Back in the 2000s, some music companies tried to push CDs into supposedly new frontiers of audio fidelity (remember Super Audio CDs?). Who would have thought that, in the next decade, vinyl LPs — a format that had been basically left for dead, commercially speaking, back in the late Nineties — would once again become a standard format for the release of new albums? And yet here we are, watching vinyl reestablish itself as a dominant force in the musical landscape, with sales increasing hand over fist year after year.
Whether this can be chalked up to mere nostalgia, a sincere belief in the superior sound of vinyl, or the resurgence of the LP, the time is now to reconsider the New York City record store scene, from the stalwarts of older, grittier days to the new kids on the block jumping on the bandwagon, trying to carve out identities of their own. For a certain breed of record collector, there are few more enjoyable pastimes than spending an afternoon at a record store and sifting through shelves of vintage vinyl, trying to find old favorites in original pressings, the cheaper the better. Others may be content to simply pick up the newest releases, sometimes blind-buying an album simply on the basis of how attractive its cover art is. This list of the ten best — or, at the very least, most distinctive — record stores in NYC aims to address all types.
188 West 4th Street
New York, NY 10014
It may no longer be on Bleecker Street, thanks to the modern-day New York City scourge that is the dreaded rent increase, but Bleecker Street Records retains its dominance in the city’s record-store scene thanks to its massive vinyl selection. With all musical genres represented just about equally (go downstairs for, among other things, its not-bad classical selection), Bleecker Street Records is all things for all people. And that includes its wide range of price brackets: One could spend a good hour rifling through its selection of $1 LPs, seen in baskets all along the right wall, in the hopes of scoring unbeatable deals that way. How extensive is this store’s passion for older formats? They even have a small LaserDisc collection, for all those movie buffs out there who remain nostalgic for that high-resolution disc-flipping home-video format. Don’t forget to say hi to the fat cat that roams around the store, occasionally jumping onto the LP stacks.
12 West 18th Street
New York, NY 10011
For this Flatiron district mainstay since 1977, the answer to how to stand out among the NYC record-store pack is to specialize. There are still plenty of indie, classic rock, soul, and jazz records on display here, plus a fair amount of DVDs for the cinephiles who wander in. But the heart of Academy Records & CDs is its heavenly classical-music selection. With much of it situated toward the back of the store, it’s a treasure trove of all the Deutsche Grammophon, CBS, and London records anyone could ever want. Bonus: The folks at Academy are very picky about vinyl quality, so you’re guaranteed to find excellent-condition LPs at unbeatable prices for many of these records. (Don’t confuse this with the East Village and Greenpoint stores that also call themselves “Academy Records.” More on those picks below.)
85 Oak Street
Brooklyn, NY 11222
Greenpoint isn’t just about its vibrant Polish community or its more recent influx of younger folk and the gentrification that comes with them. Even more than Williamsburg and the East Village, it has become something of a haven for vinyl collectors, with quite possibly the most record stores to be seen in one neighborhood. But the best of them, Academy Records Annex, was a more recent addition to the scene, having formerly been based in Williamsburg before moving in late 2013. The change was for the better. According to manager Cory Feierman, it’s a bit smaller than its former Williamsburg location, but the Greenpoint store, with its taller ceilings, is much roomier, allowing for more records to be put out for display. Whatever the location, its wide selection of new and used LPs in a healthy range of price brackets remains consistent, making Academy Records Annex conducive to whiling away hours on end browsing and digging.
64 North 9th Street
Brooklyn, NY 11249
There’s a small pile of used LPs in the middle of the store, but overall, Rough Trade NYC isn’t the place for bargain-bin scourers. Instead, this store sticks steadfastly to the mission of the legendary U.K.-based record label that fathered this small franchise: to promote the best and brightest in the current independent-music scene. This mission is made manifest not just in the sizable auditorium toward the back of the store, where live performances go down regularly, but in its wall of staff picks, with employees offering short paragraphs to explain their choices. Swathed in a décor that exudes the gritty feel of many a Williamsburg artist’s loft, Rough Trade NYC remains the premier place for those looking to discover new musical talent, local or otherwise.
195 Calyer Street
Brooklyn, NY 11222
Somewhat like Rough Trade NYC, Captured Tracks is the flagship store of an indie record label (one that has boasted artists like Wild Nothing and Mac DeMarco on its talent roster). Unlike Rough Trade NYC, this Greenpoint store supports its new releases with a healthy selection of used LPs and cassettes spanning all genres. As with many record stores, they leave many of their cheaper-priced offerings in boxes outside the store, but go down the stairs into their basement space and proceed to be amazed at how much music they manage to pack into its relatively small quarters. If anything, their selection of new arrivals is about as large as that of individual music genres, so Captured Tracks definitely rewards regular visitors, especially if you’re unsuccessful at finding a particular album at Academy Records Annex not too far away.
Downtown Music Gallery
13 Monroe Street
New York, NY 10002
For a few years in the Aughts, Downtown Music Gallery was on the Bowery, not too far from CBGB — but the writing was on the wall when that legendary hardcore/punk-rock club closed its doors forever in 2006. Three years later, the store would move…well, farther downtown, into a basement space right below a Buddhist temple in Chinatown. In short, it can feel like Downtown Music Gallery is hanging on by a thread — which is a shame, because for its carefully curated focus on art rock, underground jazz, and contemporary classical, it remains a valuable resource for used and rare LPs. There are free weekly live performances as well, in addition to chats with owner Bruce Lee Gallanter, whose warm and knowledgeable presence fosters an inclusive environment. For those who want a taste of the old New York, Downtown Music Gallery, even now, is at least one place to find it.
Fifth Avenue Record & Tape Center
439 Fifth Avenue
Brooklyn, NY 11215
Here’s another blast from the past, still somehow standing in spite of many a closing scare in recent years. Owner Tony Mignone has been holding court at its current location in Park Slope since 1972, and inside the store, very little seems to have changed in the subsequent four decades. Walking into Fifth Avenue Record & Tape Center is like walking into someone’s cramped room, with records, cassettes (including eight-tracks!), DVDs, VHS tapes, and even some audio equipment all over the place, from the island in the middle to the farthest corners all the way in the back. Most records are organized and shelved, but some of them simply sit in a pile, waiting to be sorted through by an intrepid prospective buyer. If you have a lot of time on your hands and are willing to brave the narrow aisles and musty atmosphere, this could well be a gold mine for vintage rarities at knockdown prices. May this unassuming institution continue to stand as long as rent prices (and Mignone’s health) allow it to.
461 Court Street
Brooklyn, NY 11231
With the recent opening of (the promising) HiFi Records & Café in Astoria (Queens’ first-ever record store, which perhaps tells you something about the current vinyl renaissance) and the fantastic espresso brewing at Rough Trade NYC, Carroll Gardens’ Black Gold Records can no longer boast the distinction of offering coffee and pastries to go along with your LP browsing — but it’s still a favorite spot to indulge in both pursuits. Its earlier opening hours — 7 a.m. on weekdays, 10 a.m. on weekends — do help its cause, as does its music selection, which goes out of its way to highlight obscure bands and albums instead of the usual classic rock suspects. Oh, and its walls are also lined with Victorian taxidermy, folk art, and other such eccentric antiques. Black Gold has recently expanded its operations with the opening of a second branch in the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Gowanus, so enjoy these carefully curated wares at both locales.
233 West 72nd Street
New York, NY 10023
Why, yes, there in fact is a record store in the supposedly upper-class confines of the Upper West Side. Instead of the grit of your average East Village, Williamsburg, or Greenpoint record store, Westsider Records exudes more of a library feel, with its records lined along shelves, some of which are placed so high that you need a ladder to find them. Speaking of libraries, books are sold there as well — most of them performing-arts-related, fitting for a venue so close to Lincoln Center — thus reminding one of its ownership under Westsider Books (located a few blocks up on Broadway, between 80th and 81st streets). Classical and jazz are their meat, with their selection of the former genre giving even the aforementioned Academy Records & CDs a run for its money in depth. Still, there’s a reasonable selection of rock and pop for the younger crowd.
194 Knickerbocker Avenue
Brooklyn, NY 11237
With apologies to worthy candidates such as Heaven Street Records — with its focus on punk, hardcore, metal, noise, and other such musical classifications — and the wider-ranging Human Head Records, Vinyl Fantasy retains pride of place as, if not Bushwick’s best record shop, then at least its most eccentric and fascinating. It’s small, for one thing, and is more or less the size of a large room. In addition to records, the shop sells comic books, displays art by local artists on its walls, and even stages the occasional art show and live in-store performance. There’s plenty here LP-wise to keep vinyl fiends happy, with most genres accounted for in competitive prices. Many of the bins are unmarked, so prepare to spend awhile sifting through the piles to try to score hidden treasures.