Vinyl Restorations: The Wane and Wax of L.A.'s Record Stores

Record Jungle | Photo by Oliver Wang
Record Jungle | Photo by Oliver Wang.

When news outlets talk about "the comeback of vinyl," they tend to overstate the basic facts. True, sales of new vinyl records have increased four-fold since 2006 and a staggering twelve-fold over the last 20 years. However, look at the numbers vs. the percentages and what we see is that even if vinyl sales are on pace to top 4 million in 2012, by comparison, the week of Thanksgiving alone saw nearly 10 million records sold overall. Vinyl sales may be thriving ... but only within a niche ecosystem.

That said, a more compelling and local measure of vinyl's resurgence can be found in the spate of record stores popping up around the Southland. For a long while, it only seemed like shops were shuttering, whether once-giant chains like Tower Records or a local legend like Highland Avenue's Aron's. However, as my colleagues have noted, there's been a notable rise in smaller, boutique stores reversing the trend. Whereas the old center for vinyl activity in L.A. clustered around Hollywood and other mid-city districts, these emergent stores have shifted their home east-ward, towards neighborhoods like Atwater Village (Jackknife), Montebello (Record Jungle), Eagle Rock (Permanent) and especially Highland Park (Mount Analog, Wombleton, The Record Hunter).

I'll come back to these neighborhoods in a moment, but location isn't the only difference between the young boutiques and the older generation of stores. Survivors of the latter camp include Pasadena's Poo-Bah, Santa Monica's Record Surplus, and the Hollywood behemoth of Amoeba Music (recently spoofed on The Simpsons as "Protozoa Records"). Though most of those stores still revolve around the core genres of rock, jazz and soul, their larger floorspace often allows for broader buying practices across many styles. The boutiques, in contrast, tend to be more specialized: Record Jungle has become an eastside hot spot for used soul, Latin and hip-hop records. Mount Analog heavily stocks new electronic and indie titles. A couple of miles away on York Boulevard. is Wombleton, which boasts vintage British and other European records you're unlikely to find elsewhere in the city.

The specialization inherent to many of the boutiques has manifested in a curious marketing trend amongst a couple of them: a self-conscious deployment of a "curatorial" concept. For example, both West L.A.'s new Touch Vinyl and Highland Park's short-lived Strictly Grooves have featured "curated collections" for sale, tagged to specific DJs/personalities. Strictly Grooves -- which had to close down after only two months but is being re-opened under new ownership as The Record Hunter after Jan. 1 -- even literally had the word "curated" written on several boxes. Likewise, in the promotional video for Touch, owner Sebastian Matthews talks about taking a "more curated" approach, contrasting that with what he calls "treasure hunting" (i.e. digging through crates of disorganized records).

In borrowing a term typically associated with the art/museum world, these stores are attempting to imbue their records with a particular taste distinction, one that communicates "selectivity" and "exclusivity." The problem is that curation has always been synonymous with preservation. Organizing things to be sold, however selectively, is arguably the exact opposite of what curation entails. A record curator, in the most accurate sense, chooses what records to keep; what they don't want is what ends up in a store's bins. (Writing "discarded" on a box isn't a great marketing term however.)

Regardless of terminology though, there's no doubt that these new stores are selective -- their limited storefront space partially necessitates that -- and most of the shops have carved out particular niches for themselves. The boutique model isn't inherently superior to the more generalized approach of older stores; each has its place. If I'm looking for a McCoy Tyner or Bob Dylan record, I'd sooner hit up Poo-Bah but if I want the new boxset by techno producer Silent Servant, Mount Analog may be the best place in L.A. to find it.

Mount Analog | Photo by Oliver Wang
Mount Analog | Photo by Oliver Wang

Back to location: like cafés and comic book stores, record shops have become a symbol of gentrification and it's not a coincidence that most of the boutiques have landed in so-called "transitional" neighborhoods. Cheaper rent isn't just good for the stores' overhead but it also draws the ideal vinyl customer: young (at heart, at least), culturally cutting edge, with just enough disposable income to invest in a limited edition, local ska band 7" or a compilation of '70s Ghanian disco.

It's a bit of a full-circle-with-a-twist. In vinyl's heyday of the 1950s through '80s, working class neighborhoods were full of mom-and-pop stores that often stocked records by smaller, local artists ignored by the bigger Hollywood shops. The new boutiques are similarly catering to their local base, even if it's a changing one. Notably, many of these stores host neighborhood music events: Wombleton sponsors a weekly DJ event at the Hermosillo Club next door, Touch Vinyl and Mount Analog regularly schedule in-store record release and listening parties, and in their short lifespan, Strictly Grooves still managed to host a mini-concert by La Mirada's Chicano Batman.

In October, Artbound contributror Frances Anderton asked "Do Book Stores and Video Stores Build Community?" and you could easily slot record stores into that same query. Clearly, the new boutiques are attempting just that, especially in helping provide venues - even if it's only a cleared out corner - at a time when many L.A. municipalities have closed down public performance spaces because of failing budgets.

However, the best record stores also build community through less formal means than event calendars and DJ nights. Vinyl junkies constitute a motley crew of characters from across the social spectrum and a well-stocked store with reasonable prices becomes a frequent gathering point, whether by intention or not. Case in point: hip-hop producer Andy "Spaceboy Boogie X" Perez opened Record Jungle about two years ago with practically no marketing or press campaign. He simply found a modest storefront along Whittier Blvd. and began stocking it with piles of $3-5 LPs and 12"s. Word of mouth gradually spread and even though, a year in, the store still had no Yelp page, business was thriving, drawing everyone from 50-something salsa collectors to teenage hip-hop DJs. Even now, Perez still doesn't do much to market the shop, though he's an avid user of Facebook as a way to update customers on store hours, announce flash sales of recently acquired collections, or simply share real-time photos of who's in the store. In these ways, Record Jungle straddles the line between the boutique sensibilities of new stores and the around-the-way appeal of the old mom-and-pops.

It's an unusual phenomenon that vinyl is commercially marginal as a format yet record stores can stage a comeback. However, the fact that they are, at least in Los Angeles, is a validation of the continuing allure of the record as well as the power of a good record shop to anchor and promote the musical character of a neighborhood. Vinyl is dead, long live the vinyl store.

Record Jungle | Photo by Oliver Wang
Record Jungle | Photo by Oliver Wang

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