We live in an era of ever-evolving entertainment consumption. Everything’s smaller, faster, more convenient, more immediate. This is certainly true for how we consume music.
Downloading music is now considered quaint. In 2014, digital downloads through online retailers decreased by 9 percent for albums and 12 percent for individual songs. An unlimited catalogue of music is available to stream for virtually nothing. CDs are practically anachronistic. Curious about an album? Pop over to Spotify and play it for free, instantly. Sure, the sound quality isn’t terrific, but we’re used that, right? We’ve had years and years of lossy MP3 files that trade audio clarity and richness for convenience. There’s an unlimited flow of music a mere mouse click away. It’s overwhelming. An entire generation has been raised on free downloads and streaming audio — the music industry has gone through a staggering collapse in the decade and a half since its revenue peak in 1999.
Somewhere there is a strong whiff of dust as an intrepid music connoisseur, missing the deep personal connection he had with certain albums of his youth and weary of the poor quality of streaming and lossy MP3 files, digs a long-forgotten stack of records out of his closet. He chooses one he played a thousand times way back when — one he replaced with a CD and later with a digital download — and gazes fondly at the cover art, instantly transported back to a time when music had tangible value, when it moved him in an intensely personal way. The turntable, long neglected, plugs right into the receiver. He hears a dim hum and places the twelve-inch disc on the platter, making sure it’s set to 33 1/3 RPM. He gently lifts the stylus and places the needle on the record.
After a few faint crackles and pops, the music bursts forth from the speakers with a power and warmth long since forgotten in the wake of digital music’s clean, compressed sound. He sits back and actually listens to the record all the way through, reading the lyrics, absorbing the artwork and the liner notes. This experience cannot be replicated by streaming audio or downloading MP3s, or even with a CD and its tiny, cramped booklet. Vinyl. This is how he grew to love music.
He’s not the only one. Ignoring streaming, there’s only one format of music increasing in sales: vinyl records. And it’s not a mere blip upwards, it’s a dramatic rise. In 2014, vinyl sales in the U.S. rose an astounding 52 percent over the prior year, the highest number since the music industry’s SoundScan tracking system launched in 1991. Vinyl only made up about 6 percent of overall album sales, but it’s the lone bright spot in an industry that’s been hemorrhaging sales and money for years. Few could have predicted such a dramatic resurgence — after all, vinyl was left for dead as a serious consumer format years ago.
Why is this happening? As the digital boom progressed, music has become more and more impersonal. There’s no sense of value or ownership when your music is a series of ones and zeros. With vinyl, the buyer has the sensory experience of removing the shrink-wrap, viewing the cover art, reading the liner notes and lyrics. It allows for a physical, more personal connection. Vinyl aficionados will also claim that the sound quality is better, that the warmth and resonance of a good vinyl pressing cannot be replicated digitally or on most CD pressings. For many, there’s the nostalgia of returning to the record-playing days of their youth. Record companies churn out massive deluxe editions of classic releases to appeal to Gen-X-ers and Baby Boomers. A younger generation of music fans, who grew up on MP3s, is also becoming enraptured by vinyl’s charm, and is discovering that music collecting can be a more satisfying hobby than storing endless folders on a hard drive. Many artists — from today’s trendiest bands to long-enduring veterans — are championing the format’s resurrection. There’s also an undeniable coolness factor.
There are pitfalls. Sometimes reissues aren’t appreciably better than original pressings. Detractors will point at vinyl’s storage issues and the possibility of scratches and surface noise. The format also obviously lacks the convenience and portability of digital, but many new vinyl releases contain a CD copy of the album, or a card with a code to download a digital version. Often new releases or reissues are prohibitively expensive, as the labels try to wring every last penny from what might be a passing fad. It’s routine to see reissues of key albums upwards of $45, and sometimes much more. Neil Young’s average-at-best 2014 release Storyville, a 2-LP set that features one disc of Young with just an acoustic guitar and a second disc of the same songs with an orchestral backing, is priced at an insane $69.99. This isn’t the first time Young has jacked up the price on his vinyl releases — his 2012 album with Crazy Horse, Psychedelic Pill, was similarly overpriced. That said, most new releases are far more affordable. You might splurge on a rare collectable from time to time, but part of the trick is looking for bargains, as well as knowing when something is outrageously overpriced. With the prices as high as they’re going, and a public evidently willing to pay, it’s easy to understand the industry’s enthusiasm over vinyl’s resurgence.
Vinyl collecting can be as cheap or as expensive as you want it to be. You can get a basic turntable at Best Buy for very little money (you’ll need a receiver with a phono input, unless it’s a USB turntable capable of plugging into a computer). A mid-range turntable that will offer better fidelity and endurance can run $400 to $500. Top of the line models can easily hit four figures, and die-hard audiophiles will often spend thousands on their setup, including turntable, receiver, amp, and speakers. You can also go vintage and buy high quality used equipment for ridiculously cheap prices in unexpected places (thrift stores, flea markets, yard sales and estate sales are all prime trolling ground for record junkies). Bottom line: You don’t have to be rich to start a record collection.
Many record stores that thrived during the music industry’s sales peak are now long gone, shuttered one by one as the downturn hit retailers. But some stores were able to hang on, and a few new ones have popped up. A thriving network of independent record stores across the country are enjoying the new vinyl boom. Even major retailers like Hot Topic, Urban Outfitters, Barnes & Noble and Best Buy are getting into the act.
As a vinyl enthusiast since childhood, I’ve visited stores around the country. Wherever life takes me, one of the first things I do is snoop out what local record stores are on the must-visit list, from the beloved Bull Moose in Portland, Maine to West Seattle’s amazing Easy Street Records. I’ve spent quality time in massive stores like Amoeba Records, with locations in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Berkeley, and the terrific Monster Records and Movies in Charleston, South Carolina, to small shops like the charming Dr. Records near the University of Maine campus in Bangor. The phenomenal Rough Trade in Brooklyn, Vintage Vinyl in Fords, New Jersey, Baltimore’s Sound Garden, and Pittsburgh’s famous Jerry’s Records are favorites.
So where does the D.C. metro area stand in this world of vinyl? We don’t have a big destination store like other major cities, but we make up for it with an incredible diversity of stores offering a unique spin ’round the turntable.
I recently went on a D.C. record-shopping odyssey and visited 14 outlets to size up their offerings. They all have pros and cons, but each has a very distinct vibe, and almost all are worth a visit.
5852 Washington Blvd., Arlington, Va.
On Washington Boulevard in Arlington sits a yellow house that’s been converted into several small shops. On one side there’s a tiny concrete staircase leading to a basement store. The heavy, creaky wooden door opens into a tiny space bursting at the seams with vinyl. Blue Groove Soundz has a friendly staff, a nifty atmosphere, a nice selection of new releases and tons of used records encompassing all genres. The place is a bit of a mess, but everything is well-labeled and it’s not hard to find what you’re looking for.
Unfortunately, the prices at Blue Groove Soundz are higher than average, especially on new releases and sealed vinyl. I saw a Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab pressing of Miles Davis’ pivotal 2-LP Bitches Brew for $55. Imagine my dismay when I looked at the MoFi website and saw it on sale for $39.99. So rule number one: before you plunk down serious coin on a piece of wax, do your research and know if you’re getting a good deal. Lesson learned. Although Blue Groove’s prices are high, they have a fine selection and there are used gems to be found that aren’t out of line with the norm. Paying a few extra bucks to keep a local record store in business isn’t such a horrible thing — and they frequently send out e-mail bombs with weekend discounts of up to 20 percent. Parking in the lot is limited, but there is typically street parking within a short walking distance. There are also several cool restaurants and pubs nearby, so it’s worth an afternoon trip.
709 West Broad Street, Falls Church, Va.
2607 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Va.
CD Cellar has been around for a long time and know their stuff. The larger Falls Church store, my preferred location, shares a building and parking lot with Spacebar, a pub that bills itself as a “beer and grilled cheese emporium.” The store is divided into two halves: Down a long staircase into the basement you’ll find an enormous selection of used CDs and DVDs, while upstairs and to the right (you actually have to go outside and come back in a separate entrance) lives the vinyl.
CD Cellar isn’t the place to go if you’re looking for new releases on vinyl. They have a smattering, and some new reissues of particularly hot titles, but their selection is limited. They make up for it with an excellent selection of used records of all genres, well-organized and in good condition. They often have some really nice items lurking in their racks, and their pricing is good-to-average. They have a small bin of rarities at higher prices; it’s always worth a look as they’ll often have some nice finds. Seeing Bruce Springsteen’s 2001 epic The Rising on LP priced at $150 might be shocking until you get a look at the obscene prices it goes for on eBay.
CD Cellar hasn’t yet managed to wire a credit card machine upstairs, so if you’re planning to use plastic, they’ll take your items around the back downstairs. You then have to go outside and reenter downstairs to make your purchase. It’s a frustrating setup. For Record Store Day, a massive international sale encompassing 1,400 independently-owned stores around the world (this year’s is on April 18; visit recordstoreday.com), CD Cellar takes a novel approach: items are spread randomly about the store, and they let everybody in at once (many stores limit entry creating lines that often stretch around a block), so it’s a mad free-for-all while folks try to snatch the items on their want-lists. CD Cellar — either location — is definitely worth a visit if you’re looking for used stuff.
9039 Baltimore Ave., College Park, Md.
Situated in a large building that looks a bit like a strip-mall, CDepot is the most disorganized record store I’ve ever visited. It’s a shame, really. They have a vast inventory of vinyl, but most of it resides in cardboard boxes with the tops folded shut, stacked in, around and under the racks of CDs and the selection of vinyl that they’ve bothered to price and make easily available.
It’s frustrating to think that the one record you’ve been searching for might be hidden away in one of those endless boxes. The entire place is in disarray, with only rudimentary organization and labeling of the used vinyl. The used records available to purchase are on the pricey side. Albums that would be one or two dollars at Record & Tape Exchange are $3.99 or $4.99 here.
CDepot does have a great selection of used 45s — a quick browse yielded some hard-to-find ’80s singles. They also have a massive selection of CDs and DVDs. If you’re in the area and in the mood to dig through some vinyl, it’s worth a stop, but CD Depot would be so much better if they’d undertake the admittedly massive task of organizing. CDepot is good if you’re looking for used CDs and DVDs, but only the most dedicated vinyl hunters will be willing to navigate its haphazardly organized racks and boxes of used records.
2116 18th St. NW, Washington, DC
If you’re seeking the one store in D.C. that has a little of everything, try Crooked Beat in Adams Morgan. They have a strong selection of new and used vinyl, and the pricing is generally reasonable. Rarely have I entered Crooked Beat and left empty-handed. There’s also a budget used section packed with great titles.
Crooked Beat is popular with Record Store Day shoppers — there’s always a long line, so if you’re planning on hitting them up come April 18, be prepared. Unfortunately, they now close at 8 p.m. on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, while the listing that pops up on Google still shows them as open until 9 p.m. So, if you drive into D.C. looking to shop on a Tuesday night and get there at 8:15 — well, Smash is a short walk up the street, and they stay open ’til 9.
1054 31st St. NW, Washington, DC
Tucked away in a secluded corner of Canal Square near the Sea Catch Restaurant in Georgetown, Hill & Dale looks as much like a posh art gallery as a record store. It’s the antithesis of the down-and-dirty realness of shops like Smash or the Vienna Music Exchange. Billed as a “record parlor,” the store has beautiful rock photographs and prints neatly arranged on the walls, all of which are for sale. Hill & Dale has a minimalist décor, clean and neat. There’s no used vinyl to be found, only sealed current releases or reissues, and they have an outstanding selection, perhaps the best in D.C. They also have a beautiful section of vinyl box sets. Be prepared, however, for pricing on the high side.
One interesting quirk: Hill & Dale doesn’t categorize their albums, so you’ll be flipping through the bins and come across Iron Maiden, Jay-Z and Etta James in quick succession. (They did have indie-band Rilo Kiley filed in the K’s, though — oops.) Hill & Dale also features in-store performances — the excellent D.C. band U.S. Royalty was there recently.
There’s an elegant feel to Hill & Dale that doesn’t exactly scream “rock & roll,” but they provide another element of variety to D.C.’s record store scene. Hill & Dale is certainly worth a visit if you’re looking for new releases, but make sure you get there early — they close at 7 p.m., even on Fridays and Saturdays.
8216 Georgia Avenue, Silver Spring, Md.
If you had to twist my arm and make me pick one “must-visit” record store in the region, it would be the glorious mess known as Joe’s Record Paradise. It’s been around for ages (at various locations), and looks it. Walking in, you are immediately besieged by a huge room full of CDs and bargain bin vinyl featuring country, classical and blues albums, along with a huge wall of used cassette tapes. There are box sets and selected rarities along the wall behind the counter, while a large back room contains row after row of used vinyl at great prices. Joe’s has a section of higher-priced rarities segmented off to the side with a chain across the entrance (you have to ask a clerk’s permission to enter this rarified air), but it’s a smart move, as it separates the “good stuff” from the cheaper titles. If there’s a rare nugget that you’ve been searching for, chances are you’ll find it there.
The back of the store contains a huge rack overflowing with countless movie soundtracks. They also have rows of used CDs, but vinyl is very clearly the emphasis, with a massive selection of 45s in great condition and at excellent prices. If you’re looking for new releases and sealed vinyl, you’re barking up the wrong tree, but for purists who love nothing more than spending a leisurely hour or three browsing racks of used LPs, Joe’s Record Paradise is a heavenly jumble of vinyl goodness.
1530 U St. NW, Washington, DC
Billed as having “All things strange and freaky,” Joint Custody is a pleasant surprise. The atmosphere is friendly and welcoming, and the store boasts a solid selection of used LPs at good prices. There are three boxes of dollar bargains worth browsing. If you’re a fan of ’80s new wave and alternative, you’ll be hard pressed to find a better selection elsewhere. I emerged with two Siouxsie & The Banshees LPs in mint condition, and an original pressing of The Sound’s double live album In The Hothouse that I’d never before encountered “in the wild.” The store has a small selection of new releases worth flipping through, but it’s mostly worthwhile for their superb used vinyl selection. A cool little basement store, Joint Custody isn’t limited to records — they have vintage apparel, shoes, even furniture. Worth checking out. .
4007 University Dr., Fairfax, Va.
The new kid on the block is Mobius Records, a small but promising store in downtown Fairfax that opened last summer. Next to a friendly coffee shop called De Clieu Coffee and Sandwich, Mobius is a bright, neat store with an extremely congenial owner and a surprisingly diverse selection of new and used vinyl, all at excellent prices. Their albums are consistently marked lower than titles found at other D.C. stores. I walked out with two sealed Beastie Boys albums, and a handful of great-quality vintage R&B and didn’t break the bank. Mobius should only get better as they build inventory and word gets out to vinyl aficionados. With several other cool shops — antiques, apparel, etc. — and restaurants all within close walking distance, a visit to Mobius is a no-brainer. If the great vinyl resurgence continues, Mobius has a bright future indeed.
8236 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring, Md.
A short jaunt down the street from Joe’s Record Paradise sits The Record Exchange, and the contrast between the two couldn’t be more dramatic. While Joe’s is vast and messy, The Record Exchange is small, neat and clean. They have a fraction of Joe’s selection, but what they do have is worth a rummage. There’s a dollar bin in the front of the store with some decent titles. They also carry used gaming equipment and a large assortment of retro video games, along with a superb used DVD selection.
They have some new vinyl to go along with a smaller selection of used, but pricing on new releases can be high. They had Soundgarden’s reissue of Superunknown for a jaw-dropping $57.97 — almost ten dollars more than Amazon’s already high price. Their used section yielded some gems — I walked out with a near mint original pressing of Pink Floyd’s Obscured by Clouds at a reasonable price. The staff are friendly, and the store is well-organized. They have a frequent shopper card — you earn a stamp for every $20 spent and get $20 off when the card is filled. Considering the proximity to Joe’s Record Paradise, it makes Silver Spring a destination for used vinyl lovers.
Pickett Shopping Center, 9448 Main St., Fairfax, Va.
An essential visit for any vinyl fan, the Record & Tape Exchange has scrapped and clawed and managed to hang around when so many similar stores have closed over the years. On the left after you walk in is a long rack of used CDs, and then comes the vinyl. They’re a bit of a crapshoot on selection. On some visits, they’re packed full of gems, other times you leave empty-handed. The “newly received” bins usually yield the best finds.
A high point is their monumental collection of dollar bargains, including full albums and a large mix of 12″ singles. You can walk out of Record & Tape Exchange with a stack of great wax for very little money. They have few new releases and sealed LPs, but more than make up for it with a fantastic selection of used 12″ and 7″ records in prime condition. On the wall to the left of the checkout counter is a display of rarities acquired from time-to-time. I’ve scored some great purchases there, including the very hard to find Nirvana self-titled “best of” on 2-LPs, and The White Stripes’ Elephant on beautiful red and white vinyl, both for significantly less than the going rates on eBay. The staff is friendly and helpful, and there’s always interesting music playing. Record & Tape Exchange is small and they have a fraction of the inventory of Joe’s Record Paradise, but it’s an essential stop if your budget is tight.
1901 18th St. NW, Washington, DC
If you’re going to Adams Morgan shop for records, of course you’ll hit Smash and Crooked Beat, but don’t overlook Red Onion. Their selection of vinyl is in fine condition — and prices are fairly reasonable. They also have a large inventory of books, far more than any other D.C.-area record store, as well as other odds and ends for sale, including board games. Red Onion isn’t the place to go looking for new releases, but is perfect if you’re in the mood to dig through some excellent used vinyl.
2314 18th St. NW, Washington, DC
Smash is an old-school rock and roll record store, specializing in hardcore and punk. In the front of the store they sell shoes and boots, a small selection of VHS tapes, a few books, and used CDs. They also feature a nice selection of singles, mostly hardcore but every now and then you’ll run across a Duran Duran or something like The Dream Academy’s “Life in a Northern Town.”
They have a small selection of new vinyl, but it’s on the costly side. I found The Beastie Boys’ Ill Communication for $31.99 after buying it at Mobius for $25.99. Their used stuff is reasonable, though, and they have some selected rarities on the wall behind the counter along with a sign reading, “We don’t have discounts — we keep our prices as low as possible. Thank you for your support.” Smash emanates rock and roll — it looks like a record store should. They even have some cool apparel, belts, wallets, pins, jewelry and other odds and ends. I picked up near-mint copies of Skid Row’s self-titled LP and some classic hardcore by D.C.’s own Government Issue for a decent price. If they’d been on cassette, it would’ve been high school all over again. If you’re looking to dig for vinyl gold, Smash is your go-to shop.
1843 14th St. NW, Washington, DC
Located just down the street from the legendary Black Cat, next to Manny and Olga’s Pizza, Som Records is an key stop on any record-shopping trek. A small basement establishment, walls adorned with records, Som has a small but wide-ranging section of new releases, and plenty of used vinyl to sift through. Be sure to check out their excellent international music and hip-hop sections. They also have a small stack of CDs and cassettes on the front counter. There’s a section of rarities labeled “expensive shit” that contains some interesting nuggets. Som has that old-school record store feel to it, and every time I shop there, I find something cool I didn’t expect.
131 Church St. NW, Vienna, Va.
Vienna Music Exchange is a unique place, to say the least. The size of a small bedroom, the store has room for perhaps 3 or 4 customers at a time. And it’s jam-packed with CDs, records, and other items, including books and assorted oddities.
Their specialty is heavy metal, and they have a fantastic selection of new and used metal. But there is plenty for non-metalheads, as the racks contain used records of every genre (though fans of classic rock will be happiest). There are also boxes under the racks, so if you’re serious about a vinyl dig, grub around on your knees and search away. Some of the racks are so jam-packed, there’s hardly room to flip through the records, but once you begin, there are plenty of great items to be found. The prices are good — I picked up Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love for $3.49 after having just passed on a $10 copy at Record & Tape Exchange. Be watchful of the condition, though. I picked up Dio’s The Last in Line without looking at the disc first, and that proved to be a mistake. There is stuff everywhere at Vienna Music Exchange, but every square inch of the place has something worth looking at.
It’s clear our area is well-served by an excellent selection of vinyl retailers, but the big question is whether or not this resurgence is a passing fad or a long-term trend. We listen to music as much as ever, even if the sales figures don’t reflect that. Vinyl’s rebirth shows that after years of neglecting a full sensory experience, an increasing number of music enthusiasts desire more.
There are always going to be those of us who will never abandon the format, and more and more music fans are discovering the joys of record collecting every day. It’s a passion that’s hard to set aside once you get the bug. For those just getting into the old-school spirit, research and education about gear, different labels and pressings, and the myriad of other elements that go into record collecting, is key. There are multiple sources of information online, and some great groups of vinyl junkies on social media. There is a sense of community among collectors. The enthusiasm is infectious.
It takes some patience and persistence to track down that elusive favorite, but when you find it, or something else great that you didn’t expect, it comes with a surge of excitement that — at least for me — logging onto your computer or smartphone and clicking through iTunes or Spotify simply can’t match. In my opinon, there is no better way to connect with the music you love.
View a gallery of additional photography by Todd Franson for this feature below.