Still Spinning

A look at the iconic record stores of yesterday and the stores still thriving today
  • Photo: Sinclair Fleetwood
    Vinyl display inside Waterloo Records & Video in Austin, Texas
  • Photo: Gary Minnaert
    Amoeba Music in Hollywood, Calif.
  • Photo: Flickr4Jazz
    Bleecker Bob's Records in New York's Greenwich Village
  • Photo:
    Dusty Groove America in Chicago
  • Photo:
    Tower Records on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles after closing its doors in 2006
  • Fingerprints
    Fingerprints in Long Beach, Calif.
  • Photo: Josh Anderson
    Grimey's New & Preloved Music in Nashville
  • Photo: Terry Currier
    Inside Music Millennium in Portland, Ore.
  • Photo: Alexandra Weiss
    Vinyl display inside the Rhino Records pop-up store in Los Angeles
  • Photo: Michael Scannell
    Village Music in Mill Valley, Calif.
  • Photo: Sinclair Fleetwood
    Waterloo Records & Video in Austin, Texas
  • The Record Exchange in Boise, Idaho
September 29, 2011 -- 5:31 pm PDT
By Phil Gallo /

With the growing popularity of Record Store Day in recent years, local record stores have continued to enjoy a rebirth of sorts. But in an industry marked by new subscription-based services and increased digital sales, can record stores continue to hold their collective ground?

While nothing is certain, the fact remains that record stores remain a cultural touchstone in cities nationwide, a point underscored with the recent premieres of two films celebrating iconic shops no longer with us and the possible imminent closing of a popular Atlanta record store.

Earlier this month, owner Eric Levin recently announced his Atlanta-based Criminal Records will close in November if he does not raise $150,000. In existence for 20 years and known for its regular artist performances and in-store events, Criminal Records has become an unfortunate victim as costs have surpassed profits since moving to a new space that tripled the store's size three years ago.

A "Save Criminal Records" campaign has been launched with T-shirts and stickers available to help raise money. A local benefit concert is scheduled for Oct. 15, with a portion of the proceeds to be contributed to Criminal Records.

Rhino Records, the iconoclastic Los Angeles store that closed in 2006 only to resurface recently with "pop-up" stores, is the focus of Rhino Resurrected. Directed by Keith Shapiro, the film premiered at the Don't Knock The Rock Film and Music festival in Los Angeles in August.

Shapiro's film tends to not make one nostalgic for surly clerks or feeling inadequate on the hipster scale when bringing a selection to the checkout counter. It does certainly make ardent music fans long for the day when their local record shop cared as much about music as they did, hired employees who absorbed music at a psychotic level and were more than happy to deliver their opinions in rants, whispers and enthusiastic spiels.

It's similar to Jeanie Finlay's Sound It Out, a documentary detailing the last vinyl record store in the Teesside region of northern England. The film, which premiered in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Sept. 16, celebrates the record store as a popular hangout. Sound It Out garnered the praise of The New York Times, which described it as "like a mint pressing in a bargain bin...a rare find."

Given this activity, here are two celebratory best-of record store lists. The first list looks at the record stores that, similar to Rhino Records, blazed the trail and created models that other stores would follow; the second highlights the retail outlets that continue the tradition today.

Top 10 Iconic Record Stores

1. Tower Records, Hollywood, Calif.
A music hotspot that was so good, artists from Elton John to Bruce Springsteen frequented it from its start in the early '70s. Nestled on the popular Sunset Strip, the store became Tower's flagship (until its shuttering in 2006) due to the depth of its selection, the hip records it had on sale and the flow of customers shopping there until midnight daily.

2. Jazz Record Mart, Chicago
More than 50 years old and still run by its founder Bob Koester, Jazz Record Mart has moved numerous times and still manages to have the deepest inventory of jazz and blues from around the world. Enhancing its reputation is the fact that Koester started Delmark Records, a label that featured important blues and avant garde musicians and continues to release new music today.

3. Commodore Music Shop, New York
In the late 1920s, Milt Gabler started to convert his father's radio shop into a record store that eventually would be a hot bed for jazz in the '30s and '40s — to the point where the biggest musicians in the genre shopped there. The store also has ties to a label, Commodore Records, which began as a reissue imprint and would later feature jazz luminaries such as Billie Holiday.

4. Jerry's Records, Pittsburgh
Singled out by publications for its inventory of nearly 1 million albums and staggering assortment of 78s, Jerry's Records store is coming up on its 35th anniversary. Owned by Jerry Weber, this is one store vinyl enthusiasts insist is a must-visit.

5. Schoolkids Records, Ann Arbor, Mich., Athens, Ga., Raleigh, N.C.
A brilliant concept that is in the midst of its final chapter. The idea was that a loose coalition of record store owners could open under the Schoolkids Records banner, provided they were in a college town. Today, the Raleigh location still exists and boasts an impressive vinyl inventory. At its peak, the franchise had 26 stores and was a crucial establishment for college students in Michigan, Georgia and North Carolina in the '70s and '80s.

6. Wallichs Music City, Hollywood, Calif.
Wallichs was the model of the gigantic music emporium, a store that not only carried thousands of 45s, but sold instruments and sheet music. The store, located at Sunset and Vine, opened in 1940 and closed in the mid-'70s. Its customers included stars working nearby at RCA and NBC radio. Capitol Records was launched with the assistance of owner Glenn Wallichs.

7. Ernest Tubb Record Shop, Nashville
Opened in 1947 just a short walk from the Grand Ole Opry, honky tonk pioneer Ernest Tubb's store not only offered an extensive selection of country music, but he also played host to the "Midnite Jamboree," a post-Opry radio gathering of country stars that continues to this day. The store currently has locations in Nashville and Texas.

8. Village Music, Mill Valley, Calif.
After being in business for 40 years, Village Music closed in 2007. John Lee Hooker, Elvis Costello and Jerry Garcia were among the artists who did in-store performances. Costello described Village Music as maybe "the greatest record collector store in the world" and owner John Goodard owns one of Billie Holiday's passports. Can you get any cooler?

9. Bleecker Bob's Records, New York
The Greenwich Village record stores of the '70s were specialty shops and Bleecker Bob specialized in punk — both in terms of records and attitude. A haven for 45s, Bleecker Bob's was a must for any out-of-town visitor and an important place for any band to have their record stocked. The store is still in business and is open every day of the year, including Christmas.

10. Newbury Comics, Boston
Newbury Comics opened in the Back Bay section of Boston in 1978. The store sold comic books initially but soon expanded to offer vinyl. The store would go on to play a significant role in helping Boston punk acts get their music into the hands of fans. Today, Newbury Comics has 29 stores throughout Massachusetts.

Top 10 Current Record Stores

1. Amoeba Music, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Berkeley, Calif.
The modern interpretation of a superstore, the three Amoeba Music locations in California are among the only vast warehouses of CDs and LPs left in the United States. Every genre is represented, from Top 40 to the most underground of underground music. Thousands of music lovers pass through Amoeba's doors each day.

2. Twist & Shout Records, Denver
Aside from being Denver's No. 1 record store, Twist & Shout has a blog with a regular feature, "I'd Love To Turn You On," which doubles as a Beatles reference carrying the store's ethos: They have the all the latest goods but there's a lot of great stuff from other eras.

3. The Sound Garden, Baltimore
Located in the Fells Point section of Baltimore, Rolling Stone magazine has singled out the store for its stylistic range, DJ equipment and the fact that it is an enjoyable hangout spot, a crucial element to the stores in the upper echelon of this list. The Sound Garden is also known for having a friendly, knowledgeable staff.

4. Downtown Music Gallery, New York
The avant-garde superstore, now located in New York's Chinatown sector, has CDs and vinyl from the edges of jazz, rock, folk, and classical. Downtown Music's in-store performance schedule boasts an eclectic mix.

5. Aquarius Records, San Francisco
If ever there was a record store designed to specialize in obscure rock music, Aquarius Records is it. In business since 1970, the store maintains a stock of "cool, weird and wonderful" records from every corner of the universe.

6. The Record Exchange, Boise, Idaho; Music Millennium, Portland, Ore.
It would be easy to write the same description for both stores. Important members of the music community convening in stores in historically rooted cities; mainstream but thorough in their selections and keen on providing support to local acts.

7. Waterloo Records & Video, Austin, Texas
Perhaps the only store that does not believe in genre distinction and files music from every artist alphabetically. Founded in 1982, Waterloo is an important stop for any act visiting Texas' capital. The concert lineups in their parking lot during the SXSW and Austin City Limits festivals are as good as most music festivals happening elsewhere.

8. Grimey's New & Preloved Music, Nashville
A home for rock in the country's country capital, Grimey's is one of the top indie stores in the United States in terms of selection. The store has a regular calendar of special events and their Record Store Day celebrations have attracted thousands.

9. Dusty Groove America, Chicago
A specialty store steeped in Brazilian music, funk, jazz, hip-hop, soundtracks, and African music, Dusty Groove has become the country's most significant supplier of imports and hard-to-find-titles. Their website is packed with enthusiastic album reviews.

10. Fingerprints, Long Beach, Calif.
When it comes to in-store performances, no store treats artists with more respect. Posters are designed to advertise the events and, in many cases, CDs have been released of the performances, Weezer's Rivers Cuomo and Damien Rice among them.

(Phil Gallo is the co-author of Record Store Days: From Vinyl To Digital And Back, published by Sterling. He is a senior correspondent for Billboard.)

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