The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

These local record shops give you an analog break from a digital world

A customer browses records at Red Onion Records in Hyattsville. (Craig Hudson for The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

For decades, people who enjoyed music on vinyl records instead of CDs or MP3s were considered dinosaurs, moving at 33 RPM while the rest of the world rushed to go digital. Why waste money on a 12-inch piece of plastic when millions of songs — more than anyone could listen to in a lifetime — are just a click away?

Now, more and more people are discovering, or rediscovering, the tactile pleasures of vinyl: The joy of sliding a favorite album out of its cover; the crackle of a needle just dropped into a groove; the careful way to pick up and flip a record when a side ends.

Forget those stereotypes of hipsters clutching indie seven-inch singles or audiophiles droning on about the merits of 180-gram reissues. Last year, vinyl was the most popular format for physical album sales — 41.7 million sold! — since at least 1991, when data companies started keeping track. That might not be much compared with the 988.1 billion songs streamed in the same time period, but vinyl’s resurgence feels like a movement, rather than a moment.

“I’m coming from that last wave — I remember listening to cassettes, I remember the pre-iPod days,” says Matt Talley, 29, the founder of the eclectic Cool Kids Vinyl on H Street NE. “But a lot of folks that come shop with us, it’s their first time seeing Earl Sweatshirt on vinyl or Future on vinyl, and it’s like, ‘Oh, I thought I can only stream this.’ It’s really good to see younger folks interacting with physical music again.”

D.C.'s coronavirus vaccination requirement: What you need to know

If you’re looking for new versions of records you once “upgraded” from vinyl to CD, or tracking down the latest release from a favorite singer, shops specializing in vinyl have sprung up around the area, joining torchbearers such as Joe’s Record Paradise in Silver Spring and Smash! in Adams Morgan, which have been in business for decades at various locations, and 14th Street’s Som Records, a haunt for DJs and collectors since 2006.

Each of the new businesses brings a different vibe, whether that’s specializing in boom-bap hip-hop or the rarest jazz originals. All have something that will sound great on your turntable.

Byrdland

For nearly five years, Songbyrd was a one-stop shop in the heart of Adams Morgan for all things music, a combination venue-bar-restaurant-coffeeshop-record store. And while vinyl sales were a constant even as the pandemic shuttered its other businesses, the record store itself never could spread its wings in the two-level, multiroom setup.

That changed in October 2020, when co-owners Alisha Edmonson and Joe Lapan spun off Byrdland Records to a larger space near Union Market (Songbyrd itself moved to the area last fall). The new digs allow for customers to spend more time with the records (about four or five times as many as the old store) and peruse related ephemera, including T-shirts, books, art and high-fidelity record players.

“We’ve stuck to our brand and our vibe from the Adams Morgan location,” Lapan says. He adds that vinyl and music lend themselves “to a touchy, throwback, analog [feel].”

Key among those hands-on artifacts are a 1950s jukebox that belonged to Lapan’s father, and a 1947 Voice-O-Graph machine that allows customers to record directly to 45s; the latter was at the old space but upgrades make it a lot more consistent. In its new digs, Byrdland serves a diverse crowd from D.C. and beyond, from those looking for a tough-to-stock Taylor Swift reissue or a classic record by Marvin Gaye, and whether they’re newcomers, old pros or even recovering addicts to vinyl.

“We even have this older gentleman whose wife won’t let him buy any more vinyl and so once a month, he’s allowed to come in here and he orders CDs from us,” Edmonson says. 1264 Fifth St. NE. byrdlandrecords.com. Open Tuesday through Sunday. — C.K.

The District's smaller music venues keep our musical horizons vast

Cool Kids Vinyl

No record store in the area offers an experience like Cool Kids Vinyl, located on the second floor of Maketto on H Street NE. Where else can you browse albums by the Roots, Miles Davis and the Pharcyde, as well as comics and VHS tapes, then celebrate your new scores over crystal shrimp dumplings and cocktails?

Cool Kids is the brainchild of Matt Talley, a manager at Maketto. It began as an interactive exhibition called Diggin’ Thru the Crates, full of vinyl, video games and vintage magazines, which traveled to multiple cities before the pandemic. “It was not just insight into the ’90s,” Talley says. “It was an insight into Black culture.” He transformed the exhibition into a bricks-and-mortar store, and when a lease fell through, chef Erik Bruner-Yang offered him space upstairs, in Maketto’s cafe and bar, and Talley has made it his own.

This isn’t a place to spend the afternoon searching through dusty bins: Records are arranged by genre in sleek metal racks. The selection is especially strong in ’90s hip-hop — beyond Mos Def, the Roots and Digable Planets, the soundtracks for “Above the Rim” and “Soul in the Hole” were available on a recent visit — and soulful jazz in the vein of Grover Washington and Roy Ayers. There are always classics, too, whether Blue Note reissues or a $100 Miles Davis original. “You get that mix,” Talley says. “We have a 22-year-old come here and buy a 21 Savage record, and then their grandmother can come in buy a Fela record or a Luther Vandross record, and both of them are still having fun and comfortable within the space.”

Customers can decorate their coffee tables with vintage issues of Life (“Watts: Still Seething”) or Jet, featuring cover stars the Whispers or Quincy Jones, as well as more recent copies of Complex, Vibe and XXL. Batman and X-Men comics are fanned out along one shelf. VHS tapes line another, including sealed copies of “Love Jones” and an Indiana Jones box set. Looking for the #Moechella book, Kid and Play Funko pops, or the cassette version of Warren G’s “Regulate … G-Funk Era”? Cool Kids has them, even if, at times, you wonder if an item’s for sale or just part of the artfully arranged decor.

Because Cool Kids is located in the dining room of Maketto’s cafe, customers have to edge around tables of customers at dinner time, and a restaurant server is likely to ring up your purchases. Be warned: Even if there are empty stools at the bar, you need to check in with the host downstairs before sitting down, because of the restaurant’s limited capacity. 1351 H St. NE (inside Maketto). coolkidsvinyl.com. Open Monday to Saturday. — F.H.

Spin Time Records is D.C.'s neighborhood record shop no matter where you are

Crooked Beat Records

In an ideal world, Alexandria was supposed to be a second location for Crooked Beat Records. Owner Bill Daly accrued so much vinyl in his 12 years in Adams Morgan that it made sense to find an additional spot to put it all on offer. Daly’s plans changed around 2016 when he was told his D.C. shop had been sharing its subterranean space with an army of rats and 28 feet of their tunnels.

That, along with the usual pains of soaring rents, was Daly’s cue to move on from the city and find comfort in his retail spot near the Potomac River waterfront. Old and new customers still flock to Crooked Beat for its wide selection of new releases and Daly’s curation of rare, collectible first pressings and imports.

Outside the big box stores, which in recent years have been trying to horn in on record sales, Crooked Beat is one of the area’s most reliable spots to find the latest LPs, such as the newest Adele or Snail Mail album. While his tastes tend to lean toward ’80s and ’90s alternative rock and punk, Daly knows that his customer base is all over the place, and he needs to keep a steady stock of the Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” and the shop’s No. 1 all-time seller, Neutral Milk Hotel’s “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.”

Daly has been working in record stores since 1990, and he still gets a kick out of younger customers asking about what he’s playing over the speakers (on a recent visit, that was the Jesus and Mary Chain). After all these years, Daly still says the best thing about his job is that customer interaction and learning something new about music every day. 802 North Fairfax St., Alexandria, Va. crookedbeat.com. Open Wednesday through Monday. — H.C.

HR Records

When Charvis Campbell got the opportunity to buy the complete inventory of a Baltimore record store he frequented, he never looked back. He found a storefront on Kennedy Street NW in Brightwood Park and knew instantly, “this is going to be the perfect record spot.” The one-room HR Records, which opened in 2018, sits inconspicuously next to a food market, with no signage but a black-and-white drawing of a record in the window.

The walls at HR, which stands for “home rule,” are filled with records sitting atop shelves, the merchandise doubling as the decor. You’ll see a lot of jazz up there, including Eric Dolphy’s 1964 album “Out to Lunch!” or Art Blakey’s 1956 percussionist project “Orgy in Rhythm.” In the center of the shop are shelves that house the jazz collection that’s the heart of the store, the records wrapped in protective plastic and organized alphabetically. (That said, the most sought-after record in 2021 at HR was “Aaliyah” by Aaliyah. “We found two original copies in two weeks and we had many, many calls, texts and shop visits asking if she was still available,” Campbell says.)

Campbell knows the store is only as good as its next purchase and is always looking to buy the next great set of records. “We just do what we can to provide the best jazz or soul music that people can have,” he said, “So, at the end of the day, it’s about your next collection.” 702 Kennedy St. NW. hrrecords.com. Open Wednesday through Sunday (Monday and Tuesday by appointment only). — H.K.

Love People Records

Though he’s spent his life around music, Daryl “Quartermaine” Francis was probably destined to own a record store. "'Love People’ was the name of my dad’s record store,” Francis says. “He had it from ’79 to about ’84 in Brooklyn,” and later ran a dance hall club with the same name. The younger Francis, meanwhile, became known in D.C. as a member of the hip-hop group Critically Acclaimed, and as a DJ spinning at parties around town.

In recent years, though, Francis has focused more on his family — and a growing record collection, which he estimates at “maybe 15,000″ pieces of vinyl in his basement. “We picked up a [large number] of people’s collections over the last 10 years,” as DJs swapped physical vinyl for laptops and virtual turntables. “I got my father’s collection, too, so we had a bunch of stuff — doubles, triples of things — but we didn’t have it really organized. It was getting out of hand.”

The solution came the day after Thanksgiving, when Francis opened the next generation of Love People in the Antique Market on Kensington’s Antique Row. It’s still a work in progress, which Francis is decorating with old break-dancing posters and an MF Doom mask. The shelves are still being filled, but they’re already holding treasures. The biggest section consists of classic hip-hop albums, such as Brand Nubian, Das Efx and Biggie Smalls. Some, including an “8 Mile” promo sampler and a Junior M.A.F.I.A. and Aaliyah EP, are still sealed in the original shrink-wrap. While that’s expected, don’t overlook the jazz — there’s a gorgeous copy of Art Blakey’s “Moanin'” on the showcase wall — and the R&B, where Tina Marie and Luther Vandross await. A shelf of Public Enemy, A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul cassettes was added after younger customers came in looking for tapes.

So far, Francis is impressed by the diversity of requests. Nina Simone, the Beatles and Marvin Gaye “are falling off the shelves,” he says, and people browse a box of $3 Motown and blues singles by the register. He’s also getting comfortable in the shop, having installed a pair of turntables and a mixer so he can practice — and advertise to anyone walking by. “After the first week, I was like, 'Why did I not do this 20 years ago? This was a no-brainer. And yeah, it’s been really good, man. We’ve been blessed.” 3758 Howard Ave. (inside Antique Village), Kensington, Md. lovepeoplerecords.com. Open Wednesday through Sunday. — F.H.

Best music of 2021: Playboi Carti, Turnstile, Grouper, Yasmin Williams and more

Red Onion

Josh Harkavy has never been happier to own a record store. His shop, Red Onion Records, had locations in the bustling corridors of 18th Street NW and U Street NW before settling, in 2019, in its current, quieter location in Hyattsville. (It doesn’t hurt that he only needs to walk about a half-mile from his home to get there.)

Red Onion has long been a favorite in the local arts community for its exquisite selection, whether you’re looking for the legendary jazz/experimental label ECM Records or freshly plucked John Prine records, and eclectic calendar of live performances, including musicians and poets. But that doesn’t stop Harkavy from “having existential crises on a regular basis,” he says.

Nearly a decade ago, Harkavy announced he was going to close up shop altogether. But a change of heart, guided by an outpouring from customers and friends, has Red Onion still in business. Harkavy hopes that when things get less nutty, he’ll be able to host live music and events on the sidewalk in front of his shop or in the park across the street.

Harkavy used to be on the prowl for lots of free jazz or any strange, outcast music to sell and listen to, but these days he finds himself seeking comfort in albums from old favorites like Pavement. But what Harkavy finds funniest is that after a career devoted to crate-digging for vinyl to keep, sell or share with his community, lately, he’s more likely to listen to a CD. 4208 Gallatin St., Hyattsville, Md. redonionrecords.com. Open Wednesday through Sunday. — H.C.

Sonidos! Music & More

When Claudia Mendiola-Durán thought about what bugged her about the culture of record stores, one image kept floating to mind: the (usually) White (but definitely) dude behind the counter silently (or not-so-silently) judging the customers who stepped foot in his vinyl kingdom. That’s why she started Sonidos! Music & More.

Mendiola-Durán worked at Tower Records in Rockville and Joe’s Record Paradise in Silver Spring before deciding to open in Beltsville, just around the corner from local musician haven Atomic Music. Her cozy shop has pretty much exactly the kind of personality you want from a record store: Peek around the incense-filled room and you’ll spot some handmade artifacts from “The Simpsons” perched on top of a bookshelf and a picture of Motorhead frontman Lemmy adorned on the wall.

Owning a record shop is hard enough, especially as the only one in the area that’s owned by a woman of color, but Mendiola-Durán’s October 2019 opening gave her only a few months to establish a foothold before the pandemic hit. All of a sudden, Mendiola-Durán had to scramble to stay afloat through gift certificate purchases and online sales without people being able to thumb through her collection of exclusively used records.

But it’s all worth it for Mendiola-Durán when local DJs come to her looking for weird sounds to sample or she is turned onto something she’s never heard before, such as a recent discovery of soul singer Barbara Acklin and her funky album “I Call It Trouble.” If the world cooperates, Mendiola-Durán hopes to host movie screenings and other community-building events. The shop is open for half-hour appointment blocks available for reservation online. 11011-B Baltimore Ave., Beltsville, Md. sonidosmusicshop.com. Open Wednesday through Sunday by appointment only. — H.C.

Loading...