Boston location is bigger and has more 12” singles then the Cambridge location.
What They’re Missing: A clear sense of order to where each genre begins, ends, and is located, especially in the dollar/fifty cent bins.
Why We Love It: You can feel the sense of division between the rock/psych nerds and the few soul/dance freaks, but there is something of interest to both. The rock/post-punk/imports section is often filled with local college students, and there is usually some guy going on about his latest find (“Have you heard that Chubby Checker psych record? I’ll burn it for you.”) over at the front counter. Meanwhile, the dormant soul/R&B/cutout bins are rarely gone through, so some gems have often fallen through the cracks to the few dance collectors. I’ve gotten great copies of Musique’s “Keep On Jumpin,” C-Bank’s “One More Shot,” Patrick Adams’ “Freek” LP, and Akufen’s remix of Craig David for little more than a dollar or two. There’s also a decent vinyl section for old 80s/90s goth and industrial, which is hard to come by in Boston.
[Michael F. Gill]
Check back each day for another region of the United States and, on Friday, for international record stores…
By: Stylus Staff
Published on: 2006-09-18