In August, I found out about this Buzzfeed list of “27 Breathtaking Record Stores You Have To Shop At Before You Die” from a tweet posted by the proprietor of one of my favorite music blogs, AnEarful. At that point, I’d been to two of them — Mississippi Records in Portland, OR and Grimey’s in Nashville — which, as I confessed at the time, made me feel like some sort of low-grade jet setter. Really, what it makes me is the kind of person who, when exploring a city for the first time, disappears for a few hours to feed a habit that’s already overfed back home. (Quick plug: I can think of a few Richmond shops that deserve to be on the sequel to that Buzzfeed list, if’n one’s ever assembled…)
I knew about Reckless Records before that list came out — I’ve gotten my brother-in-law a Reckless gift certificate or two in years past via the interweb — but reading about the store on that list gave me the nudge I needed to make seeing it firsthand a priority, and I got the opportunity to check out the Milwaukee Ave. location last weekend, when Mrs. YHT and I were in town for a wedding.
Writing about record stores is a little strange, because in certain ways, the stores themselves, like all retail stores, are vessels. Their histories might be interesting — Reckless, for example, was the inspiration for the store in High Fidelity — and they’re opened and employed by people who themselves have interesting stories, but their principal function is distinctly ephemeral. Records go in, records (hopefully) go out. Here today, gone tomorrow. It’s difficult to say, especially after visiting only once, whether one is good or bad, when the inventory can be different from one visit to the next.
That said, there are things you can evaluate on your first trip. Pricing is the big one. Certain stores price records low, banking on more transactions and a loyal customer base. Richmond’s Deep Groove Records pops to mind. Their $3-5 section is a treasure trove, and I always feel like I’m walking out with more than I payed for. BK Music is another one. They order and price new vinyl so well that I tend to bend my own buying rules when I’m there, the operative one being “No new full-length albums.” (Unless it’s a local artist. Or a special pressing. Or it’s Record Store Day. Or it’s just really, really, good. It’s AHEM more of a guideline than a rule, really…) On the other end of the spectrum, you have the stores that price records crazy high, like each sale could be their last. There’s a spot in the Outer Banks like this, and while I’ll go in and look around, I rarely pick anything up. I got my copy of Music of My Mind there, but I’m usually so offended by what they’re asking that I laugh and walk out. But hey, they get zero foot traffic (it’s on a major highway) and the vacationer customer base fluctuates from season to season, so I can’t fault them too much.
I found Reckless to be cozily in the middle. My Chicagoan brother-in-law and I talked about this a bit, and his thought was that they price things fairly, just low enough so that it makes sense to buy there instead of online. I got a really nice used copy of Prince’s 1999 for $9, an old reissue of Miles Davis’ Birth of the Cool for $15, and a new, two-disc copy of Panda Bear’s Person Pitch for $13. (That last one seemed pretty damn low to me, but I didn’t ask any questions.) All that said, the pricing isn’t what I liked most about Reckless. It is related, though.
Another thing you can evaluate on your very first trip to a store is how knowledgeable the employees are. Whether or not a record is a first pressing can be the difference between $15 and $150, and having someone there who can answer questions accurately is important. Reckless is known for this, but they go even further than hiring people who know their stuff — they print tons of information on their price tags about the record’s condition, which pressing it is, even what it sounds like and why it’s worth your time. I saw albums with two and three labels packed with details and recommendations. Whether you’re intimidated by the Jack Blacks of the world or simply in a rush, this is such a thoughtful and valuable practice.
Given a few more visits, I’m sure there’d be more to say, because record stores can be so much more than vessels for commerce. They can be forums for debate. They can be concert halls. They can foster communities that change the course of people’s lives. Steady Sounds in Richmond is a great example of a place that goes above and beyond, hosting art and photography exhibits, regular in-store shows, and screenings of music-related films. I’m not sure which of these things Reckless does, but I hope I can return soon and find out.