The existence of record stores may be threatened these days, but they aren’t going to disappear completely anytime soon. For a certain kind of listener, these shops are still beacons of musical kinship and discovery, essential haunts where just one thumb through the stacks can deliver new favorites. Ahead of Record Store Day this Saturday, nine Pitchfork staffers and contributors reflect on their favorite moments of serendipity in independent record stores.
Open Mind Music // San Francisco, California
The South Bronx family-affair funk outfit ESG started their recording career in 1981 with a self-titled EP on the 99 Records label. The A-side features three studio cuts produced by Martin Hannett of Factory Records fame; two of them, “Moody” and “UFO,” became the stuff of legend, lighting up downtown dance clubs while also serving as hip-hop sample fodder forevermore. The opening studio track, “You’re No Good,” is equally fine. So far, so brilliant.
But the record’s second side is the real find, equally genius but in a different way, and it’s become an obscure part of the ESG canon. Recorded live at the dance club Hurrah’s, “Earn It,” “ESG,” and “Hey!” showcase ESG’s Scroggins sisters (along with conga player Tito Libran) as a ferociously tight and forceful live band that infuses James Brown groove with Can-style machine motion. The live side of this EP has not been issued digitally, not even on CD—even though it is, to my ears, the best music they ever made. I knew exactly none of this when I found a copy of the EP (a bootleg reissue, I later learned) at Open Mind Music in San Francisco in 1999. It was a great moment for record stores in the city: Groove Merchant was a few blocks away from Open Mind in Lower Haight, Aquarius was holding it down with experimental releases in the Mission, and the massive Amoeba just opening on Haight Street. But Open Mind—now closed, sadly—was my sweet-spot store, the perfect size with the best New Arrivals bin. On that day, said bin included this record for less than $10, and I don’t believe I’ve seen it since. –Mark Richardson, Executive Editor
Eccentric Soul: The Capsoul Label compilation
Used Kids Records // Columbus, Ohio
There wasn’t an independent record store where I grew up, and I went to college in Athens, Ohio, where there was only a one-room (albeit very well-curated) shop named Haffa’s (RIP). But 75 miles up Rt. 33 in Columbus, there were a number of independent shops with amusing names like Magnolia Thunderpussy, Lost Weekend, and SchoolKids. Wanting to feel like a regular, every time I went to Columbus for a show, I’d stopped at Magnolia Thunderpussy (probably 70 percent because of the name, if I’m being honest). When I was back in Columbus a couple years ago with time to spare, I decided to try a different store, Used Kids, after reading a Pitchfork feature on its quest to survive. Between their well-priced used section and their wide range of non-new releases from smaller indie labels, I already had too many records tucked under my arm when I eyed this 2004 Capsoul compilation from Numero Group’s Eccentric Soul series. I had never realized that the first-ever release from Numero, one of the biggest and best crate-digging labels going, was about the Columbus soul scene in the early 1970s.
Capsoul was founded by Bill Moss, a radio DJ turned label owner who, even after having his star artists poached by the likes of Bell, still believed that his latest endeavor would put Ohio’s capital on the Northern soul map. The label had a handful of regional hits with vocal groups like the Four Mints and Johnson, Hawkins, Tatum & Durr, but with the bank breathing down his neck, Moss closed up Capsoul after a dozen 45s and one LP and went into local politics instead. With their funky vocal harmonies, big brass accents, and breathless pleas of love, many of the songs on this comp sound sort of familiar for their era. But listen closer and it becomes clear what’s different here. The seams are a little rough, and there are definite kitschy moments, like a song inspired by Al Green’s girlfriend throwing hot grits in his face. Like Columbus and my home state in general, Capsoul isn’t the most polished, but that’s part of its humble, heart-filled appeal. –Jillian Mapes, Senior Editor
Karlheinz Stockhausen: “Samstag aus Licht”
Amoeba Records // Los Angeles, California
Because I enjoy ritual acts of futility, for years I made the same opening move upon entering used record stores: I looked if they had any CDs from experimental composer Karlheinz Stockhausen’s namesake label. Those discs are pretty pricey when purchased new, so I always held out hope that I could find a previously owned box set—say, one of the works from Stockhausen’s seven-opera cycle, “Licht”—for under $100.
Shortly after walking into Amoeba Records’ Hollywood location, during a work trip in 2010, I just about lost my mind when I saw that they had a section not just for Stockhausen as a composer, but specifically for used CDs from his private imprint. I wanted to buy everything in the bin, but I contented myself with the four-CD set of “Samstag aus Licht” (the opera in the series devoted to Lucifer). Its third CD—the one with “Lucifer’s Dance,” a diabolical yet quirky act for wind orchestra and bass vocalist—is the one I return to most frequently, but the whole thing is a blast. The 200-page booklet with score excerpts and images from the premiere staging is pretty crucial, too, and a great example of why physical media still matters. –Seth Colter Walls, contributor
Blondie: Little Doll
Deep Cuts // Queens, New York
The Deep Cuts record store used to be located in a back entrance of the Bushwick art space Silent Barn; you could buy used vinyl and tapes or sit in the barber chair and get a haircut from shop founder Brandon Perry, who is also a DJ on WFMU. I visited the store’s current location in Ridgewood, Queens for the first time in February. After I’d flipped through most of the stacks, chancing upon a copy of Janet Jackson’s Control, I took a quick look at the compilations. There, at the back of the store, I was stunned to come across a record with the coolest, meanest picture of Debbie Harry I’ve ever seen on its cover. Little Doll is a mind-blowing bootleg that collects a live December 1979 set in Dallas (recorded for “The King Biscuit Flower Hour” radio show), rare demos from 1975 (including a cover of the Shangri-Las’ “Out in the Streets”), and a French version of their own “Sunday Girl.” It’s all thrillingly raw—a reminder that Blondie were a punk band. –Jenn Pelly, Contributing Editor
Twinkle Brothers: Countrymen
Second Avenue Records // Portland, Oregon
Growing up in Portland, Oregon, in the 1980s, I bought records all around town. On one end of the snob spectrum there was the Beaverton Tower Records, an suburban oasis where I discovered the Cure and Cocteau Twins; on the other end was the Ooze, a tiny joint that specialized in industrial music, where I was intimidated out of my mind. The first store I could really call my own was somewhere in between: Second Avenue Records, a mom-and-pop specializing in punk and hardcore. That’s where you’d go to get Poison Idea records fresh out of Jerry A’s mitts, and where I found Minor Threat and the Misfits and everything else a young wannabe punk could want. I was still intimidated, but the staff was surprisingly tolerant of clueless teens.
One rainy Sunday afternoon, they put on something I’d never heard before. I understood it was reggae—Legend was ubiquitous at my jock-infested high school—but this sounded different. Moodier, more muted; the close-harmonized vocals gave me chills. The whole thing had a misty, lo-fi sheen that seemed to match the drizzle streaking down the store’s windows. When I asked, they showed me the cover: Twinkle Brothers’ Countrymen. The sleeve was a sage-green cut-and-paste job. Naturally, I bought it, and 30-odd years later, it remains one of my favorite reggae albums. To this day, nothing sounds better on a rainy Sunday afternoon. –Philip Sherburne, Contributing Editor
Ted Hawkins: Watch Your Step
Avant-Garb // Tallahassee, Florida
Can you call a vintage clothing shop with five bins of records in the back a “record store”? Either way, it was here, in downtown Tallahassee, where I discovered the Mississippi soul singer Ted Hawkins’ 1982 album, Watch Your Step. It reminds me of lush ferns decorating Southern balconies—at once regal and welcoming yet sharp at the edges.
I happened to be perusing the soul section when his flamingo-pink shirt caught my attention; chalk it up to the setting. One test spin on the store’s record player, and I fell under his spell. The track “Sorry You’re Sick” grabbed my ear, in particular: “What do you want from the liquor store?/Something sour or something sweet?” he pleads on the chorus, far more the latter. To this day, whenever people talk about Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Al Green, and other classic soul voices, I’m quick to interject with, “But have you heard of Ted Hawkins?” And then I reach for one of my favorites. –Amanda Wicks, Associate Staff Writer
The Raincoats: The Raincoats/Odyshape
Waterloo Records // Austin, Texas
It’s early 1993 and as a teen in the cultural wasteland of San Antonio, Texas, I’m still heavily under the sway of Nirvana, reading every Kurt Cobain interview I can find and buying whatever bands he name-drops. But I’m stymied and frustrated by the liner notes for Incesticide, as most of Cobain’s essay is about his hunt to find the first Raincoats album, his “wonderfully classic scripture” of feminist punk. He ultimately visited Raincoats singer Ana Da Silva to ask for one—and since he’s a famous rock star, a signed copy with photocopied cover art was mailed to him, which he called “one of the few really important things that I’ve been blessed with since becoming an untouchable boy genius.” But how on earth am I ever going to find—much less hear—this album in the years before CD reissues, eBay, Discogs, file-sharing, and streaming existed?
Being a music fan back then entailed regular pilgrimages to Austin, where I’d typically visit Waterloo Records. One evening there, a record shop miracle occurred. Sitting in the front of the new arrivals bin were the Raincoats’ self-titled debut and their follow-up, Odyshape. It was a stunning post-punk education in two records and the ultimate tip from Cobain. Hundreds of record store finds later, these remain my most cherished albums. And decades later, I even got Da Silva and Gina Birch to sign my now well-worn copies. –Andy Beta, contributor
Sam Hinton: Whoever Shall Have Some Good Peanuts
Red Onion Records // Washington, D.C.
One cliché about becoming a parent is that it cuts into time for frivolous hobbies like shopping for records. I see it another way: having kids means I should spend more time in record stores, since now I need to look for children’s music, too. There are so many rabbit holes to fall into with kids’ records—“Sesame Street” released over 100 alone in the ’70s and ’80s—but since I was already a fan of the Smithsonian Folkways label, it was easy to add their children’s releases to my want list.
I knew nothing about one such album of theirs, Sam Hinton’s Whoever Shall Have Some Peanuts: Folk Songs for Children, when I spotted a copy at D.C.’s Red Onion Records, a reliable source for used gems. It only took one listen to get excited about this find from 1957. Hinton’s breathless singing style is so distinctive, he instantly pumps life into traditional songs like he’s filling balloons with helium. Each tune is so deftly and hilariously reworked into Hinton’s image that it’s hard to believe he didn’t write it himself. I’m not sure my kids agree with me on how amazing this album is, but I do know I’ll be listening to it well after they’ve moved out of the house. –Marc Masters, contributor
Michael Tilson Thomas/Ralph Grierson: Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring & Scherzo à la russe for Two Pianos
Jerry’s Records // Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
I decided last fall to get into classical music, to try to understand what can make a composition thrilling. This coincided with Thanksgiving, which I spent with my girlfriend at her uncles’ home in Pittsburgh. They promised to take us to Jerry’s Records, a massive store with an intimidating vinyl collection that feels more thorough than a streaming catalog.
I knew I wanted to get a copy of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, a piece famous for its emotion and compositional innovation. What I didn’t know was that I would walk away with a piano rendition, or that any such thing even existed. As I learned via the album’s back cover, Stravinsky composed early drafts for all his work on piano, yet viewed the instrument as nothing more than a percussive tool.
Michael Tilson Thomas and Ralph Grierson’s four-handed piano performance is proudly billed as the first recording of its kind. It’s not as complete as a traditional Rite performed by orchestra—there’s no way to replicate the solo bassoon that opens “The Adoration of Earth”—but it illuminates the delicate frenzy at the heart of the piece. The piano is harsh and beautiful in the second movement, “The Augurs of Spring,” and the penultimate movement, “Ritual Action of the Ancestors,” tenses up as the notes bounce and teeter chaotically. At Jerry’s, I didn’t yet know what a thrill I was buying. –Matthew Strauss, Associate Editor