The Best Record Stores in Chicago Where You Can Still Score Vinyl
They say you can’t judge a book by its cover, but you can discover a lot about the character of a city by judging the quality of its record stores. As Chicago has never been short on character, it is perhaps no surprise that the city supports a thriving independent record store scene ranging from spotless new upstarts to grungy dives that haven’t changed in decades. So instead of doing some touristy pizza or mobster tour, get a real taste of the city by touring the record stores that help define the character of the city from Wicker Park to Hyde Park -- especially as we gear up for Record Store Day 2018 on April 21.
You could spend a day in this polished, world-class shop
A visit to this internationally acclaimed global superstar (named one of the top record stores in America by Rolling Stone) is like taking an around-the-world trip without having to hide your stash between borders. The immaculately clean, bright space is known for uncovering rarities and underground sounds from hip-hop and world music to African dancehall and everything in between curated in part from obscure private collections that keep DJs and vinyl hounds from around the world salivating at the thought of their next big score. A rainy-day voyage through the stacks of this well-organized international temple of sound (with recently expanded floor space and friendly, Wikipedia-like staff) could easily eat up the better part of your day if you’re not careful. And you won’t care in the slightest. After spending hours in the store, spend a few more hours browsing their expansive online collection.
High Fidelity's muse and Chicago's de facto indie mecca
As more and more record stores around the country continue to contract before they eventually wither and die, Reckless Records seems immune to any such downturn. Having expanded from one store to three since opening in Wicker Park in 1989 while moving its flagship location a few blocks down Milwaukee Avenue to a larger 5,000-square-foot “megastore” in 2015, Reckless is where you go if you want to spot bands like Franz Ferdinand crate digging in between Lolla sets or catch secret in-store gigs from folks like Jack White. While most of its in-store shows lean towards more local and indie bands (whose music is always stocked here in healthy supply), the staff-written album reviews and the fact that the store is widely regarded as the inspiration for High Fidelity’s Championship Vinyl help remind you that when you’re here, you’re at the center of Chicago’s indie music universe.
Famous for its legendary "Do Not Buy Ever" list
This affable Lincoln Square shop is the kind of place that’s pretty much impossible to hate. There’s just too much deliciously delightful weird shit going on at this longtime local landmark, from VHS obscurities and creepy B-movies to a standout collection of underground sounds that also helped the store land on Rolling Stone’s “best of” list. Despite making waves a few years back when Laurie’s posted a “Do Not Buy Ever” list directing employees never to buy “everything Pitchfork” from customers (among more obvious choices like Spin Doctors and “most '90s bands”), Laurie’s can be counted on for a well-curated selection of hipster-approved acts served without irony or attitude.
Gospel, oldies, and a very impressive vintage collection
This historic West Side institution was opened after the 1968 riots that burned much of Madison Street after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. And this family-run spot has been going strong ever since. With one the largest collections of vintage sounds in the city where the floor is littered with cardboard boxes to create a gloriously disorganized mess of records, they just don’t make ‘em like this anymore. With a focus on oldies and a notable gospel collection, this iconic shop attracts history buffs and record store geeks who make the pilgrimage from around the country to experience its one-of-a-kind vibe.
“No CD's!! Never had 'em!! Never will!!”
Dave Crain loves music. This much is clear. But in particular, Dace Crain loves vinyl music. Proudly displaying a famous sign on the door that says: “No CD’s!! Never had ‘em!! Never will!!”, this vinyl paradise houses over 40,000 titles lovingly curated by Dave himself (who has owned Dave’s since 2002 and has worked at the store since 1985, when it was known as Second Hand Tunes.) These days, the vinyl craze has finally caught up with Crain, and he has capitalized on the newfound interest in vinyl (with US vinyl sales hitting record highs in 2017) at his intimate shop, which is stacked floor to ceiling with wax. But it’s clear Dave isn’t in it for the money. Here’s here to make your music collection suck just a little bit less.
Possibly the world's only record store with a "Pose in the Mirror Contest"
This bustling South Side hangout is everything a neighborhood record shop should be. With live DJs, a chummy community vibe, and a bangin’ selection of wax never short on hip hop or international flair, there’s always something happening at this crate digger’s paradise where events range from all-vinyl in-stores and TV-show tapings to in-store performances and a “Pose in the Mirror Contest” -- which, yes, is exactly what it sounds like. If anyone tries to tell you all record stores are the same, a visit here provides for an unimpeachable rebuttal.
This is where you go for electronic music
Like the Beatport of local record stores, Gramaphone is a central clearinghouse for all things electronic in Chicago. Opened way back in 1969 and staking its claim to fame in the ‘80s as an integral part of popularizing the city’s house music boom, these days the funky neighborhood hang is known by DJs and knob-twisters around the country as a premier destination for chiptune sounds like club cuts, dubstep, house, and nu-disco. But don’t think that only laptop wizards are welcome. Gramaphone also stocks a respectable selection of hip-hop and garage acts with plenty of obscure little gems hidden among the stacks.
A friendly shop with arcade games housed in a former hardware store
Housed in a former hardware store in Logan Square two blocks from a beer arcade (Logan Arcade) that the record store once shared space with, Logan Hardware clearly entered the scene with strong hipster bona fides. But step inside and, instead of judgmental glances, you’ll be greeted by a friendly staff in a chill scene that’s quite content to let you do your own thing as you browse their fine selection of punk and rock acts while gazing lustily at their shiny new turntables and stereos. And in case you just can’t bear the thought of leaving this place without gaming, there’s an “arcade museum” in the back that is set to free play with an in-store purchase.
Don't miss the regular in-store shows from locals
Formerly housed above notorious South Loop punk venue Reggie’s, Record Breakers recently became the latest record store to set up shop on Milwaukee Avenue. (And thankfully they took their turtle mascot, Humphrey, along with them.) Breakers keeps the live music theme of Reggie’s alive and (loudly) kicking with a regular rotation of in-store shows from local bands helping to christen the new digs with the help of a steadily churning selection on the racks featuring everything from jazz and punk to electronic and classic rock.
A nostalgia hole filled with color and more than just music
Proudly proclaiming themselves as “your one-stop shop for all the necessities no one really needs,” this playful, colorful space offers a nostalgic step back in time to your childhood with new and used vinyl and cassettes, vintage movie posters, toys from the ‘80s and ‘90s, and endless pop-culture detritus that will keep your hipster friends entertained for hours. Besides Snapchatting your latest ironic tee, browse the stacks to pluck some highly regarded punk and garage gems and just try to walk out of this place without a stupid grin on your face.
A Minnesota import that's discovered a new home and following here
Despite last year’s closing of Permanent Records’ West Town location, the Wicker Park area remains Chicago’s reigning record-store hood thanks, in no small part, to the new addition of this Minnesota import that set up shop on Milwaukee Avenue in 2015. Completing the holy trinity along with nearby Reckless and Dusty Groove, Shuga has established itself as a major player in just a few years with something like 20,000 records and another 100,000 LPs available online. If that’s not enough, it also founded its own record label, took over the second-floor space above the store, and brought in a stage for in-stores from Milwaukee’s now-defunct Atomic Records that once hosted performances from bands including Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins.
This place has a jazz history like no other in Chicago
This charming little out-of-the-way spot was opened in 2016 by Bob Koester, the legendary 85-year-old founder of Delmark Records (the oldest independent jazz and blues label in America) and former owner of Jazz Record Mart (formerly the world’s largest jazz and blues store), whose downtown location Koester shuttered in 2016 due to rising rents. While only a fraction of Jazz Record Mart’s space, the new digs started in the front room of Bob’s Demark Records studio before recently expanding its footprint to house around 5,000 titles of vintage blues, jazz, and classical that tends to attract an older crowd who help curate a more homey feel than your typical music snob record store experience.