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
About: Despite a recent switch-o-change-o of location, Track Records remain based in the city literally tens of people are still calling the Former Viking Capital of Great Britain. They have provided records to slovenly cynics with no appetite for major outlets since 1979.
Specialty: Track try to flog a bit of everything. New releases rub shoulders with the usual Rock/Pop back catalogue, who subsequently cosy up to oddly disproportionate Metal and Country sections. You might find what you came in for. You might not. Anything you do want could be curiously expensive or ridiculously undervalued. It’s a lottery of a place. If downstairs becomes tiresome, an out of place Swiss-chalet staircase can be followed to a mini-horde of vinyl, which dwells alongside other marginalised genres deemed unfit for general consumption (bad luck, Jazz) and a few t-shirts.
What They’re Missing: A ceiling high enough for persons taller than 6’2” to remain comfortably unacquainted with. And someone who knows the alphabet. The record racks are cheerfully inspired by the city’s most famous street; The Shambles.
Why We Love It: I live in a small market town where, although everything is charmingly picturesque and quaint, the best hope of acquiring any music is at the supermarket. Track Records may not have been the finest independent record store to ever grace the planet, but as the only shop within a 30 mile radius that had a chance of stocking semi-obscure 80’s bands, it held—and still holds—a special place in my heart. Besides, how many other record shops can you walk out of and see this? Exactly.
61/62 Thornton Street
Newcastle upon Tyne
About: Coming out of nowhere in 2003, Alt Vinyl has cracked the back of an already established record store market in Newcastle.
Specialty: Unsurprisingly enough, Alt Vinyl really knows its vinyl. Rare Clash seven inches sit happily on the walls next to the latest single-sided lathe cut. This isn't a hipster emporium though, you can still get your Coldplay CDs here and they won't snigger. Their famous Curious and Carnal section stocks some tasty promos and antiques for rock bottom prices. The newly installed local section brings together the area's finer talents (and that’s not even including the obvious Maximo Park and The Futureheads).
What They’re Missing: They could do with a having a late Thursday night opening slot. Those of us on the daily office grind could do with a few extra hours flipping through the racks.
Why We Love It: The Alt Vinyl team manage to balance a musical anal retentiveness with a waving-their-hands-in-the-air passion for music.
Rough Trade Shop
130 Talbot Road
About: The Rough Trade Shop has history on its side. Located in Notting Hill near the historic store’s original location, Rough Trade spawned the post-punk record label of the same name and inspired an army of fashionable windowlickers on Talbot Road.
Specialty: Extremely fresh new releases crowd the bins here. There isn’t much space here, so there’s a lot of turnover. Of course, there’s always a little space reserved for Rough Trade’s tastemaking genre compilations.
What They’re Missing: As mentioned above, there’s not much space in this store, so the selection is pretty limited, and rather expensive at that. Don’t come here expecting to find some great used shopping—come here to keep up with the Joneses.
Why We Love It: Rough Trade is a pilgrimage. You’ve really never lived until you’ve been to London, braved the Tube to Notting Hill, wandered down Portobello into Rough Trade, paid far too much for a 12 inch single that was pressed five hours prior, walked out, and turned your nose up at the professional class.
34-35 Berwick Street
About: Central attraction to Soho record mecca Berwick Street, a place featured in countless music videos and the cover to Oasis’ (What’s The Story) Morning Glory. Formerly located in cramped premises at the strip club filled end furthest from Oxford Street, Sister Ray recently took over the more spacious and central Selectadisc.
Specialty: Always unfailingly excellent for new indie releases and rarities, they’ve now added Selectadisc’s expansive back catalogue section and a fantastic range of North American imports.
What They’re Missing: The vinyl selection is still comparatively limited and prices on better known stuff can rarely compete with the nearby likes of Mister CD. Their tendency to play unlistenable records very loudly also varies from endearing to annoying depending on mood.
Why We Love It: The reassuring knowledge that they’re very likely to have whatever new release the local megastores have failed on (Jeniferever, Arcade Fire, Broken Social Scene). And without Sister Ray coming through on the Arctic Monkeys’ debut single I’d now be 100 eBay pounds poorer.
1129 Argyle Street
About: With material ranging from the blackest Japanese folk, Leeds’ dirtiest noise, and reissued glorious psychedelia, you’d need to be dead from the neck up to not find something to match your taste. The handmade shelving, fanatical staff, the sheer number of records in the intimate space makes it clear this is first and foremost a labor of love / obsession. Can you name another store with a Jandek shrine?
Specialty: As a store, label, and mail order / distribution company it’s swiftly become a lightning rod for the free/drone/noise/psych scenes. VT stocks all of those records that you would normally never have a chance of finding, unless you had some umbilical connection to the bands in question. Poetry books, t-shirts, DVDs, cassettes and CD-Rs—the place is jam-packed, and it demands more than a cursory visit.
What They’re Missing: Space and a more central location. It took me 30 minutes going up and down the road to find it.
Why We Love It: If the leftfield is your thing, then you can’t help but get seduced. Their weekly email updates cover such a huge amount of stock, and feature mini-reviews to let you know exactly what’s coming out. There isn’t anywhere else that does such a comprehensive round-up of what’s what in international underground music.
Via del Fiume 9
About: Rome's primary DJ shop.
Specialty: 12"s of all kinds, from house to techno to new wave classics.
What They’re Missing: Techno selection leans towards minimal stuff.
Why We Love It: Rome isn't known for DJ record shops; Remix is the best place for that (L'Orso Buddy, at Via Crescenzio 41, may also be worth a look). The ambience is very "Rome," with photos of local DJ's on the ceiling and the trendy Via del Corso shopping area nearby. The selection is decent across all genres; if you're looking for classic '80s 12"s, you might strike gold here. It’s also a good place to pick up flyers for Rome's nightclub/party scene. Any place with a copy of X-101 signed by Mike Banks and Jeff Mills deserves a visit.
Via Cavour 72
Rome, Italy 184
About: Near Termini Station, on the treacherous Via Cavour, Metropoli Rock is a fascinating study in the vicissitudes of shopping for records in Italy. As tiny, cramped, and disorganized as a squatter's knapsack, it nonetheless proffers rewards for those with the patience and time to scratch beneath the surface.
Specialty: Overpriced home-grown pressings of UK/US faves (Italian pressings of the Cure's Mixed Up were going for 40 Euro) mostly serve to conceal the much-less-costly local artists. They also seem to do a fair trade in CD singles, comps, and impulse buys—I imagine most of the indigenous shoppers come here for a quick 10 euro fix—the shop reminds me of nothing so much as rap-fixated storefronts in DC and Manhattan, peddling the Europop/trance equivalent of East Coast mixtapes.
What They’re Missing: Only a sense of organization—ANY kind of organization. Also, I got the sense from my last visit that there was a certain suspicion of those trudging through the dusty, unsorted reams of vinyl. Considering that the clutter had not been re-organized one bit since my last visit there TWO YEARS prior I can understand why.
Why We Love It: Despite (or maybe because of) the lack of sense in the racks, one finds some delicious obscurities hanging about. Also, the lack of sophistication parallels Roma in general—that bizarre combination of Third World Country and World Class City that is part of why the ancient capital remains so charming and so strange. Also, when one finally collects the overpriced records that have been sitting on the shelves long enough to be more dust than wax, one finds that the process of checking out involves a serious, drawn-out haggle with the owner.
Via San Giovanni in Laterano, 192-194
Rome, Italy 184
About: Weave past the "gladiatori" in sweat socks and digital watches, avoid all three Caesars, and make your way down the Via San Giovanni in Laterano to the hippest record store in the Eternal City.
Specialty: Soul Food rocks the 60's and 70's vibe well enough but has tasty treats on offer from every decade of pop music past. Funk, soul, punk, garage, psyche, jazz and power-pop all get love here—but it's mainly reissues (primarily on vinyl) that Soul Food stocks with unimpeachable taste.
What They’re Missing: Not much—there's little new music to be had here, but that's part of the point of Soul Food—they eschew the Tower / Virgin-esque ethos of big Rome record stores like Disfunzioni Musicali and Ricordi to focus on retro sounds and vinyl.
Why We Love It: Let's face it—record shopping in my favorite city is a daunting prospect—arrogant employees, high prices, mysteriously-labelled stock, and typically Mediterranean insouciance make for a frustrating experience. Soul Food, beyond their awesome stock of reprints, are admirable for flipping all the negatives of record shopping in Rome upside-down. A ridiculously friendly and helpful staff, casual and intimate atmosphere, and a small but deep selection make for the best vinyl-digging experience in Roma. Buying records in Italia without some greebo breathing down your neck? Priceless. Scoring a sweet Kraftwerk t-shirt for 10 Euro while the Delta 5 compilation plays in the background? Off the map.
Jet Set Records
410 Shimomaruya-cho (5th & 6th Floors), Kawaramachi-Sanjo,
Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto-shi, Kyoto, Japan
About: Located in the lively downtown center of Kyoto, Jet Set Records offers the selection of a DJ specialty shop with a number of rock titles and an enchanting selection of novel electronic and electro-acoustic releases from primarily Japan and Europe.
Specialty: Electronic/House in the 6th floor store, and jazz, soul, world, and dancehall reggae in the 5th floor store. There’s a healthy serving of vinyl, but CD’s can be found too, especially in rock & electronic music.
What They’re Missing: In the end, Jet Set is a DJ shop, so casual record-seekers should obviously beware that much of the store may not specifically appeal to them. Specifically, the rock section is probably going to be a little thin for some, but in general the store has a nice selection of cross-over genres.
Why We Love It: This writer was first turned on to Junior Boys, Hypo, and a lot of Childisc artists via Jet Set. The old Pan Am memorabilia makes the place a worthy visit even if you’re not in the market for music.
Third Ear Music
23 Shenkin Street
Tel Aviv, Israel
About: Forget the conflict in the Middle East, the rather cosmopolitan Tel-Aviv actually possesses one hell of a record store, right next to the bustling Dizengoff shopping center. With a stellar collection of vinyl and CD in a myriad of genres, this is a diamond in the rough for a place with fairly repetitive music stores.
Specialty: Unlike other Israeli music stores, this store is defined by its extensive assortment of sub-genres of music abroad, including oddly prodigious stacks of jazz, psych, folk, metal, punk, noise, and electronic music, on both record and compact disc.
What They’re Missing: The record collection could be more extensive, and some electronic titles could stand a bit of a price cut, but that's a complaint at many music shops.
Why We Love It: Well, for one, prices. A great deal of music, especially UK and Japanese imports, are much cheaper than in the States, Anywhere where you can buy Can's Future Days and Faust's IV for a combined twelve bucks is at least worth visiting. But it's also unique for containing CD's that are usually sold out or absent from many CD stores, like Herbie Hancock's Crossings and mu-ziq's Lunatic Harness, both for under ten dollars.
Kotara Homemaker Centre
Building D, Shop 5 & 6
Kotara, NSW 2289
(And other locations around Australia)
About: Chain specializing in budget price music, movies, and electronics, with the strip mall banality of its exterior hiding a range and depth worthy of an indie record store.
Specialty: Being very cheap. With standard prices about a third cheaper than other stores, it’d be worth a visit even if its collection was no better than your average department store. But when its bargain bins look better than other chain stores’ entire catalogues, my visits all too frequently result in me leaving with a $2 Built to Spill album or a $5 Go! Team record.
What They’re Missing: While the range of recent releases is superb, lower profile older albums are more difficult to come by. At times its chain store qualities can’t help showing, making for a somewhat cold, impersonal experience.
Why We Love It: Apart from heavily discounted stock, its best quality is the way it manages to feel like an indie record store, despite being located in a gigantic warehouse. The promotion, for instance, is endearingly amateur; TV on the Radio’s latest release is advertised with a staff-member’s hand-drawn picture of Cookie Monster. The selection, too, seems motivated less by the clinical approach of a large corporation, and more by the idiosyncratic whims of a record obsessive. It has an admirable range of box sets and vinyl, and a refreshing willingness to do stupid things like import bulk amounts of Kanye West and G-Unit mixtapes across the Pacific, less because there is a demand for such releases, and more because the store has the ability stock them.
Red Eye Records
66 King St
Sydney, NSW 2000
About: Sydney’s largest independent music store, Red Eye is a local icon and the starting point for any music obsessive in the city.
Specialty: Between its two locations, the original two story King Street store (downstairs for new stock, upstairs for used) and the Pitt Street location for used and collectors’ items, Red Eye is ground zero for a day’s music shopping in the city. A nice touch is its practice of including a brief description on the front of every release in the store.
What They’re Missing: Despite an exhaustive range of every form of rock imaginable, the hip-hop section is irritatingly patchy.
Why We Love It: The admirable range is a definite plus, as is the well-stocked second-hand section, but my favorite thing about Red Eye is the vinyl and multitude of turntables provided for listening. I’ve killed many an afternoon picking selections of obscure remixes and b-sides from the punk and electronic sections, and, with headphones on and a big stack of records sitting beside me, coming to the realization that I could never buy even half the great music I was listening to.
About: The bricks & mortar component to online DJ shop soulseduction.com.
Specialty: Anything with an electronic beat—house, techno, broken beat, hip-hop, etc.
What They’re Missing: Not much for this kind of stuff.
Why We Love It: The one time I visited, the store had a lingerie fashion show. I kid you not. Normally, when I'm listening to records, I'm locked in. But tons of scantily clad women walking around with drinks—that was distracting. I don't know if that sort of thing happens often there, or if that's adequate endorsement, but the store's selection is more than enough to recommend it. This is the rare place that's good for both breakbeat junkies and four-on-the-floor purists. Particularly impressive is the selection of dancefloor techno—Intec, Naples sound, Spanish techno, etc.
About: Punk megastore in the Kreuzberg district of Berlin.
Specialty: CD's, DVD's, vinyl, and clothing for all flavors of punk, from '77 to Oi to hardcore to metalcore.
What They’re Missing: More metal would be nice (a personal bias), especially since most hardcore these days is practically metal.
Why We Love It: A punk store that's not a rathole! In fact, this store is huge, clean, and professional. The hardcore punk selection is incredibly deep—how Germans know about obscure West Coast labels is beyond me. Need that old Integrity album or Champion split EP? You'll find it here. The clothing selection is jaw-dropping, with racks and racks (two walls' worth) of band T-shirts, hoodies, and Doc Martens. The staff is friendly, too, patiently putting up with my lack of Deutsche. If you call yourself a punk, this store is Mecca.
About: Legendary techno record store in the Kreuzberg district of Berlin.
Specialty: Techno along the Berlin-Detroit axis, reggae, drum 'n' bass, dubstep.
What They're Missing: The latest trendy minimal records, though there is some of that.
Why We Love It: This place oozes history. Founded by one of the Basic Channel guys, this store is central to the Berlin-Detroit techno connection. Here, you'll find all those Basic Channel, Chain Reaction, Burial Mix, and Maurizio records that sell for loads on eBay. You'll also find classic records by the Detroit masters, like Carl Craig, Robert Hood, and Jeff Mills, whose selection is so well-stocked he gets his own section on the website. Chicago, the birthplace of all things jacking, is well-represented, along with UK techno, especially the Birmingham sound (Surgeon, Regis, Downwards, etc.). True to the spirit of Basic Channel, there's also a large reggae selection. Come here enough, and you may spot Richie Hawtin or Ricardo Villalobos shopping for records.
About: Minimal techno record store in the Mitte district of Berlin.
Specialty: 12”s, a few CD's. Used bins yield the occasional house or hard techno record.
What They’re Missing: Not much for this kind of stuff.
Why We Love It: Minimal techno records are so common in Berlin that your neighborhood falafel stand probably sells them. What distinguishes Rotation is its pleasant atmosphere. The store is clean and new, with plenty of listening stations, several of which have a nice view of the street. The selection is strong, with all the usual suspects—Crosstown Rebels, M_nus, Poker Flat, and so on. Used bins offer bargains and cut-rate white labels. You might also find rave classics or represses thereof. This is a good place to pick up flyers for Berlin's raging club scene.
54 Queen St S
Kitchener, ON N2G 1V6
About: Tucked away across the street from a big second hand book store in Kitchener's downtown, Encore (motto: “Not a dog disc in the dump!”) is surprisingly big on the inside and has that weathered, not-dirty-but-definitely-not-clean feel that all the best record stores have.
Specialty: As Kitchener is not exactly a huge metropolis, stores like Encore have to have breadth rather than obsessive depth, and so in addition to the large main indie/rock collection that is their bread and butter they have decent, gratifyingly diverse selections of everything from metal to jazz, rap to krautrock/Japanese psych (filed together, of course).
What They’re Missing: Honestly, after years of struggling with the local HMV in next-city-over Guelph to find anything worthwhile, I have a hard time spotting any flaws in their stock, and the distance means I haven't been able to keep close tabs on how quickly they get things. But like any shop, it's not actually perfect, and of the records I was desperate to get when I first went there, the (helpful) employees had not heard of the Knife at all, let alone their album.
Why We Love It: After spending literally my entire life hours away from a half decent record shop, inadvertently walking into Encore and finding that not only did they have Coil and Muslimgauze, but that they had about ten releases apiece, plus other personal favorites like the Mountain Goats and Sleep. My utter joy at finding the place was only rivaled by my chagrin at living nearby for five years without knowing.
Orange Monkey Music
5 Princess St W
Waterloo, ON N2L 2X7
About: A small L-shaped space above local institution the Jane Bond (which makes some tasty vegetarian food), the Orange Monkey's proprietor is known around Guelph as DJ Charless when he runs a popular local funk/soul/R&B; night; the rest of the time he runs this cozy nook stuffed to bursting with CDs, vinyl, and movies (mostly of the monster/genre variety).
Specialty: Well, the last time I visited companions walked off with the original score to Dawn of the Dead and a CD compilation of 70's porn music, and I managed to get Leonard Cohen's Death of a Ladies Man and Big Black's Songs About Fucking, and we collectively scratched the surface. I didn't manage to even glance at the vinyl. As with Encore, Waterloo is small enough that the Orange Monkey needs to carry a decent selection of everything, but glancing around I definitely got the impression that the place prefers music that is either hard, weird, or both. Also, zombie movies.
What They’re Missing: Well, it's certainly not the first place I'd go to look for rap music, and those cramped quarters are both part of the charm and kind of a pain in the ass; there were four of us, and I'm not sure how many more people you could have fit in the place.
Why We Love It: If you'd seen the look on my brother's face when he saw that Dawn of the Dead vinyl up on the wall, you wouldn't need to ask.
620 Queen St W
Toronto, ON M6J 1E4
About: Probably the biggest and best, definitely the most well known, non-chain music store in Canada's largest city, Rotate This! gets nearly as much exposure from the fact that they sell tickets for most of the shows in Toronto proper, barring the type of thing that might show up at the Air Canada Centre. It's a bit of a hipster mecca, the sort of place that's careful to note on their website that although they don't stock Britney (since you can find her anywhere) they still like her.
Specialty: Pretty much what you'd expect. Their current top ten in sales ranges from Thom Yorke to the Black Angels (pausing to take in Sufjan, the Knife, and MSTRKRFT along the way), and they have an abiding love for vinyl, striving to have as much of their stock available on LP as possible.
What They’re Missing: Well, their own website proclaims a lack of nu-country and classical as well as anything that's “not appropriate for our store, for any number of reasons.” More importantly, unless things have changed since the last time I dropped by, they're missing anything even approaching a decent filing system—many albums are filed just by letter with no divisions by band. If you're looking for something or in a hurry, you're in for the record shop equivalent of Hell.
Why We Love It: It's an institution, it's got a great selection, and don't neglect how nice it is to pick up the disc you were looking for and score tickets to that show you wanted to see at the same time.
By: Stylus Staff
Published on: 2006-09-22