Quest for Good Music Retailers in the DC Metro Area
Discovering new artists and following the scene was easy at
college, but actually buying new music proved to be more difficult.
As a member of the college radio station staff I had plenty of exposure
to the industry, reviews and early releases, and when duplicate copies were sent
I could occasionally sneak away with something for myself.
The "cutting edge" was at my fingertips.
But when it came to shopping, the physical act of standing in a store,
leafing through LPs or stacks of CDs, going in with no agenda and coming out
with something unexpected, Williamsburg could not have been more dry.
There was nothing there for the music lover with the discriminating ear.
There were two avenues of recourse when the call for new music was heard.
First and foremost there was the Internet the cyber-store with
limitless selection. With a little
diligence and some keyed up investigative instincts, a few hours of searching
can yield almost anything you could hope for.
Still, it is so hard to browse the Internet, and the process is clinical
and impersonal. While it is great
as a tool for hunting down something you know you want, the Internet fails to
create the random quality associated with the impulse buy something a good
record store can provoke. Thus,
there was also the record shopping day-trip.
Whether is it was to Hampton, Richmond or even a real city (now don't get
upset Richmond we all know you're a real city too) no place was quite near
enough that it could be reasonably planned without compromising an entire day.
Despite all this, these trips became a ritual. You would find the most comfortable car, fill it with as many
people as you could, and go out to eat and shop. While this was enjoyable, I was still so glad when I
graduated to be moving back to a city where small, dingy record stores with
nominally sorted stacks and a diverse mess of a selection were on my way home
from work or a brief jaunt away.
Unfortunately, my perception of the availability of music in
DC was only partially correct.
While DC has a strong music community, with many local bands
of note and good venues that host shows of all varieties, both large and small,
the area does not have as many good music retailers as I expected.
Of course all the big chains are here: Tower, Borders, etc., but they are
large and impersonal enough to suffer many of the same flaws found while
shopping the Internet. The Tower Records here also seems to suffer from a lack of
focus. There are three in the area
that are close to me, and I find that each of them has the same problem.
While the selection tends to be vast, it is not always comprehensive.
If I go into a three-story, four-acre CD store, I want it to have exactly
what I am looking for, and while Tower seems to stock everything, it is common
to find an empty space in front of the card you have diligently searched out.
This problem didn't happen when I visited Seattle, London and New York,
where Tower had few, but much larger and more complete stores.
In both Seattle and New York I found exactly what I was looking for even
though the albums I sought were older, hard to find releases of disbanded, 80's,
underground electronic acts. Though
London didn't have everything I wanted, it got special points for having the new
Notwist album on storefront display, the album whose acquisition had become
almost the purpose of my trip. I
also have a few good memories of the London Tower (get it?) because I got a good
laugh hearing the Dismemberment Plan, the Alkaline Trio and other U.S. indie-pop
over the in house system. I guess
if I can expect to hear the Gorillaz in every music store in the States, the
Brits should have to listen to the Alkaline Trio.
Regardless, the large music empires are not what I am looking for.
When I was in high school, I would often shop at Vinyl Inc., a small
store on the Maryland side of the city. Despite
its name, Vinyl Inc. carried an indescribably diverse selection of records and
CDs. Going into the store, I could expect to hear anything over
the PA. From Snapcase to Velocity
Girl or the Boo Radleys to Aphex Twin, it carried a little chunk of everything.
It is the only store I can think of where I would expect to hear Howling
Wolf followed by Third Eye Foundation. It was a wonderful store.
Apparently while I was away at school, it closed its doors for the last
time. I miss it.
Determined, I decided I would find new places in the District
to shop. A city as reasonably
large as this couldn't exist without one or two decent record shops to siphon
away my cash. I began my quest by
asking my friends where it was that they bought their music.
Many of them were strictly mail-order people.
A few more, like me, had relied on the Internet since college. A very few
had been ruined by Napster and could no longer envision spending money on Music.
The CD Cellar came up a few times, but this was not surprising as the CD
Cellar had been a staple among my friends since high school.
But no one seemed to have anyplace new to offer.
These were people whose opinions I respected telling me that they
couldn't help me. This was unacceptable.
So I began the telephone phase of my operation.
Armed with an outdated list of area music stores and my mobile phone I
began calling the numbers on the list. What
I ended up with was an interesting picture of where the stores have gone and who
is shopping there.
DC apparently is a good place to be a DJ.
Of all the small record stores I found in the city, the best were those
primarily focused on electronic dance music.
Yoshi Toshi, located in Georgetown, replaced similar predecessor Music
Now, which had resided in the same spot. While
not as diverse as similar shops in New York, it can be expected to have all of
the newest singles to hit the dance scene.
You can also shop there for all of the clothes and accessories you will
need to be easily pigeonholed as a raver and give the police a reason to hassle
you on the street. While shopping there, expect to see your kid sister's friends
and the occasional middle-aged man wearing body glitter. New to the DC community of vinyl stores is Capitol City
Records, located right across the street from the U Street-Cardoza Metro
station. Run by DJs for DJs, this
is a small, independent store offering a variety of urban dance music.
Despite sparse decorations and a barren, windswept feeling, there is a
good selection for the dedicated turntablist and the requisite listening
stations to preview potential purchases. Young
but promising, its utilitarian front-end lacks the flash that makes some turn
their noses up at stores such as Yoshi Toshi, which are aimed at a more general
crowd. If Capitol City records can establish itself in an area which
otherwise lacks good dance specific shopping, then it could become a nice
institution in the city. Other
stores, such as 12 Inch Dance, also cater to the dance enthusiast, but I did not
reach them in my wanderings, and when I asked some of my DJ friends if they
still existed, my queries were met with some skepticism.
Leaving the city, I then focused on the familiar confines of
the Northern Virginia suburban sprawl. I
turned my sights specifically to Arlington and Falls Church, knowing that if I
were to find any nice little stores, it would be in this realm of soccer and
strip malls I was not disappointed. First I stopped by the CD Cellar located in Falls Church City
on Route 7. I go by this place all
the time and am constantly pleased. The
selection of used material is fantastic, and they always have something that I
want. Additionally it is common for
small local acts to drop off their material with the CD Cellar crew, knowing
that they will receive a good presentation among the Cellar's eclectic
offerings. Good local artists to
look for at the Cellar are Metropolitan, a local indie-pop act, and Richard
Chartier, a minimal electronic producer and resident DJ at Filler, the weekly,
no-cover minimal electronic night at the Blue Room, located on 18th in Adams
Morgan. If you are more interested
in vinyl, you can check out Orpheus Records on Wilson Blvd., near the Clarendon
Metro station. Orpheus stocks many
used records and CDs, and they offer a very interesting variety that is rich
with jazz and 80's rock. The staff
at Orpheus was friendly, helpful, and excited when I purchased an EP by local
act The Mikroknytes. Local music is
highlighted in the Orpheus collection by a prominent display at the front of the
store. If you go to Orpheus I
recommend that you abandon any agenda before you arrive, and rather just wander
the stacks, and enjoy some of the real gems you can find buried between A Flock
of Seagulls and Wham!. Finally,
if you follow Wilson Blvd. west for about two and a half miles you will find on
your right the new location of Now! Music.
Originally located across the street from Orpheus, Now! Music is your
place for avant and indie-rock in the DC area.
While its selection isn't as comprehensive as similar stores in NY, it
can still be expected to have an up to date selection featuring the newest
material from the world of underground rock.
Now! Music also carries all the expected zines and all the
from-the-thrift-store clothing and accessories you need to be pigeonholed as
Jawbreaker's #1 fan. While shopping
at Now! Music you should expect to run into your kid sister's friends and the
occasional middle-aged man sporting a bowl cut and a shoulder bag.
While clearly not as expansive as the music scene in other
cities, DC still has quite a bit to offer someone who is willing to do a little
legwork. Like many things in the DC
Metro area, people spend more time complaining about the lack of good
opportunities than they do looking for them.
There is a large audience for the independent, underground music store in
DC, and shamefully this audience not made an effort to root out the few good
stores that already exist. I
visited these shops midday on a Saturday, and found them to be lacking in
patronage. It was a beautiful day
outside, and people were walking the streets in shorts and tee shirts.
In any other city, these shops might have been full.
Maybe the problem is that DC music lovers have trouble supporting the
decent vendors right down the street. Go
out there and buy music people! Support the artists and merchants trying to
enrich your city and thank them for doing it!
What else can I tell you about what I found?
I suppose I should answer a few questions.
Why didn't mention Smash? I
didn't talk about Smash because, fair or not, I will always remember it as the
trendy place to buy music in high school. Why
didn't I mention Phantasmagoria? See
above. Why didn't I talk about X?
I'm sorry, I just went to the places that were relatively convenient for
me. I know there are some other
good shops out there, but they eluded me.
My failure to visit stores in Maryland is self-explanatory.
I avoid Maryland at all costs. It's
not as if there is anything up there that I need, and have you ever spent any
time in Waldorf? Waldorf scares
Visit the Record Stores page for more information on a few of the DC stores mentioned above.
What do you think? - All responses will be posted.
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