The 13 Coolest Record Stores In America

iStock.com/urbancow
iStock.com/urbancow

What makes a record store cool? Is it an obscure collection of vinyl, a storied history, a coffee shop within the store that brews third-wave coffee, or the fact Prince shopped there? All of these can factor into the coolness, but also how indie record stores continue to prosper despite operating in an era when physical media sales are in decline. (Vinyl and cassette tapes have increased in sales, though.) Whether your favorite record store made the list or not, be sure to support your local store during the annual Record Store Day, a sort of Christmas for music fans, which will occur on April 13, 2019.

1. Amoeba Records // San Francisco, Berkeley, and Hollywood, California

In 1990, Amoeba Records opened its first of three locations, in Berkeley. In 1997 it expanded to San Francisco, and in 2001 it opened its largest location—at 24,000 square feet, it takes up an entire city block—on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. As the largest independent record store in the world, Amoeba’s two floors house millions of used and new vinyl, CDs, DVDs, video games, and a jazz room. Every week, bands and artists—including well-known acts—play free shows here. Currently, the neon-inflected Amoeba remains Sunset Strip’s only record store (Tower Records shuttered in 2006), so it’s helping to keep the city’s music spirit alive.

2. Reckless Records // Chicago

For more than 30 years, Chicago via London’s Reckless Records has maintained high standards, operating three stores in the city: Loop, Lakeview, and its most iconic location, Wicker Park. Supposedly, Reckless inspired High Fidelity’s Championship Vinyl (though the exteriors were shot at a storefront down the street from Reckless). Gentrification and rising rents in Wicker Park haven’t deterred Reckless; in 2015, the business moved a few doors down to a more spacious storefront. As head music buyer Matt Jencik said, “We take pride in stocking everything from, say, the new Beyoncé CD to a cassette by an up-and-coming local artist to a reissue of a mostly unknown African psychedelic rock band or an obscure techno 12-inch.” And even selling a rare Spice Girls 12-inch. (Though it was just announced that its Lakeview location will be moving after 30 years in the same spot.)

3. Herzog Music // Cincinnati

From 1945 to 1955, in downtown Cincy, the E.T. Herzog Recording Co. recorded now-classics like Hank Williams's “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” Herzog, along with King Records, established Cincinnati as a recording destination, not just a radio town. In 2015, the historical spot opened as Herzog Music, selling a small selection of used vinyl, instruments, books, and hosting in-store performances. People can tour the upstairs, where all the magic happened in the 1940s and '50s. Today, the space acts as a music school, with paraphernalia from famed musicians on display.

4. Rough Trade Records // New York City

 People stand on the floor of the newly opened Rough Trade NYC store on November 25, 2013 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City
Spencer Platt, Getty Images

In 1976, the UK-based record label Rough Trade opened its first record store; in 2013, the first Rough Trade in the U.S. opened, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Topping out at 15,000 square feet, it not only became the biggest record store in New York—but also Rough Trade’s biggest store. They sell new music with an emphasis on UK imports, and the mezzanine sells a wide variety of books. Besides selling records, they also house a small coffee shop and a ticketed music venue, which books local and international acts.

5. Sweat Records // Miami

To find the store, just look for its exterior “Wall of Idolatry” mural, which showcases a panoply of musicians, from MF Doom to the Gorillaz’ Noodle and Murdoc to Billie Holiday to Notorious B.I.G. Inside, Sweat Records sells records in one section and runs a small café by the entrance. The menu consists of vegan pastries and fun specialty drinks like the Unicorn Love Bomb (a double shot of espresso topped with vegan marshmallows) and the Devastator (four shots of espresso from local roaster Panther Coffee). Somehow getting jacked up on caffeine enhances the record-shopping experience.

6. Purple Llama // Chicago

The name Purple Llama should be enough to get you to go. The Wicker Park shop fuses craft coffee and vinyl, but in an atypical way. They feature roasters from all over the world—including Norway, London, Colorado, and New York City—and serve specially lattes or pour overs alongside selling new and old vinyl in the store. They also offer an exclusive coffee and vinyl subscription: Each month, a vinyl record and a bag of coffee are sent to you (or held to be picked up in-store). Just like Forrest Gump with his box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get.

7. Vinyl Tap // Nashville

In this day and age, it’s hard for a business to be one thing, which is why it’s nice when a business combines two or more things. Case in point: Vinyl Tap in Nashville is part beer bar (the tap part) and part record store. They sell new and used vinyl and have local and regional craft beers on draft (“wax and drafts”). Peruse their small vinyl selection while drinking a beer, or take a seat at the bar and order one of their musical-themed sandwiches, such as The Morrissey (vegan, of course), New Bomb Turkey (named after Columbus, Ohio punk band New Bomb Turks), or The Cure.

8. Electric Fetus // Minneapolis and Duluth, Minnesota

A woman with her hand on the record player
iStock.com/LFO62

The oddly named record store (National Lampoon once named it the worst name for a business) opened in 1968 and has been going strong ever since. Some weird history includes its Streakers’ Sale, in which customers could take whatever they wanted for free just as long as they shopped naked. Today, they sell new and used records from mainstream acts, classic acts, and “the newest blog hype.” Hometown hero Prince shopped here all the time, including less than a week before his death, on what happened to be Record Store Day. (The shop sells Prince varsity jackets.) Electric Fetus isn’t just records, though. They also sell clothing, housewares, and novelty gifts, and they’ll purchase your old records, CDs, and DVDs, too.

9. Hail Dark Aesthetics // Nashville, Tennessee and Covington, Kentucky

Located in MainStrasse Village, across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, Hail Dark Aesthetics is tucked away in an unassuming strip that’s riddled with fairly normal restaurants and bars. Once inside, you’ll soon discover nothing is normal anymore. As their website states, Hail Dark Aesthetics exists “to satisfy all your weirdo needs.” They have that in spades, from offering records from bands named Spider Vomit to “normal” records from artists like Hank Williams Jr. They also sell occult items, books on witchcraft, horror films on VHS, medical equipment, and animal bones. If taxidermy—or things that were once alive but now are preserved in jars—make you squeamish, don’t go here. But if you’re into that kind of stuff, you’ll feel right at home. Also visit their first location, in Nashville.

10. A Separate Reality Records // Cleveland, Ohio

In 2013, right before the vinyl boom, Augustus Payne opened A Separate Reality after selling records on the road and at conventions for four years. Having a brick-and-mortar shop gives him an outlet to sell his more than 150,000 vintage records, which includes every genre imaginable, but with an emphasis on rare psychedelic, progressive, soul, jazz, and blues. It’s a crate diggers' dream come true. The store also buys used collections, because you never can have too many records.

11. Graveface Records and Curiosities // Savannah, Georgia

Ryan Graceface, who plays guitar in the band Black Moth Super Rainbow, founded Graveface the label in 2000 and opened the record store in 2012. They specialize in new and used vinyl (including selling records from their artists), cocktail supplies, horror soundtrack reissues, and taxidermy (apparently, stuffed dead animals and vinyl go together). They have a knack for purchasing original or first pressings from record collectors, so they always have something exciting to sell. A Charleston, South Carolina store is the works, but for now you can visit the pop-ups they do around town.

12. Easy Street Records // Seattle

A collection of records
iStock.com/photopsist

Since 1988, Easy Street’s been the fabric of Seattle’s music scene. They sell vinyl reissues, new and used records, host live shows, and even sell MP3s. Known as “the best little record store, coffee bar, and diner in West Seattle,” Easy Street’s more than just a record store. Dishes at their daytime café are named after musicians and songs. Offerings include a vegetarian Beck Omelet, James Brown hash browns, Frances Farmer French toast, Dolly Parton stack (of pancakes, that is), Green Day salad, and a Mama Cass ham sandwich (rumor has it she died choking on a ham sandwich).

13. Used Kids Records // Columbus, Ohio

Columbus is filled with great record stores—Magnolia Thunderpussy, Lost Weekend, Spoonful—but Used Kids has survived a fire, rapid changes in the music industry, changes in ownership, and a relocation. And it’s still going full throttle. Dan Dow and Ron House (founder of local band Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments) opened Used Kids in 1986, near the Ohio State campus. It became the nexus for the music community, so much so that employees Jerry Wick and Bela Koe-Krompecher founded Anyway Records in the store’s basement. Used Kids sells “rare and unusual records,” but they also want to appeal to everyone. “I’ve always said, ‘I want to be the best record store between New York City and Chicago.’ That’s always been the goal,” current owner Greg Hall told Ohio Magazine. How about the best and the coolest?

How Science—and a Broken Heart—Helped Identify Titanic Bandleader Wallace Hartley's Lost Violin

Peter Muhly/AFP/Getty Images
Peter Muhly/AFP/Getty Images

In the early morning hours of April 15, 1912, as the R.M.S. Titanic was continuing its descent into the chilly, unforgiving waters of the North Atlantic Ocean, bandleader Wallace Hartley urged his seven musicians to continue playing.

The apocryphal version has Hartley tucking his violin under his chin and leading them in a rendition of "Nearer, My God, to Thee" as the ship sank. While it makes for a poignant finale, it's more likely that Hartley played "Songe d'Automne," a slow waltz that scored the untimely demise of more than 1500 passengers, including Hartley and all his bandmates.

When bodies began to be recovered in the days to come, authorities took inventory of any personal effects that were found. In this official registry of Hartley, a.k.a. Body 224, no mention was made of his violin, his bow, or its case. He had been in the water for 10 days. The German-crafted wooden instrument was largely believed to have been lost to the sea.

Nearly 100 years later, a UK-based auctioneer named Andrew Aldridge received a phone call from a man with a strange story to tell. Up in his late mother's attic, he told Aldridge, was a small collection of items he believed would be of interest to Titanic historians and collectors.

When Aldridge visited his caller in 2006, he was shown several items that purportedly belonged to Hartley, including sheet music and a leather valise with the musician's initials. But Aldridge's attention was drawn to a violin: It was cracked and weathered, with only two strings remaining. A silver plate on the tailpiece read:

For Wallace on the occasion of our engagement from Maria.

Aldridge felt a surge of excitement. He had facilitated the sale of several Titanic relics, but nothing had ever compared to the holy grail of the Hartley violin. If this truly belonged to the musician, it would be one of the most important discoveries from the ship in history. And if it was the violin he played as the ship went down, it would be the most valuable.

But how had the violin survived immersion? And if Hartley secured it to his body before going into the water, why wasn't it listed among his personal effects?

It would be seven years before Aldridge had his answers.

 

A close-up of the engraved silver plate on the Hartley violin
Matt Cardy/Getty Images

 

For decades, collectors and researchers had debated the existence of the Hartley violin. Some believed Hartley would be too panicked to bother securing his violin in its case and strapping it to himself before he was forced to go into the water; others pointed to contemporaneous news accounts which mentioned Hartley's violin had indeed been recovered during the salvage operation.

"At that point [in 2006], I think the collecting community generally believed it did not exist," Craig Sopin, an attorney and Titanic memorabilia expert who consulted with the Aldridge & Son auction house, tells Mental Floss. "But a lot of us hoped it did."

Four newspapers at the time reported Hartley had been found with the instrument strapped to him, but those were challenged by more conservative historians who cited the official inventory and its list of items that were returned to family members. These logs noted that Hartley had a fountain pen, money, and a cigarette case, but made no mention of the violin. "There was just no hard evidence," Sopin says.

Hartley himself had been something of an enigma. Born in 1878 as the son of a choirmaster, the bandleader had been a bank teller before pursuing his passion for music. Hartley had been on well over 80 sea voyages before he was hired to lead the musicians on the Titanic. It's likely he perceived the highly coveted job as a chance to make some good money. In a letter written to his parents the day of the April 10 launch, Hartley implied that wealthy passengers might offer tips.

"It was a feather in his cap," Sopin says. "He was fortunate at first, although not fortunate at all in the end."

An avowed ladies' man who fancied himself a bit of an early-century hipster—he referred to himself as "Hotley" in correspondence—Hartley had seemingly abandoned his bachelorhood for Maria Robinson, the daughter of a cloth manufacturer. The two were scheduled to be married just months after Hartley's expected return, with Hartley looking to support his wife-to-be with more bookings at sea.

While Hartley's fate became part of a great 20th century tragedy, Robinson's personal anguish was never heavily publicized. She wrote letters to authorities in Halifax, Nova Scotia, which had jurisdiction over the wreck, requesting all of Hartley's personal belongings be returned to her. In a diary entry dated July 1912 and uncovered during the investigation into the instrument's history, Robinson drafted a note thanking them for returning the violin. So why didn't the crew of the Mackay-Bennett, tasked with recovering bodies, make any mention of it?

"That turned out to be the easiest hurdle to knock down," Sopin says. "What we learned is that there were many personal items not logged but returned to family, and their inventory was just not very detailed." Almost every body had been recovered wearing a life jacket, Sopin says, and almost all went unreported.

Like the life jackets, Hartley's valise that he kept his violin in would have been strapped to his body, opening up the possibility that the recovery team ignored items worn by the corpses. "It wasn't something he could put in his pocket," Sopin says, "so it may not have been considered a personal effect."

The paper trail assembled by Sopin and other researchers provided further credence to the theory that Hartley had taken the violin with him. When Maria Robinson died in 1939, her sister Margaret was charged with handling her personal possessions. The violin was given to Major Renwick, a bandleader with the Bridlington Salvation Army who also taught music. He gave it to a student of his, a woman stationed in the Women's Auxiliary Air Force. She later wrote of the gift that it had suffered damage and was not playable due to having "an eventful life."

It remained in her possession for close to 75 years. The call Aldridge received was from the music student's son, who had been responsible for sorting his mother's belongings following her death. (The seller, wishing anonymity, has not disclosed the family name.)

The story was reasonable, but none of it offered conclusive proof that the violin in the attic was the same violin played on the outer deck of the ship during the commotion. For that, Aldridge would turn to experts in the fields of corrosion, silver, and musical instruments to determine if the violin had been in the water the night of April 15, 1912.

 

The valise and straps used as a carrier for the Hartley violin
Matt Cardy/Getty Images

 

"The best way to describe the research was like a jigsaw puzzle with numerous component pieces," Aldridge tells Mental Floss. "Each one had to fit together, whether it be scientific, historical, or research."

To date the violin to the night of the wreck, Aldridge first approached the now-defunct UK Forensic Science Services and their trace analysis expert, Michael Jones. (Citing confidentiality clauses with his former employer, a representative for Jones declined to comment for this story.) Performing a salinization test would determine whether the instrument had ever been submerged in saltwater. "If that had been negative, the investigation would have ended there," Sopin says.

It was positive. Jones could then examine the metal portions of the violin, including the engraved tailpiece and the lock on the valise, and compare the corrosion to other metal items recovered both from Hartley and from other victims that were in the hands of private collectors. "It was not a quick process," Aldridge says. "These are not the sorts of items that are easily obtained."

Eventually, Jones was able to determine the deposits were consistent with those found in items definitively known to be recovered from the site. He also tried examining algae on the violin to see if it was consistent with the part of the North Atlantic where the ship struck the iceberg, Sopin says, but results were inconclusive.

Because Aldridge's intent was to prove its provenance beyond all doubt, the authentication continued. The straps of the valise were measured and found to be 90 inches long, leaving plenty of give to tie the case around Hartley’s body. Aldridge also consulted with gemologist Richard Slater, who examined the engraved plate and found no evidence it had ever been removed or recently applied to the instrument.

Aldridge took it in for a CT scan at Ridgeway Hospital in Swindon, Wiltshire, England, which revealed stress fractures in the wood—the kind that may have rendered it unplayable according to Renwick's student—and a type of glue that would not have dissolved in seawater. (The heavy leather valise provided additional protection from the water.) Aldridge also consulted instrument expert Andrew Hooker, who held no opinion about the violin's connection to the Titanic but confirmed it was made in the late 19th century and was re-varnished and rebuilt, likely owing to the damage incurred after 10 days of immersion.

"The violin was nothing special," Hooker tells Mental Floss. "Just a cheap, factory-made German instrument."

Of course, the instrument's value was tied completely to where it was played, and by whom. By 2013, both Aldridge and Sopin—a notoriously skeptical collector who made for a strong litmus test—were convinced. After seven years and tens of thousands of dollars in expenses, Aldridge believed he had his answer.

"I remained neutral until I didn't," Sopin says. "I believe the violin was on the Titanic."

 

The Hartley violin, more than 100 years after being recovered at sea
Peter Muhly/AFP/Getty Images

 

The owner's desire had always been to take the violin and the other Hartley items to auction. Armed with reams of supporting evidence from forensic experts, that's exactly what Aldridge and Son did on October 19, 2013. TV satellites and media were parked outside the Devizes, Wiltshire, England facility, the site of the auction.

Behind the podium, Aldridge began the bidding at 50 pounds, or roughly $65. Bidders on the floor and via telephone quickly got down to business, taking bids from 80,000 pounds to 500,000 to 750,000. By the time Aldridge brought down the gavel a final time, the violin had sold for 1.1 million pounds, or $1.7 million. (The valise was sold separately for 20,000 pounds, or $26,000.)

As is often the case with big-ticket auction items, the buyer has no desire to be named—although it's probably not Sopin. "I would have considered paying something," he says, "but not $1.7 million."

Sopin believes the buyer is male and resides in the UK. It's also known that he allowed the violin to go on display at the Titanic Museum in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, as well as its sister location in Branson, Missouri, in 2016.

As of now, no other Titanic artifact has come close to realizing a similar sale price, a testament to the emotional impact of what would otherwise be an unremarkable instrument. In playing for terrified passengers, Hartley and his band used their talent under extreme duress to maintain a sense of order and civility, likely saving lives in the process. His funeral was reportedly attended by 30,000 to 40,000 people.

While Aldridge performed his due diligence above and beyond reasonable doubt, some historians still question why a distressed Hartley would have bothered with the violin at all. "Hartley's mother commented on this," Sopin says. "She thought if he felt there was any hope at all of getting off the ship, he would have taken the violin."

Additional Sources: Auction Background [PDF].

Why Did We Evolve To Like Music?

Fox Photos/Getty Images
Fox Photos/Getty Images

Suzanne Sadedin:

Existing theories seem incomplete, so here's another one. I think music is a side effect of the evolution of self-awareness and love.

Music does have a lot of features we associate with sexual competition. It's (historically speaking) an honest display of abilities, it exploits supernormal stimuli, and it's sexy. But if those things were sufficient for its evolution, it would be widespread in other species. Instead, music seems to be nearly unique to humans.

In most species, displays are simply flamboyant exhibitions of individual prowess. Every peacock aims to have the biggest, flashiest tail; there is none of the complexity or diversity we associate with music. Guppies appreciate novel colors in their mates, but they do not evolve increasing complexity.

Closer to human music are the songs of certain birds. While nobody would deny that most bird song is some sort of sexual competitive signal, song complexity isn't consistently linked to sexual selection at all. And relatively complex and varying birdsongs, such as those of the song sparrow, can be generated using simple algorithms. Nothing in the animal world even remotely approaches the complexity and diversity of human music.

It's also often suggested that music contributes to group bonding, which could be advantageous for a species like ours, where inter-tribal competition may have influenced evolution. And since humans are unusual in that sense, it also helps explain the uniqueness of music. There's plenty of evidence that music does play this role. However, group selection is typically a weak force, while music is a costly feature; it's hard to see how the former could be sufficient to account for the latter.

Perhaps music evolved as a sexually selected feature which was co-opted under group selection. But perhaps there's a bigger hole in our thinking.

What neither idea seems to explain at all is why music is, well, musical. Why should group or pair bonding involve the sort of fractal complexity, continual novelty, and specificity of taste that sets music apart from common birdsong?

 

Here's why—maybe.

Hofstadter in Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid argues that consciousness is a recursive computational process. Self-awareness in addition implies that the conscious mind contains a model or representation of the self.

What is this model? Why represent yourself, when you can simply be yourself? The answer, presumably, is that most of the mind is not conscious, nor even accessible to consciousness. So to have insight into your own behavior, you mentally model yourself in much the same way you model other people.

You see the problem. Modeling other conscious, self-aware minds requires an internal conscious, self-aware mind for every mind you model. Each of these models must in turn have its own models of other conscious, self-aware minds … and so on to infinity.

Our brains do not have infinite capacity. So what do we do when we encounter an infinitely recursive process? Curl up in despair? No! We approximate. We gaze as deeply as we can into the fractal, stretching the limits of our cognitive capacity. And then we acknowledge and accept those limits. We marvel at the tininess of the self in the wondrous grandiosity of the universe. We are overcome with spiritual joy.

In other words, we congratulate ourselves on our willingness to face the limits of our comprehension. Why does this make us feel good? It's adaptive.

We are a highly social species. Many researchers believe that human cognition was, for much of our evolutionary history, stuck in a positive feedback cycle of social selection. That is, those of our ancestors who could better understand and predict others had greater evolutionary fitness, which made each succeeding generation harder to understand and predict than its parents.

So: it's advantageous to enjoy peering into the depths of interesting fractals, because that stretching of cognitive ability is precisely what's required to model minds better than our peers. And music is mostly interesting fractals.

I want to take things a little further. Let's talk about love.

We're not just social. Lots of animals are social, and most of them are utter jerks. Humans, along with many birds and a few mammals, have unusually strong, lasting cooperative relationships among unrelated adults. We have love and trust.

 

But how do you evolve trust? I've puzzled over this for years. We understand perfectly well how cooperative relationships can be adaptive; for example, if your partner is likely to punish your defection severely, and hiding defections is too hard. But that doesn't explain trust.

I trust you means, precisely, that I'm not policing your defections. I'm not monitoring the evidence to check if you've betrayed me. I'm not setting in place punishments for all the awful things you might do. I'm not even worrying about them.

And I think we all want trusting relationships. I don't know anybody who would be OK with believing that their partner's honesty was only a consequence of the fear of punishment—let alone their own.

Obviously, trusting saves a lot of effort and conflict in a relationship, which makes it adaptive. But it's also vulnerable to exploitation, hence the evolutionary problem. According to standard theory, the moment you know I trust you, your motivation should change to exploit me. But I should know this, and therefore not trust you in the first place.

A solution to this quandary is emotional commitment. Love in the form of emotional commitment is a self-modification that alters our cognitive payoffs to favor the interests of the other. If I love you, then I literally cannot hurt you without hurting myself. If I love you, then making you happy literally makes me happy. If love is mutual, then our interests become aligned. And that enables trust.

How do we create love? By a process of massive cognitive remodeling. Our brains must learn to respond to the stimuli of the other with extreme, unique pleasure, and they must learn how to likewise uniquely stimulate the other. To do that effectively, we create the most profound representation we can of the other, and imbue that representation with almost as much significance as we attach to our self-representation. And in a two-way relationship, that representation must contain a self-representation, containing an other-representation … and so on down the recursion rabbit-hole.

That, I think, is a big part of what courtship and friendship do in species with long-term relationships. It's an intimate mutual rewiring in which our brains gradually learn to play and be played; we allow the other unique insight into our self-model, so they can learn to uniquely reward us; and vice versa. Love makes us vulnerable and powerful at the same time. In keeping with this idea, pair-bonding, rather than simply social group size, is the most widespread predictor of brain size evolution in other species. Among primates, brain size and sexual competition are negatively correlated.

Our ancestors won their success in part because they were able to create and maintain trust. So they evolved to love, and loving required them to find unparalleled pleasure in the effort to contain an infinite depth that they could never really grasp.

So the sense of immersion in fractal depth feels like love, because that's what the experience of loving is. And when we encounter an audible fractal process that happens to stimulate our brains with a culturally attuned interleaving of familiar and foreign, self and other, we willingly immerse ourselves in it. We don't just like music. We love it.

So … music, love, and fractal representations of the other … what all that amounts to is an unprecedented excuse to link this Arcade Fire song:

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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