Philly is a great music town, that’s no secret. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s also a great place to build a record collection.
“This city has some great record stores,” says Bruce Warren, program director at WXPN (and former Inquirer music writer). “Repo Records, the Philadelphia Record Exchange, Brewerytown Beats … all these places have one thing in common: really passionate people that work there.”
Every year, Record Store Day is an opportunity to remind people that records, and record retailers, are something to be passionate about. But across the city’s shops, not everyone is so passionate about Record Store Day itself.
When it was declared back in 2007, the event seemed uncontroversial; an annual quasi-holiday to encourage people to support independent record stores, launched at a time when such stores were under serious threat. It was a gentle reminder to patronize your local record store because, well, they could use the patronage. And Philly, certainly, has no dearth of shops worth patronizing.
Since then, things have become more complicated. It has grown from a day (usually a Saturday in April, though the pandemic has upended this recently, to an organization, that works with labels, distributors, and shops to provide exclusive releases, making it an occasion for music fans and collectors.
“It’s hell,” says Keri Grimindl, manager of Common Beat Music in West Philly. “It’s like Black Friday. But much worse. Because it’s all record people.” Grimindl says a small shop like Common Beat (which throws its own annual birthday celebration, with sales and freebies for regulars) can’t handle the stress.
The event has also drawn criticism from collectors who say Record Store Day caters to “flippers” looking to score rare releases and sell them online; that special releases tend to privilege larger stores; that the pressure on the nation’s few remaining record-pressing plants makes it harder for smaller artists to produce and sell their albums; that it has, more generally, transformed physical music into pricey souvenirs, valuable more for their rarity than their content; and that it turns music into museum pieces, instead of living, breathing, grooving works of art.
Still, while not every store in town is officially taking part in Record Store Day — which, this year, is really two days: June 12 and July 17 — many are offering discounts to anyone who needs an incentive to patronize their local record store. Other shops of note (like Beautiful World Syndicate on East Passyunk) are still operating online-only, though planning to reopen in-store shopping as pandemic-related restrictions continue to ease.
Here are some of the region’s most notable shops, well worth a visit on Record Store Day, or just whenever. Because really, can’t any day be Record Store Day if you, you know, visit a record store?
Brewerytown Beats owner Max Orchester was just about to move from his Girard West shop to a larger location around the corner on North Bailey. And then, the pandemic. “I lost 50% of my revenue last year in the store,” Orchester said. He migrated online, selling his catalog of soul, hip-hop, and funk records on websites like Discogs. (Orchester bought the extensive collection of the late Bruce Cornell Webb, owner of the iconic Webb’s Department Store on Ridge Avenue, one of the city’s few Black-owned record shops.) But now, Orchester’s finally moved into the new space. “An official grand opening is still a few months away,” he says, “but people are free to drop-in whenever.”
Record Store Day: Brewerytown Beats won’t get any of the “official” exclusives, but Orchester is planning to have friends DJ in the new location, and will announce deals and markdowns via Instagram.
West Philly’s Common Beat Music is more than just a record store. It’s an all-purpose music hangout. You’ll find a healthy selection of folk and country LPs, rounded out by stacks of 7-inch singles and a smattering of new releases. “We don’t buy a lot of new stuff,” manager Keri Grimindl explains. “There’s a lot of intentionality in how we source our stock.” What distinguishes the store is its similarly curated selection of music instruments, amplifiers, straps, strings, and other accessories. It has an intimate, friendly, local vibe. “It makes more sense to go to a record store on a regular basis,” says Grimindl, “as opposed to two or three times a year.”
Record Store Day: Management prefers to keep money circulating in the community, between local record collectors, instead of cleaving off a piece to the larger distributors driving Record Store Day. So don’t expect any major events, but feel free to go in and shop as normal.
On a recent trip to Digital Underground — the wildly eclectic Queen Village shop — one young browser ambling through the racks of recent reissues by bands like Sacred Reich, Mercyful Fate, and the industrial metal dance band Combichrist, commented that their distaste for mainstream music was so profound that, if stuck in traffic without an aux cord or Bluetooth hookup, they’d never even bother to turn on the FM radio, preferring instead to “sit in silence and vibe.” Digital Underground caters to such listeners, with its deep trenches of metal and electro, as well as used novelty records (I spied multiple copies of a 1970 promotional tie-in record for the sitcom All in the Family) and Japanese imports of old PlayStation game sound tracks, for which there is, apparently, a market.
Record Store Day: As a specialty shop, Digital Underground plans to go “all-out” for Record Store Day.
With a street-facing window display prominently featuring prop skeletons playing cards, Long in the Tooth could easily be mistaken for a magic shop. Or some sort of dungeon-themed escape room. But don’t be fooled! The venerable Center City hangout is a crate-digger’s dream. It’s the sort of place where a well-stocked new arrivals racks can stoke general excitement. “Ah! A copy of Miles Davis’ Live-Evil! Oooh! A Posh Record compilation of ’80s L.A. hardcore! Wow! A bunch more stuff that I can’t afford!” Where other shops seem to streamline their stock for a more, let’s say, “user-friendly” experience, Long in the Tooth makes a virtue of its abundance. A tastefully curated selection is all well and good. But there’s still a lot to be said for the pleasure of dredging out the rare gems from the stacks yourself.
Record Store Day: The store plans to get a bunch of the official, exclusive, Record Store Day releases.
Manayunk can already feel like you’re stepping into its own little village, and Main Street Music is the kind of small, well-stocked record store you used to find in any town: collecting new records, pricey box sets, and a great selection of used vinyl. The shop majors in the sort of souvenir vinyl releases to entice buyers. And, manager Jamie Blood says the pandemic has birthed a whole new class of such buyers, who began building collections as a pastime in the last year or so. “It’s going to be so nice just to see people out again,” she says. “After a year of crap, it’s nice just to have something to look forward to.”
Record Store Day: “We love Record Store Day,” says Blood. Look for the limited edition releases, and some friendly faces.
Is Molly’s, in the Italian Market, a record store,? Or is it more of a book store that also sells used records and tatty old issues of Rolling Stone? I suppose it’s the latter. You’re not likely to find much in the way of brand-new, thickly-pressed, souvenir vinyl here. But among the rows of old paperbacks and shelves of vintage rock rags, there’s plenty of fun to be had flipping through the reasonably-priced, quickly-rotated stock of used records. Whether it’s a record store or a book store or some amalgam of both, I just know it’s exactly the kind of place built for wasting away half-an-hour, elbow-to-elbow, sifting through the stacks with other hardened admirers of old and reused things.
Record Store Day: Dealing exclusively in secondhand vinyl (and, of course, books), Molly’s doesn’t make any sort of fuss for Record Store Day. It’ll be business-as-usual. “Every day is Record Store Day here,” manager John Dickie says with a laugh.
Fishtown’s hallowed Philadelphia Record Exchange excels at the sort of cluttered, controlled chaos that draws in local listeners and collectors. The store’s highly eclectic selection includes a huge bin dedicated to sound tracks (everything from “Jesus Christ Superstar” to more curious cuts like “Conan The Barbarian”) and another marked, simply, “Shlock.” With stacks of as-yet unsorted albums piled along the aisles, the Philadelphia Record Exchange can feel a bit like the inside of a record collector’s head turned manifest. Decent prices, too.
Record Store Day: There will be no — repeat, no — official Record Store Day celebrations at the Exchange. It’s just not the sort of place that goes in for that sort of semi-corporatized pomp and circumstance.
HBO’s recent hit whodunit Mare of Easttown generated plenty of hype for its regional accents, and its abundance of Yuengling bottles and plentiful hoagie-based supper scenes. Less remarked upon was the Repo Records shirt sported by one of Easttown’s millions of wayward, bleary-eyed teens. Celebrating 35 years on South Street, Repo is the rare record store that warrants its own merch (which it also sells). In addition to Repo Records T-shirts and stickers, the store also boasts an impressive collection of new and used vinyl, slanting toward classic rock. You’ll also find plenty of band shirts, posters, pins, and patches. Basically, if you were to wake up one day and decide, “I want to get into rock music,” you could be totally kitted out at Repo. A dream for music fans, or costume designers desperate to nail those lived-in, hyper-local sartorial details..
Record Store Day: RSD is a big deal at Repo. The store is already hyping up some of the exclusive “drops” — from a Joni Mitchell archival release to the Life Aquatic soundtrack — on its website and Insta.
Nestled in a historic brick building in Doylestown, Siren Records looks from the outside more like a public library than a record shop. Inside, you’ll find rows of new and used vinyl. And plenty of CDs. Remember those? With its stock organized and subcategorized, by genre, subgenre, and artist, it’s easy enough to find exactly what you’re looking for. They offer plenty of marked down, budget vinyl titles — a throwback to the days of building an ad hoc collection purely from dollar bin records.
Record Store Day: Doylestown is adopting a reservation system from 10 a.m.-1 p.m. to help manage the flow of Record Store Day foot traffic. Siren employee Joe Montone jokes that he pulls double-duty as a bouncer. “It makes all the special titles last longer. Before, we’d have 200 grizzly bears coming in, all fighting over the same Grateful Dead record.” Siren is also staying open late on June 12 and raffling off a cardboard cutout of the White Stripes, with proceeds donated to a local food bank.
South Philly’s Sit & Spin is another spot catering to serious collectors: of used heavy metal vinyl, extremely rare (and, the sign warns, “expensive”) punk 7-inches, and assorted ephemera (think 500-piece Metallica puzzles). Sit & Spin’s the sort of store where you’re more likely to score a rare Ice 9 single, or peruse a rack of T-shirts dedicated to Cleveland hardcore outfit Integrity, than pick up a rare RSD exclusive release of a Robert Plant live concert.
Record Store Day: Although the shop won’t be stocking any of the official Record Store Day exclusives, owner Colin McMahon is still planning to offer sales and markdowns to his customers. “It definitely has a positive impact for stores overall,” McMahon says of the event. “There just wasn’t as much stuff in-line with what we were doing here.”
About the writer:
John Semley’s writing has been published in Harper’s, the New York Times Magazine, The New Republic, The Baffler, The Guardian, and elsewhere. His most recent book is Hater: On the Virtues of Utter Disagreeability (Viking).
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