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.
When Revival Records opened in my hometown of 60,000 people in October, 2009, I was probably listening to the Black Eyed Peas hit single “Boom Boom Pow” on my iPod after 8th grade volleyball practice. I wish I could say I remember it, but only a select few people probably do.
In a town that small, you’d think it would be a bigger deal, but businesses like that often close as quickly as they open. The opening received a short, bulleted article in our local alt-weekly Volume One, attributing the store’s opening to “similar resurgences of retro T-shirts and Puma sneakers.” It was the height of the vintage for vintage’s sake fad, and perhaps Revival was largely lumped in as a quirky product of it, a fading novelty. And maybe that was part of what got it off the ground, sure. But the store’s premature reduction to a trend doesn’t explain why it moved to a more central location downtown a year later, or why it continues to thrive at its larger third location, even after the retro craze has subsided. It doesn’t explain why it’s become a cultural pulse and beloved cornerstone of our community.
As gorgeous and supportive as it could be, sometimes to grow up in a town like Eau Claire was to feel stuck in between. It was too small to feel big and too big to feel small. Although just an hour away by car to Minneapolis, it’s isolated from other major cities, lacking a train or consistent and affordable bus routes to the other side of the state or other major Midwestern cities. As a kid in Eau Claire—and so many American towns like it—my life felt lucky, surrounded by beauty, but largely insignificant. It was a part of our psyche to know we weren’t magnificent. And along with that, American pop culture felt like an abstract to be admired—a world reserved for the coasts—until our town started to become a part of it.
It’s inaccurate—and honestly, pretty annoying—to reduce our town’s cultural or artistic output to Justin Vernon alone, but it’s also impossible to not talk about his impact on our town. When For Emma, Forever Ago came out 10 years ago to national acclaim, it felt like a victory for our community in a lot of ways. Vernon’s story belonged to him and him alone, but what surrounded it felt like ours. The story’s been sensationalized by nearly every publication to discuss Bon Iver since their debut—the cabin, the woods, the isolation, the rumination—but the only real anomaly of the whole thing, as far as Eau Claire was concerned, was global appreciation and the production of a Grammy-winning artist. Someone from my town (where a horseradish factory is a legitimate piece of our economy) was being parodied by Justin Timberlake on SNL. We’ve even watched our town become a destination with the rise of the nationally known music festival Eaux Claires taking place on the banks our river. While the implications of such growth are incredibly complicated, it’s been an undeniable pleasure to see places like Revival grow from the ground up.
As our public perception as a budding creative hub thrived, naturally so did Revival. Revival began like a lot of records stores: with a genuine love of music and what it could offer for the people who could get their hands on it. While there’s always been a supportive creative community in Eau Claire, many more residents—and eventually people from all over—began to recognize it, support it and participate in it, giving creative projects and places like Revival Records resources to develop—and a lot of us got the humble pleasure of growing along with it.
As I came of age, places like Revival gave me—and a lot of other kids—a place to physically and actively discover music, right as we were able to see a local talent reach unprecedented heights. Among the 45s hanging gingerly from the ceiling, the comforting musty smell and soft-spoken, ever-helpful owner Billy Siegel, I quietly felt the high of discovery for the first time. If I was shelling out all my babysitting money moments after I received it, at least it was at a place I believed in, and a place that really believed in our town.
The working-class, small-town sense of insignificance I’d grown up with evolved into a love and pride in my hometown and an active passion for seeking out what was beyond it. Revival proved it wasn’t a trend or fad, but a place that was out here for the community just as the community was there for it. That humble pride is palpable when you walk into the store. It may not have the most rare or massive collection of vinyl, but its quiet shelves are anything but stagnant. It’s a place that’s rooted in the humility and beauty of where it came from, and that’s what makes it special. That’s what makes it the best record store in Wisconsin.
Up next, the best record store in Michigan.