The Best Record Stores in the USA
Hollywood – San Francisco – Berkeley, CA
Even in the days when record-store chains ruled the music world, nothing compared to Amoeba. It was, and is, simply the most thorough and welcoming place a record lover could hope to shop. Each of its three stores features more than 100,000 items — much of it surprisingly high-grade, and with loads of surprises and rarities around seemingly every corner. Which, as anyone who's been to any of them can tell you, is a lot of corners.
By Michaelangelo Matos and Stacey Anderson
• Photos: The 20 Best Record Store Day Exclusives
The Sound Garden
The role of Baltimore's central new-and-used, vinyl-and-CD, DVD-and-BluRay, music-and-more-music store has been comfortably played for more than two decades by the Sound Garden, in the heart of Fells Point, which stays open till midnight on weekends and features the city's biggest stock of physical music. It's an enjoyable hangout spot. Not only do the shelves teem with the latest in everything from hotly tipped indie rock to streets-approved rap, but also because the Sound Garden has one of the friendliest staffs you could hope for. And if you care to broadcast your finds, they sell DJ equipment as well.
Funk, soul, African, Brazilian, Latin, hip-hop, jazz, and disco are the specialties of this Chicago powerhouse — easily the finest shop of its kind in the United States. Rarities and imports are lingua franca here, be they lovingly packaged rarities compilations from Japan or original pressings of LPs Afrika Bambaataa spun at South Bronx block parties in the mid-'70s. Great service and thoroughness of selection is Dusty Groove's trademark, and while its website has been a boon to body movers around the world for well over a decade, there's nothing like visiting in person.
A big, comfortable space in a medium-sized, comfortable town, Ear X-tacy is arguably Louisville's second-greatest tourist attraction after the Kentucky Derby. Yet there's nothing touristy about it: From a packed schedule of in-store performances to a generous selection of local artists — not to mention national and international ones — this is a classic hometown record shop, with generous amounts of music-related items (not just CDs and vinyl). You know that long out of print title you've always hoped to run across in person? Chances are that it's here — and that it's cheap.
California Ave. SW, Seattle, WA
Mercer St., Seattle, WA : The special trip from the city proper to Easy Street's West Seattle location was always worth it, thanks to the store's hefty selection and adjacent cafe. Then the second store opened in Lower Queen Anne, near the Space Needle, and there was no further question as to which of Seattle's CD stores was best. Beyond the DVD wall, the array of magazines and books, generous number of box sets, and thorough metal selection, the LQA's secret weapon is a neatly arranged, dauntingly thorough vinyl selection where you're as likely to find cool disco rarities as the new limited-edition Beck 7-inch.
Minneapolis, MN; Duluth, MN; St. Cloud, MN
The unhurried atmosphere, aisles filled with browsers, and available incense and knickknacks make the Minneapolis location of the Fetus, as everyone calls it, the city's indispensable record shopping experience. Jazz, hip-hop, blues, and world-music fans are especially well served here — no surprise, since the Fetus is a regional distributor as well as a shop. Many of the staffers have been there for decades; regulars head straight to the far wall for densely-packed shelves of new and local releases.
Ann Arbor, MI
Encore makes a lasting impression on buyers just passing through Ann Arbor (in addition to inspiring loyalty in locals) thanks to its seemingly endless stacks of used vinyl and CDs, as well as plenty of new stuff, particularly from local and regional artists old (Ann Arbor's own Stooges are represented heavily and well) and new (there's plenty from Wolf Eyes and other related noise acts). The store's appeal isn't limited to recordings — there's an impressive 'zine selection as well as memorabilia, in case you have an entire day to kill.
Garage rock is a staple of many an independent record store, but Goner puts its money where its ears are, issuing some of the rawest titles in the field on its own label, including the early work of the late, great Jay Reatard, a longtime friend of the store, as well as more recent work from Ty Seagall and the Eddy Current Suppression Ring. But it's a mistake to pigeonhole Goner. Memphis is a wide-open music town, after all, and blues, soul, funk, country, metal, indie, and all kinds of international music take up space in this stores aisles.
SW 9th Ave., Portland, OR; SE Hawthorne Blvd., Portland, OR
Both locations of this Northwest favorite have plenty of charm, not least because its buyers are clearly in love with vinyl — just about every notable new title available in the format is present and accounted for. The 9th Ave. store in particular — an oasis compared to the overwhelming Powell's Books that's located a couple of blocks away — showcases 12-inch sleeves all over the high walls. There's plenty to select from CD-wise as well, and the airy space is as welcoming as the city itself.
Sure, there are CDs, videos, old rock magazines and books, even 8-track tapes at this massive Pittsburgh store. But it's vinyl that really matters here: Close to a million pieces of 12-inch vinyl (and nearly as many 45s) are housed in Jerry's enormous space, running the gamut of genres: jazz, R&B, psychedelic rock, as well as more recent stuff. Bonus: Jerry's repairs record players, and sells used turntables as well. Double bonus: Whistlin' Willie's 78s, which opened earlier this year, is located right next door.
Laurie’s Planet of Sound
Chicago has no shortage of excellent record stores (as this list demonstrates). But ask knowledgeable locals for their favorite, and chances are they'll name this Lincoln Square classic. Laurie's is known for a stellar new and used inventory, which has breadth and bulk; when other places run out of titles, you can probably find them here. Laurie's is also fun: they recently gave away Pavement tickets for the best macaroni drawing inspired by the band. "The fact that they sell dead-stock Pee-Wee Herman fun packs makes me love them," says the Chicago Reader's Miles Raymer.
There's no denying this New England powerhouse, which still maintains numerous locations throughout New England — 21 of them in Massachusetts alone. The Newbury St. shop in Boston, though, remains Mecca for serious music lovers. There's plenty of new and used selection, of course — but the many toys, T-shirts, and (especially) one of the most thorough collections of contemporary designer concert posters you'll find this side of a Flatstock exhibit are just as much of a draw.
New York, NY
This adventurous-listener's wonderland was named "Other" because Tower Records was across the street. Now, Other is just about the only game left in New York. (Tower, of course, closed.) Yet it does better than merely hang on, thanks to its unobtrusively friendly staff and a strong stock of hipster sounds — from free-jazz icons to cool new indie bands, plus a fine selection of techno 12-inches and a robust African section. A smart selection of used CDs and deeply discounted major-label catalog items help pick up some of Tower's slack, as well.
Princeton Record Exchange
PREX sells new items, but it's the used CDs (which sell for under $9) and vinyl (which is generally under $5) that makes it worth the trip. (That's saying something, especially at a time when dollar-bin items are often listed elsewhere for more than their actual worth, thanks to the sudden trend for vinyl.) There are collector finds and obscurities, of course — as well as a hefty number of DVDs — but PREX earns its rep by being accessible and affordable.
Shake It Records
This Cincinnati stalwart is impressive enough for its musical selection — nearly 40,000 titles on CD (about three-quarters of the stock) and vinyl — but it's the extras that make it a favorite. Shake It features loads of music books, DVDs, and magazines, not to mention a killer selection of Japanese toys and vinyl figurines.
NW Market St., Seattle, WA; Melrose Ave., Seattle, WA
Ballard is the Brooklyn of Seattle, so it stands to reason that one of the best record shops in the city has the bigger of its two locations there, near the earthy live venue Sunset Tavern. Sonic Boom has enough space for in-store performances and an array of new titles, indie and major, and while the vibe skews toward the former, there's little snobbery to be found either there or in the recently relocated Capitol Hill location. A wide selection of vinyl and books rounds things out — as do homemade mixtapes from K Records' Calvin Johnson.
The True Vine
A small shop, run by the knowledgeable Jason Willett and Stewart Mostofsky, with big inventory — and the most constant turnover in town. Onetime Baltimore City Paper music editor Jess Harvell refers to True Vine's "ginormous, catholic vinyl selection — they buy whole collections," containing everything from rare ethnographic 78s to Baltimore club 12-inches, and sell them just as fast to a discerning clientele. Expertly chosen indie and experimental titles with special emphasis on local labels make True Vine a Baltimore institution.
Savvier out-of-town attendees of the South by Southwest festival like to stick around an extra day so they can shop at Waterloo in relative peace. But only relative — this robust store has earned a loyal base in a town notable for its music-friendliness even when biz tourists aren't invading it. There's good reason: Waterloo has everything you could ask for, new or used, and its abundant size means it gets plenty of in-store performances by everyone from Hot Hot Heat to Ozomatli to the Black Angels.
Decatur, GA; Athens, GA
Famous as much for its former employees — Peter Buck of R.E.M. and Danger Mouse have both manned the counters of the Athens shop — Wuxtry is a Georgia stalwart that continues to win new fans that don't even care about its history. (Well, maybe a little.) Nevertheless, the store's deep commitment to rock new and old — listening to and debating it alike — has sparked a deep bond with the place shared by regulars and visitors alike. As a bonus, the Athens location features a terrific comics shop upstairs. Pictured: Owner Dan Wall
Jive Time Records
Located in Seattle's charming Fremont district, Jive Time is a modest-seeming local store whose holdings belie its size. There are bigger vinyl specialists in town, but few offer the kinds of bargains you'll find here — the $3 bins (four records for $10) are full of good stuff, and the more collector-oriented sections feature lots of terrific vintage R&B, including an enviable selection of P-Funk titles. (There's also a nice selection of used CDs, but the vinyl is the attraction here.) On good days there are vintage rock magazines (including early issues of Rolling Stone) for sale in the corner, to further enhance the old-school vibe.
The snug, heavily stocked Academy in Manhattan is a reliable go-to for city folk looking for good used-CD bargains, particularly in jazz and classical. But the more expansive Brooklyn outlet specializes in carefully selected vinyl in all kinds of popular genres. It's made for leisurely browsing — and how many places in antic Williamsburg can that honestly be said of?
St. Petersburg, FL (Vinyl-Only)
A two-story warehouse housing nearly 3 million pieces of vinyl, this St. Petersburg monster is well named. (There's also a CD/DVD shop across the street.) Stories abound of fanatical collectors who plan vacations around all-day (or longer) excursions into its LP and 45 catacombs. And they find good stuff there consistently, in all kinds of categories, from classical to blues, and rock to comedy. One shopper tells us how he found so many rare Brazilian records from the '70s that they alone overwhelmed his budget.
Chicago, IL (Vinyl-Only)
"Records" means records — Dave doesn't even carry a few token CDs, and according to all the store's promotional material, never will. More power to him — this is one of Chicago's most beloved music emporiums, filled with everything from disco 12-inches to rock rarities, and Dave himself, a 25-year veteran, knows his wares as well as anyone in the city.
Hymie’s Vintage Records
Minneapolis, MN (Vinyl-Only)
A classic, overstuffed mom-and-pop used-vinyl haven, Hymie's has been around since the '80s, and it's still an ideal stop for serious digging. But rather than the usual stereotype of haphazard you-find-it stacks, the shop is tidily organized and full of superb finds — a spiffy copy of Love's 1970 album False Start over here, who knows what else over there. And when you get tired, you can slip over to the cafe next door for a caffeine fix.
– Michaelangelo Matos
Twist & Shout
Situated on Denver's trendiest drag, Colfax Avenue, this 12,000-sq. foot emporium abounds with a quarter of a million new and used titles. The store has featured hundreds of in-store performances since its mid-Eighties launch, including memorable gigs by Ween, Elvis Costello and John Cale. The used vinyl racks are legendary, and collectors can be seen fighting over sifting spots every day. A vast collection of reign film, Japanese plastic toys and band apparel rounds out the vast offerings.
– Stacey Anderson
Philly's artsy Old City neighborhood is the perfect home to this lovingly kept shop, whose motto is succinct: "Rock is our life." That means no toys or memorabilia, a knowledgeable staff and a very deep catalogue of new and used rock, prog, avant-garde and jazz. Regulars boast endlessly about the rarities they unearth here – recently, A.K.A. sold a Bob Dylan mono LP and a Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd album, each worth its weight in gold to collectors. Owner Michael Hoffman curates in-store performances shrewdly, insisting that the artists must match the sincere ethos of the store and staff – musicians like Kurt Vile, Bill Callahan and Kimya Dawson have all made the cut.
Boo Boo Records
San Luis Obispo, CA
This is the venerable little-shop-that-could of Southern California, and revered justly by fans across the Golden State. Located in an idyllic beachside college town, Boo Boo's nuanced collection of CDs and vinyl dwarfs those of shops three times its size and the scholarly but friendly staff keeps even the most eccentric bands accessible to neophytes. The extensive jazz and classical wing closed recently, turning the U shape of the store into more of an overstuffed J – a problem Boo Boo's has happily compounded with its newfound expansion into books and memorabilia. Singer/songwriter M. Ward once presided over the cash register, about two decades after the store opened in 1974 – but neither he nor anyone else has been able to pry the meaning of the store's name from founders Ed Taylor and Glenn Forbes.
Grimey’s New and Preloved Music
Metallica fans already know this vinyl oasis well: it's where the band taped 2010's raucous Live at Grimey's. (If "Harvester of Sorrow" is any indication, a few shelves didn't survive the evening.) Phoenix, Brian Wilson and the Black Keys have also stopped by for performances and/or signings. But to Grimey's customers, the famous faces only hold equal appeal to the store's selection: over 300,000 albums in stock, one-third of them on vinyl, spanning every fathomable genre and reasonably priced. The store is doing so well with records, they're currently in the process of replacing many CD racks with vinyl ones – add that to the brisk turntable sales and Grimey's is a true audiophile's paradise.
These walls have seen it all. Shangri-la Records is now a local landmark, stuffed to the rafters with vinyl, CDs, DVDs and memorabilia, but it was originally a house and after that, a relaxation center with flotation tanks and "brain tuners." ("Goggles would flash lights around your eyes and play soft music," Shangri-La owner Jared McStay explains dubiously.) Even without the new-age accoutrements, Shangri-La has enough good vibrations: it's affiliated with beloved local label Shangri-La Projects; McStay performs with wife Lori in a popular local rock band, the Wuvbirds; and the store's stock covers all genres but places proud emphasis in the musical history of Memphis. Blues, country, and rock fans flock to Shangri-La – it's practically their civic duty.
After the original location was destroyed in a fire in 2008, owner Brad Hales lost most of his inventory but was able to salvage several boxes of 45s from the wreckage. They join the now 100,000-strong used 45s available in the store's new space, which carries only secondhand vinyl and features bright, cheery psychedelic décor. Jazz and R&B collectors come to Peoples in droves, as the stock spans every esoteric strain from the Twenties to the Eighties. The shop's new neighborhood is impoverished and "dodgy," Hales says bluntly, but it now it includes a triumphant story.
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