A few years ago, I read an article in which the author suggested that mega-bookstores like Barnes and Noble and Borders, while they're sometimes accused of driving independent booksellers out of business, provide an important service by bringing a vast selection of books to places that probably never had such a thing before. Electronics retailers like Best Buy and Circuit City provide a similarly vast selection of CDs to places that couldn't support an independent CD store. But even the mega-retailers have limits--last fall, I tried unsuccessfully to find the new edition of Elton John's Captain Fantastic at several megastores in the Twin Cities, and megastores' coverage of independent labels and local acts is always going to be hit and miss. So: if your taste is more than one standard deviation from that of the masses, you'll always find yourself in need of a good local independent record store.
Over at Soul Sides this afternoon, Oliver Wang pays tribute to Groove Merchant in San Francisco, "aka the greatest record store in the world." I'm not sure I've ever loved a record store like Wang loves Groove Merchant, but I've known some good ones in my day. In Madison, the Exclusive Company is the most reliable. They have quite literally everything, old and new, rock, jazz, country, classical--if they don't have it, you don't need it. When we lived in Iowa City, I did much of my music shopping at Record Collector, which is still the best used CD store I know. It's a regular stop whenever I get back there. (The best used shops in Madison today are Frugal Muse and Half-Price Books, although CD Exchange on State Street is excellent too, particularly for jazz.) During our years in the Quad Cities, Co-op Records was the best place for serious record shoppers, although there were good used shops, too. When we lived in Macomb, Illinois, the place would have felt like the outpost on the edge of the earth that it is had it not been for Victrola, which carried both new and used records, and was a solid customer of my radio station to boot. I went to college in Platteville, Wisconsin, which did not, as I recall, have the kind of great record store one normally associates with college towns, although the university book store and the mega-grocer stocked a few albums. You were better off going to Dubuque or Madison. Late and lamented Madison music stores from those days include Discount Records downtown and Victor Music at one of the malls.
In my hometown, Monroe, we had an actual record store worthy of the name for a while, in the new mall that opened with great fanfare in 1977 and never achieved more than 60 percent capacity--and the record store, whose name escapes me, was one of the first tenants to come and go. Before and after that brief interlude, however, we were left with the selection at Value Village and Gibson's Discount Store, which was usually pretty spotty. I have written before of buying my first 45s at S&0 TV, which was a fairly typical store of its kind in the 1960s and 70s. It sold mostly TVs (and serviced them in the back), but stocked audio equipment and records, too.
The music-shopping world has transformed dramatically since I laid down my first 95 cents at S&0 TV, and the change is still going on. Because so many people buy music where they can, at major retailers like Walmart and Best Buy, and because so many people are downloading music now, bypassing brick-and-mortar stores altogether, the concept of a great record store may disappear entirely one day. But that day is not yet.