The 50 Best Record Stores In America is an essay series where we attempt to find the best record store in every state. These aren’t necessarily the record stores with the best prices or the deepest selection; you can use Yelp for that. Each record store featured has a story that goes beyond what’s on its shelves; these stores have history, foster a sense of community and mean something to the people who frequent them.
Most Chicagoans have a large frozen chip on their shoulders. An essential part of living in the only city that keeps Illinois from being another flyover state is reluctantly acceding the miserable yearly winter the city is rightfully known for. In many ways, winter is an essential part of the Chicagoan’s identity. Attempting to reason with a veteran Chicagoan that any other part of the country has a more brutal winter will be futile. In this city, enduring your first full winter is a rite of passage. Most Chicagoans believe that there is a certain toughness or grit that is required to successfully navigate this arctic concrete jungle and anyone who does so is worthy of at least a bit of praise.
In Chicago, winter is omnipresent. Even on days spent at Oak Street Beach in mid-July, you can hear the quiet murmuring, “Let’s enjoy this day while we can. Just wait till winter is here.” Any visitor reaching for a jacket during a brisk fall afternoon will likely find themselves victim to rants on how this weather is nothing compared to February, or a vivid recalling of the frigid winter of 2014. Winter undoubtedly shapes Chicago’s attitude and as a result, the season greatly affects what Chicagoans value. Traits like perseverance, endurance and dedication are what many Chicagoans strive to exemplify and in turn, what they typically appreciate. The best record store in Illinois stands as a beacon to these specific Chicago ideals.
Dave’s Records in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago stands as one of the few stores who weathered the roughest period of music sales that accompanied the early aughts. What’s remarkable about Dave’s Records is that it survived this recession without selling a single CD or cassette. That’s right, Dave’s Records has been vinyl only since the store was acquired by Dave Crain in 2002. He views his store as a challenger to the idea that vinyl was dead in the early 2000s and today he remains adamant about offering the classic no-frills record store experience to his visitors.
Chicago is a fantastic vinyl city. As someone who has lived all over the state, often a record store in Illinois will serve as the essential single music outlet in the area. With Chicago’s seemingly endless record purchasing options, many of the local stores use tactics to distinguish their store or appeal to a specific shopper. The various neighborhoods offer collectors a host of options from the quaint genre specific stores to all-encompassing behemoths with seemingly endless stacks of vinyl waiting to be sifted through. Amid the megastores and niche spots, Dave’s Records is a breath of fresh air for its modest and traditional approach to the record store experience. The store has managed to find a profound charm in appearing ordinary. However, a closer inspection reveals that the store reflects Crain’s remarkably abnormal dedication to vinyl records.
When stepping into Dave’s Records, the shopper is greeted with a humble store featuring just two narrow walkways with stacks on either side of them, as well as rows above and below the racks sitting at waist level. While the unorthodox layout of the racks can be intimidating at first, the welcoming atmosphere that hits the shopper instantaneously upon entering should be more than enough to put eager diggers at ease.
“I think here I run the store with a much more hands-off approach,” said Crain. “This is to encourage the shopper to just explore. Here you’re allowed to come in and figure the store out and find what you want to find on your own. By thumbing through the racks you’ll find something you probably didn’t know you were looking for. I think what draws people to record stores is the exploration. It’s figuring out something new either about an artist, a record, or about what you thought you needed in your collection.” While Dave’s is great for those yearning to navigate uncharted waters, the store remains well organized as Crain sits attentively at the counter, always willing to offer assistance.
Although Dave’s Records was established in 2002, Crain’s experience in music sales goes much further back. He worked for various music chain superstores, including Second Hand Tunes, who originally owned the location where Dave’s Records sits today. Imagining why a record store would carry only vinyl elicits numerous guesses involving the owner’s pretentiousness and theories about perceived sound quality. However, Crain’s story is one of genuine love for vinyl records. “[When I was acquiring the space from] Second Hand Tunes, they had two adjacent spaces of business. What is now Dave’s was the all-vinyl section of the Second Hand Tunes store. When I first started at Second Hand Tunes in 1985, I realized I really only enjoyed working with vinyl, rather than the CDs and cassettes. It wasn’t as much fun as dealing with records for me.”
As the major retailers lost faith in vinyl, Dave’s Records carried on with the medium. Crain always knew he could sell records, but that is not to say he did not have any concerns. “My only fear was that the pressing plants would go out of business. I was afraid they would just kill off the medium entirely, and my store with it. Thankfully electronic and hip-hop singles basically kept the plants alive during the slowest period,” he said. The mid-2000s were scary for Dave’s Records, but like the city’s dedicated Chicago Cubs fans, Crain remained uncompromising and patient.
“I never really saw a Best Buy or an Urban Outfitters carrying vinyl again. When CDs were at their peak almost every business was selling CDs at the counter. People will make money however [they] can and CDs were just another thing that they would sell until sales would dwindle. Then the retailer would kick it out. That’s what [is] different about a major retailer versus this store. Records aren’t just another thing to sell you at this store,” Crain said. Other stores will look to sell a product, while Dave’s Records is dedicated to preserving the record store ritual and with it, an entire format. In a city obsessed with rituals such as dyeing the Chicago River green on St. Patrick’s Day and serving hot dogs without ketchup, Crain’s approach to his store is understood and revered. It’s hard to imagine that Dave’s Records would hold its place as a store that has seamlessly knitted itself within Chicago’s music community if Crain possessed different values.
Crain’s relentless love of vinyl has now paid off in a major way as vinyl sales continue to climb. His steadfastness and passion undoubtedly helped keep the store alive during vinyl’s lowest valley, but it is the store’s outward embrace of what it means to be from Chicago that makes it so beloved. Dave’s Records is more loyal to vinyl than any other record store in the state. That loyalty finds a way to quickly latch itself on to those who step into the store and turn first time shoppers into regulars.
Knowing Crain’s story while shopping elicits the feeling that this is a classic record store is every sense. Dave’s Records is much more than its excellent used bins. As stores change with time and trends, creating a recognizable and trustworthy reputation can be a brand’s greatest challenge. Crain’s unwavering identity and mission is on display every day at his record store, even when he is not manning the counter. The store’s Midwestern straightforwardness cannot be confused. It has always simply been about records.
Chicago frequently features days where even opening the door risks acquiring frostbite on your nose, and for more than a split second you’ll wonder why you’re even stepping out the door. As someone still occasionally grasping for what will get them out of bed on days like these, Crain’s passion for records serves as an inspiring reminder to ignore the shiver running down my spine and persistently chase what drives me, even when the outside world seems to be encouraging me to give it up.
Up next, we travel to a record store in Delaware.