A few weeks ago, we published our list of the country’s top 10 bookstores, a response to those who browse but don’t buy and those who would abandon paperbacks and hardcovers for the realm of eBooks. It generated so much discussion it inspired us to put together another roundup of shops for culture vultures: America’s best independent music stores. Although, in general, they seem to be doing much better than their chain competitors in this era of declining CD sales and renewed interest in vinyl records, legendary outlets still go out of business all the time — like, most recently, beloved NY and LA hip-hop destination Fat Beats.
This list isn’t just our opinion: It’s the result of recommendations from Flavorpill staff and readers (who weighed in via Facebook). Add to our celebration of indie music stores around the country by leaving your picks in the comments.
The day Noho’s branch of Tower Records closed its doors, leaving long-time indie rival Other Music standing triumphantly across the street, felt like a David and Goliath-level victory. So despite its relatively small size, one of the last great indie record stores in downtown Manhattan is an obvious choice. No, you can’t find Jason Derulo’s latest embarrassment there – in fact, the wonderfully, infallibly elitist staff at OM probably won’t even admit to knowing who that dude is. But if you like your music obscure (or at least independent), you will gawk at the wall of rare LPs that line one wall. You will clutch that Black Randy and the Metrosquad reissue you’ve been searching for. You will pack in to check out your favorite band at a cramped but fantastic in-store. You will part with more of your hard-earned cash than you thought possible. And you will love every minute of it.
With three locations in the great state, Amoeba is the clear choice for music-loving Californians. Their stores are huge, their merchandise is eclectic, and their staff’s knowledge level is just mind-blowing. They even stock cassette tapes! And Amoeba’s community ethos isn’t just talk — the store has devoted itself to Gulf Coast relief and has already raised over $150k for organizations such as Oxfam and New Orleans Musicians Clinic. They’re also famous for their epic in-stores (which those of us on the East Coast can check out on the web): this month features both Richard Thompson and Local Natives.
Another small, indie chain, Electric Fetus also has shops in Duluth and St. Cloud. Despite its, er, contemporary name, EF has existed for over 40 years, and it is so beloved that after a tornado devastated the store a year ago, local bands (including Cloud Cult) came together for a benefit to help the place get back on its feet. Electric Fetus is known for its off-kilter picks and support for the Twin Cities music scene. The shop hosts all sorts of in-stores and listening parties, and this weekend (September 17-18) it’s having a mega-garage sale.
Photo credit: Sandy Carson, Austin Chronicle
Sure, music fans, critics, and industry types go to SXSW for the live music — but they always leave Austin with tales of the Shangri-La that is Waterloo Records. At a whopping 6,400 square feet, the place is sure to spark New Yorkers’ envy, and with nearly a 30-year legacy, it’s absolutely integral to the city’s music scene. Their staff picks are always ace (and never obvious), and this fall’s in-store performances feature the likes of The Black Angels and Ra Ra Riot. As if we weren’t already eating our hearts out, we hear those shows often include free beer.
Janelle Monae at Criminal Records, Record Store Day 2010. Image via
You know Record Store Day, that yearly limited edition-vinyl-buying spree that takes place at all the best indie outlets across the country? Well, we can thank Eric Levin, co-founder of AIMS (the Association of Independent Media Stores) and the owner of Criminal Records, for that rocking-est of all holidays. It serves as something of a community center for Atlanta’s local music scene, and its selection of comics is a great side draw. Once packed into a tiny space, Criminal made the move to a larger space in 2009, which we assume means they’re doing just fine.
We know, we know: The idea of schlepping all the way out to Jersey to buy vinyl in a town most famous for its Ivy League pedigree is not terribly appealing. But the evangelists of Princeton Record Exchange will not be silenced. The name of the game here is variety, and prices are low. The 4,300-square foot space stocks music of all kinds (including an extensive selection of classical music), teeming with over 140,000 units of merch, including CDs, DVDs, and vinyl records. At the center of it all is Barry Weisfeld, a true music guru and collect-aholic, who has owned the store since it opened three decades ago.
It’s far from the biggest store on this list, and it hasn’t been around for 30 or 40 years, like many of them. But it is perhaps the first perfect record store Baltimore has ever had. There’s always something great playing there, whoever happens to be working is bound to be friendly and knowledgeable (but never snobby), and they have a knack for stocking at least one thing you’ve been searching for everywhere. According to local alt weekly City Paper, “The store’s rate of turnover is almost Herculean,” which is no surprise in a town that cares so much about music. So it makes sense that it’s also the best place in the world to buy music by Baltimore acts, released on tiny, local labels. Considering the city has one of the best scenes in the world right now, that’s no small thing.
With three locations within the city limits, Reckless is the first name in Chicago independent record stores. The Wicker Park shop clearly provided inspiration for High Fidelity‘s very similar Championship Vinyl — and your reaction to that bit of info may well predict how you’ll feel about it. Us? We like our record stores eclectic, their employees nerdy, and their walls bedecked in ancient, rare posters, so Reckless is just fine with us.
Other Music may be the obvious pick, but those with ultra-obscure taste and lots of patience for crate digging will find their paradise across the East River, at Williamsburg’s Academy Record Annex. The first thing you’ll encounter, on your right, upon entering the big-for-New-York store is a rack of obscure vinyl bound to send your bank account into the single digits. Farther in, there’s a vigilantly curated selection of new records, which skews toward cult reissues, local underground favorites, and releases that will warm avant-garde experimentalists’ hearts. The rest of the used LPs in this all-vinyl haven are worth a perusal, but it’s those first two sections that will make you a believer.
Few cities have a musical legacy to rival Memphis’s, but so many of its landmarks have become fluorescent-lit tourist traps that it can be frustrating for music lovers in search of the real thing. Thankfully, they should look no farther than Shangri-La, which caters to the collectors set — they even stock 78s! Plus, it’s located in an adorable house. There are some records you can only find in the South, and this is an excellent place to start looking.
Honorable mentions: Plan 9 Music – Richmond, VA; Black Gold Brooklyn; Music Millennium – Portland, OR; Guestroom Records – Norman, OK; Aquarius Records – San Francisco, CA; Jelly’s – Hawaii (multiple locations); Wuxtry Records – Athens and Decatur, GA; Red Onion Records and Books – Washington, D.C.