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
Locations in Hollywood, Berkeley, and San Francisco
About: The cliché goes that Amoeba is the 800 lb. gorilla in the Los Angeles record world. It’s a cliché for a reason. Amoeba is probably the Bay Area’s best export since Jerry Garcia, depending on your feelings for the Dead. Amoeba landed in Los Angeles via Berkeley in late 2001 with a bang, immediately becoming Los Angeles’ largest record store (and one of the largest in the world).
Specialty: Due to its sheer immensity, Amoeba has the capacity to store double or even triple the amount of records and CDs of its competitors. Plus, its used CDs are usually lower-priced than anywhere else in town and often include brand-new and hard-to-find albums.
What They’re Missing: A sense of equity. Though Amoeba is customer’s dream, its sheer size, and buying power have obliterated the competition. When Los Angeles landmarks Aron’s Records and Rhino Records shut down this year, much industry whispering circulated around the Amoeba effect playing a role in the stores’ decreased business.
Why We Love It: Over the past few months, the Raconteurs, the Secret Machines, the Mountain Goats, the Black Keys, and Silversun Pickups have been dropping in to play free in-store performances. Amoeba is a savior for those on a budget, allowing die-hard fans the opportunity to see big bands for free.
1055 Valencia St.
San Francisco, CA
About: Aquarius is best known for its enormous mailorder website, and its dense, insightful, and often snarky reviews of records. However, the shop is also a 36-year-old San Francisco institution that sits deep in the Mission District. The staff’s handwritten reviews are crammed on stickers that are taped to the CD cases.
Specialty: An underground music lover’s paradise only made possible by a staff that loves their job. There is an array of indie rock, sound-art, obscure psych, and krautrock (Conrad Schnitzler or Zippo Zetterlink, anyone?), underground metal, and recordings of elephants playing gongs.
What They’re Missing: The vinyl selection was rather tiny during the last time I visited.
Why We Love It: Just check out their website to understand Aquarius’s love for the leftfield or the obscure. And if you visit the shop, say hello to The Wire contributor Jim Haynes, who works there.
Groove Merchant Records
687 Haight St.
San Francisco, CA
About: “This one goes out to my man, the Groove Merchant / Coming through with beats for which I’ve been searching / Like two sealed copies of [classic Lonnie Smith album] Expansions / I’m like Tom Vu with yachts and mansions,” Beastie Boy Mike D raps in “Professor Booty.” This 16-year-old store is like a classroom for DJs, producers and beat junkies from around the world. Founders Michael and Jody McFadin are best known for creating Ubiquity Records.
Specialty: Funk, jazz, soul, and Latin grooves so rare they’re on the EPA’s endangered species list. They also have a great vinyl collection of leftfield hip-hop, broken beat, and reggae.
What They’re Missing: A lot of gems get quickly sold out, and some of the prices reflect “niche market for financially successful DJs.”
Why We Love It: Ask a clerk about an obscure record and odds are that you’ll receive a detailed history of its origins, players, and tips on where the coolest breaks are.
Near 21st and K streets
About: This now-defunct shop was a prime hangout and volunteer-run record shop for Sacramento’s punk underground during the 1990s. The shop itself was crammed into a tiny and dimly-lit, attic-like room. “Resist the Mindfuck” was written across a wall (I vaguely recall).
Specialty: Homemade, DIY rock and punk records, along with dollar-bin obscurities and novelties. I once purchased copies of DC minimalist-punks The Warmers’ lone album and Martin Denny’s Exotica during one visit.
What They’re Missing: Their existence. Sacramento has screamed for an DIY record shop for too many years.
Why We Love It: The Hindenburg was a fine place where DIY punk culture provided an alternative to Sacramento’s Tower Records and Virgin Megastore.
Red Devil Records
894 Fourth St.
San Rafael, CA
About: I encountered this tiny shop in the small Napa Valley town of Petaluma a few years back, and tripped over a trove. Original, sealed LP copies of the Stooges’ self-titled debut and Public Image Ltd.’s Metal Box (in its metal container) were perched behind the counter. Red Devil had since relocated to downtown San Rafael.
Specialty: This shop has a rep for stocking loads of punk records and knows about collector’s items well. My prized find: a radio promo copy of Pere Ubu’s Dub Housing.
What They’re Missing: Rare punk records that are slightly cheaper than Collector’s Prices would be nice.
Why We Love It: Red Devil is proof-positive that mom-and-pop record shops can still have the upper hand on the chain-stores when it comes to offering rock artifacts.
Open Mind Music
342 Divisadero St.
San Francisco, CA
About: A vinyl junkie’s realm that’s saturated in arcane and contemporary wax. The lower Haight shop can maraud the wallet and swallow up an entire afternoon of your free time.
Specialty: An abundance of hip-hop, psych, post-techno, indie-rock, dollar-bin corporate rock, jazz, and 80s new wave on vinyl. My prized find: A Japanese imported copy of Christian Marclay’s famous Record Without a Cover on white vinyl.
What They’re Missing: The CD selection can be minuscule and nearly unnoticeable at times.
Why We Love It: The shop can be a quieter and better-stocked alternative to the mammoth Amoeba Music that stands a mile away.
Formerly a physical store in Sacramento, CA
About: Tone Vendor was the only reason why I visited midtown Sacramento for a few years. The store was an ideal independent operation that stocked generous amounts of vinyl, CDs, DVDs, magazines, and paintings by local artists.
Specialty: Tone Vendor’s online catalog is mainly dedicated to indie-pop, but there is also a fine taste for punk, hip-hop, psych, and experimental music.
What They’re Missing: The owners closed shop and moved back to Florida last year, leaving an asteroid-sized cultural crater in Sacramento.
Why We Love It: It sometimes seemed like whatever was reviewed in Stylus or The Wire would be stocked at Tone Vendor. The staff’s friendliness and music addiction always made the place an easy excuse to blow off an afternoon there.
1414 Grant Ave. & 513 Green St.
San Francisco, CA 94133
About: Actually two stores in the scenic North Beach section of San Francisco. One specializes in collector’s vinyl and the other is the ultimate mixed-bag: tens of thousands of unsorted records in the basement priced at five dollars each.
Specialty: Vinyl, particularly vinyl of the 1970s. Jazz, Rock and Classical are given equal stand here, and there’s a lot of it. The Green Street store is a great place to kill a few hours and maybe find something good if you can wade through the high stacks of old music and recording equipment.
What They’re Missing: You want music made in the 21st century? Go to Amoeba.
Why We Love It: After flipping through shiny Love originals and well-preserved releases from Eno’s Obscure label, I can walk across the street, spend four hours in the basement and come out with Dusseldorf by La Dusseldorf, four different recordings of the same Francis Poulenc piano work, and Tim Curry’s entire studio output.
1809 Fourth Street
Berkeley, CA 94710
About: Starbucks mini-chain does a little right by emphasizing the process of music discovery, and a little wrong by being a Starbucks brand.
Specialty: Each visit to Hear Music tells a story, whether it’s browsing themed listening stations (with themes from “Cities” to specific moods or times of the day) or querying the friendly and highly knowledgeable staff. Hear Music is like a casino: the blueprints don’t allow you to leave without seeing an opportunity to spend money—and possibly getting a big payoff.
What They’re Missing: While the quality guidance from the staff comes for free, the product sells for a premium … sometimes too high for independent record store shoppers who browse at Hear and then “buy the CDs at Amoeba.”
Why We Love It: While Hear Music’s corporate image doesn’t impress and these days MSRP isn’t too appetizing, the store is definitely on to something. Many shops have played around with multimedia sampling stations, but Hear chooses to push a combination of shopper searching, editorial features, and employee know-how for music discovery, and their corporate sponsorship means they’re not encumbered with such burdens as being cool or trying to be tastemakers. Looks like it’s paid off for them: new Hear Music Coffeehouse in San Antonio and Miami recently opened, joining the Berkeley store and coffeehouse store in Santa Monica.
2401 Telegraph Ave.
Berkeley, CA 94704
About: Bay Area independent chain second in stature only to Amoeba Records
Specialty: Comprehensive selection of independent/major label releases in nearly all genres, with well-stocked back catalogue. Punk and metal sections are the best in the US.
What They're Missing: Electronic section is skimpy.
Why We Love It: Actually, no one loves Rasputin. The mail order service is dodgy, the employees constantly look beaten-down, and the only way to get around the five floors of the San Francisco branch is a tiny elevator that some poor employee operates for hours each day. But the huge selection is second only to Amoeba's, with comparably low prices. Rasputin has even adopted a similarly generous return policy. The punk and metal buyers deserve medals, as those sections are the biggest and best by far of any US record store. If you can't find something in the Berkeley location, just walk down a block to Amoeba—those are the two best blocks of record shopping in the world.
2395 Glendale Blvd.
About: In recent years, most of the stalwarts of the Los Angeles record store world have shuttered their doors. But despite all this industry consolidation, Silverlake’s Rockaway Records, is still going strong after 27 year, despite a name change and two different moves.
Specialty: Rockaway is perfect for the serious music collector. Whether it’s old T. Rex ticket stubs, Led Zeppelin concert tour jackets, or classic vinyl records in mint condition, Rockaway has everything to satisfy die-hards—provided they can afford it.
What They’re Missing: Though it might be nit-picking, on any given day Rockaway’s CD in-stock can be pretty thin and their used vinyl can be pricy.
Why We Love It: Where else are you going to find the only 1976 Bob Marley Island Promotional Jacket ever made? Got $300 to spare?
Sea Level Records
1716 W. Sunset Blvd.
Echo Park, CA
About: Founded in December 2001, Sea Level Records just might be Los Angeles’ pre-eminent indie-focused record store. Run by manager Todd Clifford, Sea Level is smack dab in the epicenter of Los Angeles’ music scene, as it stands just 100 feet away from The Echo, one of the Los Angeles’ premier indie music venues.
Specialty: Sea Level carries more up-and-coming LA indie records than perhaps any other store in the city. Additionally, the store constantly hosts in-store concerts and record release parties. Recently, the likes of the Silversun Pickups, Ariel Pink, the Black Angels, and Daedulus have performed.
What They’re Missing: Due to its relatively small size, Sea Level is limited to the amount of music that it can house. Though it comes pretty close to having everything you could possibly need.
Why We Love It: Sea Level has a personal touch that no other store in town has. They have regulars and know their tastes. When something new comes out that you might like, the Sea Level employees always know where to direct you. Conversely, if you’re about to purchase the new Meat Loaf album, they might convince you otherwise.
112 Broadway Ave E
Seattle, WA 98102
About: This large independent store is part of a Northwest chain. Everyday has seen some big changes in the last couple years, adding a second floor to effectively double their space, but this Capitol Hill staple still offers a great used selection and a friendly staff who insists on playing pretty post-rock all day.
Specialty: Best used selection in Seattle, hands down. This is one of the better places to go in Seattle for recent rock, electronic, and experimental releases. Staff is willing to cut the discs open for listening stations as well.
What They’re Missing: Vinyl selection is a little weird—I mean, how many copies of the Batman soundtrack can you reasonably expect to sell for four dollars? Jazz and classical could probably use a catalog injection as well.
Why We Love It: I had my first experiences with Tortoise and Glenn Branca at this store, and that was hot shit.
203 SW 9th Ave or 3736 SE Hawthorne Blvd
About: The third branch of Portland's pride-and-joy media trifecta—get a book at Powell's, a film at Movie Madness, and a record or two at Jackpot—is almost as good as your friends tell you when they meet you at the airport.
Specialty: Indie rock and vinyl—this month's canon is as well-covered as you could hope, they're dutiful about selling imports early and for manageable prices, and Jackpot's vinyl selection, particularly on Hawthorne, is a pleasingly deep grab-bag of established classics and stuff you might actually buy, at prices at which you might actually buy it.
What They're Missing: Curious omissions in Jackpot's CD back-catalog might not actually abound, but they're definitely there. Other times their selections by particular artists may seem perverse—some Wednesdays it seems they've got everybody's Metal Machine Music and nothing else—but then again you can go to Borders for the canon; record stores are for the rest.
Why We Love It: Because the week I moved here I wandered into the Hawthorne location, bought an Ella Fitzgerald record for $2, and listened to it on a really terrible turntable while drinking cranberry juice from a wine glass. They could institute a store policy under which they shoot you when you walk in and it wouldn't ruin that.
3623 SE Hawthorne Blvd
Portland, OR 97214-5143
About: The idea is that everything's under $10. And though Reverb may abandon its otherwise admirably followed rule when pricing items for collectors with a capital C, if you just want to hear stuff you can walk out with change.
Specialty: Vinyl, vinyl, vinyl. The CD section, piled thin, occupies a cramped stretch of cobweb-strewn wall; the vinyl section is, essentially, the store, and though there's little here that your dad hasn't heard of, there's a lot he doesn't have. Perfect for cheap-and-thorough excavations of the less savory parts of well-known artists' back catalogues. The 75s section is bigger than it has to be, too, and what Reverb files under "Independent" most indie shops aren't aware exists.
What They're Missing: Anything recorded after 1985. It isn't that the occasional Pavement or late-period Depeche Mode record won't float to the surface from time to time, but Reverb's a 70s-and-back store at heart, venturing consistently into the present only for local bands and for the seriously little-heard. And since it's also a used store at heart, without much reliable influx, your luck's in inverse proportion to the luck of the guy before you.
Why We Love It: $10. And the fan, which stutters like an old typewriter.
115 E. Magnolia Ave
Bellingham, WA 98225
About: A short bus ride from Western Washington University, Cellophane Square is a big building plastered with posters, filled with CDs, and situated at perhaps the most useful intersection in town; its neighbors are a Taco stand, the bus station, and another record store (the also commendable Avalon Music).
Specialty: Solid selection of hip-hop, electronic music, and indie rock covering new and old releases, with a good variety of local acts as well.
What They’re Missing: No noticeable flaws; rather it lacks any distinction to make it genuinely magnificent.
Why We Love It: It has a nice but not fantastic range, and prices are usually better at the mall, but I still like going here. The staff are cool, and the store has a slightly musty smell, giving it a unique quality you can’t get from your local Best Buy. Open late, it’s a warm refuge downtown from the constant Pacific Northwest downpour.
638 E. 13th St.
Denver, CO 80203
About: Within spitting distance of a church and a junior high school, the red brick Wax Trax complex fills half a block in Denver’s Capitol Hill. The place is a true-blue record shop, from the crammed, confusing racks to the typically indifferent clerks. Really two adjacent shops, the vinyl side is Mile High’s best bet for used records.
Specialty: Punk and metal, but more importantly, soul. Other shops have higher volume, but Wax Trax has style. Navigating it can be a hassle, but it’s yet one more reminder that business comes second.
What They’re Missing: The shop’s out of step with press hype, causing some gaps. Their electro- and dance- stuff is about five years dated, and the hip-hop section is little more than a token effort.
Why We Love It: It’s a relic of another age. Instead of clearing space for anti-Bush bobbleheads to boost slumping music sales, Wax Trax has hand-decorated boxes for local comps. Precisely coded name cards are replaced with Sharpie-scrawled biographical tidbits and exhaustive listings of side projects. Enjoy it while you can.
Twist and Shout
300 E. Alameda Avenue
Denver, CO 80209
About: Denver’s largest independent music store, Twist and Shout is the type of all-everything shop that keeps the shelves full and the selection wide. They’re also the type of shop that sells t-shirts and hemp products, but the vastness of the place makes wading through a few Tool t-shirts mostly worth it.
Specialty: It may sound sort of silly, but you’ve rarely seen a store cover rock music so well: Amon Duul to Frank Zappa, Twist and Shout carries the extensive back-catalogs of rock’n’roll’s footnotes. A surprisingly strong selection of music-related literature—from the 33 1/3 series to a shelf of Bob Dylan tomes—conveniently placed near relevant artists makes for nasty impulse buying.
What They’re Missing When your catalog is this vast, some things are bound to get overlooked, and while the World Music and Electronic sections look large, they’re months behind on new releases, poorly organized, and rarely re-stocked. The store’s vinyl is relegated to a small shop across the street, with a pricey, meager selection. Not sure anyone would complain if the staff was friendlier/more knowledgeable, either.
Why We Love It: Because it’s the biggest, best shop in town, and the only place a Denver visitor needs to turn to get a handle on the city’s music scene.
Check back each day for another region of the United States and, on Friday, for international record stores…
By: Stylus Staff
Published on: 2006-09-21