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Feature Thu Dec 06 2012
By Abigail Covington
Recently, I forayed into Chicago's musical wilderness in search of some of the more gripping record stores this city has to offer. It took some sifting; I wasn't accepting any vintage-bookstores-that-also-sell-Bonnie Raitt-records, nor on the opposite end of the spectrum, hitting up all the Reckless locations and calling it a day. I aimed for somewhere in-between, hoping to simply unearth some fine, browsable shops. I think the record stores that offer the best selections are ones that devoted vinyl shoppers probably already frequent but that are still relatively unknown to the masses. In search of this ideal record shop, I headed out to three stores — Logan Hardware, saki, and Dusty Groove — that I knew from previous experience have stocked shelves, fewer crowds, and consequently are easy to get lost in for hours.
I traveled first to Logan Hardware (2410 W. Fullerton Ave.). Logan Hardware's retro vibe is evident even from across the street. The outside looks like a '70s bowling alley what with its jaundice-tinged, brick façade and rusty-red, angular sign. The inside is a little unkempt, but very charming, akin to the neighborhood kid who always had dirt on his cheeks but a smile on his face. The unkemptness does not apply to the organization of the upper-echelons of its selections though. Sure, the bargain albums are shoved beneath the prettier records in a cramped, un-labeled heap, not visible to the level eye, but isn't this how it usually is? What's more important is that Logan Hardware was the only store of the three I visited that actually labeled their albums by artists. This is likely because they were also the only store I visited that had enough albums of a certain artist that warranted doing so.
After perusing the aisles for 2+ hours, the biggest takeaway was that Logan Hardware has lots of the good stuff. Their used collection of rock 'n' roll records is way above standard, which means you can get plenty of $10 dollar Bob Dylan albums and a surprisingly large amount of affordable Joan Armatrading albums as well. Beyond that, they have some crazed and quirky bins that help this place not take itself too seriously — huge plus. Some of the more notable odd bins are "non-gospel religious" and "pregnancy/child-bearing." Another thoughtful detail is that they have a stocked bin devoted to "dance hits/party classics" and a few others devoted to local artists (specifically House jams). These bins make this store a DJ's (albeit a wedding or '90s rave type) paradise. Its punk and country sections could use a little thickening, but the classics (the Sex Pistols, Hank Williams) are there. Logan Hardware creates a few false promises with its hip-hop section and this should be set right. For instance, they have about eight albums in the Jay-Z section but each and every one of them is a 12". Singles should be labeled as such so that a browser doesn't get their hopes up. What Logan Hardware should be known for is its inclusivity. They feature wide swaths of music and in doing so ensure a happy buying experience for people of all tastes and opinions.
Moving on, the first thing that I noticed in Dusty Groove (1120 N. Ashland Ave.) is that they do in fact label their 12"s, so I was happy to be able to merrily walk on by that section and into the jaw-dropping collection of soul/jazz/funk. Dusty Groove is quite the confection. Despite some frivolous poster art on the walls, the majority of the store is beyond substantial. I'm pretty sure you will not find better psychedelic Brazilian rock selections anywhere in the world other than...well, Brazil. Dusty Groove has specialties not smatterings. A lot of the basics are missing. There isn't much Simon & Garfunkel, Florence and the Machine or Real Estate. What there is though is a complete Roy Ayers discography, a limited edition JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound album, and rows of rare '45s that seem to stretch on into musical eternity. Dusty Groove does put a pretty premium on rarity, which might ward off the typical shopper. Regular records act as a barrier between the customer and the store's most precious of offerings, which all become so precious because of how difficult they are to find. The problem with the "difficult to find" status today is the internet, which can find anything. A perfect example of this issue is the Al Jarreau album, Call Me, which is one of the store's current featured rarities. Dusty Groove is right. The album is nearly nowhere and the label that released it is so sketchy even Google isn't sure of who it is. But, you can get it for $3 cheaper off a collector's website than you can in Dusty Groove's shop or website. To be fair though, it is priced at $425 on eBay so Dusty Groove did right by pricing it about $350 less than that absurd price. There is a fair amount of debate on whether or not Dusty Groove is overpriced. My verdict is, for the most part, its prices are not that far from center. The store can come across as a bit pretentious, and if a few of its rock albums are more expensive than Reckless' prices it's probably just the trickle-down effect of their priorities — rarity and exclusivity. The longest lasting impression of Dusty Groove is not the possible extra dollar on the price tag. It is the masterfully mined and organized collection of all the genres previously mentioned and its helpful staff. I walked in knowing nothing about Spanish groups that specialize in futuristic afro-funk and walked out with a little bit of knowledge and some hard evidence to go along with it: Pyramid Blue's self-titled new album.
I saved the newest store for last and raced west on Fullerton until I stumbled across saki (3716 W. Fullerton Ave.). saki is located in West Logan Square and is flanked by, best I can tell, Quinciniera gift shops and bakeries catering to a variety of ethnicities. This stretch of Fullerton is awesome and eclectic, but what's inside saki is not quite as diverse. saki is a sleek space with sparkling floors and no noticeable scent. It feels as if it hasn't been very lived in yet, despite being open for two years. This spacey cleanliness also serves as part of its appeal though, as it makes browsing the aisles easy and comfortable. What's stocked in the aisles is mostly new indie-rock. You can find Thee Oh Sees, TuNeYaRdS, and Fruit Bats here. To be sure, everything new that the typical music appreciator would most likely salivate over is here — and that is a good thing. The staff confessed that they wish they had a bigger used collection but you can skip the disappointment and head over to the "staff's picks" selections. I don't know why none of the other shops I visited did this, but it adds a real human touch to the store and some musically inclined wordsmith aptly describes each chosen album. Of course, the recommendations typically parlay into a purchase (at least it did twice over while I was in the store) so there is probably some opportunistic strategy at work here. saki is also more than a record store. It is also a performance space and it's hard at work featuring local folks, of both the music and art rock genres. What saki really has going for itself, outside of its dedication to the local movement, is a crew of employees who want to ensure that you like what you purchase and an unbeatable selection of the new stuff. saki doesn't just have every record Pitchfork says you need to own. It is more than Tame Impala and whoever next month's flavor will be. They also have Hozac-signees, (and Indiana natives) The Happy Thoughts, and they are just one of a myriad of under-buzzed bands for sale at saki.
Logan Hardware, Dusty Groove, and saki all have their own niches but they traverse deeply into the genres they pride themselves on. Though each of these stores individually has their own specialties and covers only a third of the musical landscape, together they sell almost everything your little, record-obsessed heart could desire (the last one percent remaining is non-12" hip-hop and rap). Go to Logan Hardware for the classics and the odds and the ends, go to saki for the new and cool, and go to Dusty Groove for the rare, the soulful, and the international.
Chicagoans are lucky to have so many outstanding shops at their disposal and this list leaves off many quality contenders. Permanent Records, Laurie's Planet of Sound, and at least a dozen others are equally suitable for the spotlight, and I mention this simply because I am grateful. Grateful to live in a city where almost-forgotten and elusive music lives on in crates and shelves right along side the classics and the indie-darlings of today. If you want a musical education, there are many passionate and savvy clerks who can help you trace the history of Philly soul or enlighten you on Neil Young's oft-overlooked collaboration with Rick James. If you go searching in Chicago for that record you swear is nowhere, you will most likely find it at one of this city's well-stocked shops.