Downtown Las Vegas in the 1990s was not a place you’d want to be after dark. Though my high school, the Las Vegas Academy of the Arts (originally Las Vegas High School, built in 1930) was a shining beacon, the neighborhood surrounding it was in disrepair. One day, we watched a drug den being bulldozed across the street from our classroom; itinerant people would wander through campus regularly. However, as the Strip became more family-friendly with midways, thrill rides and more Cirque du Soleil shows than you could shake a stick at, downtown also started to clean up its act by turning a portion of the street into a pedestrian thoroughfare and added the Fremont Street Experience, a four-block long video canopy with themed visuals. Our martini-toting Mayor, Oscar Goodman — formerly a lawyer for the mob and frequently flanked by showgirls — was a big proponent of cleaning up the neighborhood outside his office door and the area began to transform.
Fast-forward 20 years and the bustling Fremont East District is the place to be for those in search of a craft cocktail at the speakeasy-esque Downtown Cocktail Lounge (good luck figuring out how the door opens). There’s a myriad of musical stylings during the local favorite Nickel Fucking Beer Night party at Beauty Bar on Tuesdays. There’s plenty of punk and rock shows at Backstage Bar & Billiards and options for great eats like La Comida. The spot where the drug den once was is now modern office buildings and condos. Fremont East has become a favorite destination for Las Vegas locals, though gentrification has pushed out some veteran unique businesses (RIP Kabob Korner).
Growing up in Vegas, the majority of my friends tended to avoid getting into gambling because we learned early that the house always wins. However, in a city with essentially no last call, the party never ends. If one bar closes for the night, you just go to one of many 24/7/365 bars all over the valley.
Just a short walk from the reinvigorated Fremont Street is a gem of a record shop that’s garnered the attention of numerous notable musicians. Celebrating three years in business on Record Store Day 2018, 11th Street Records fills the void left by departed record stores also pushed out by Big Casino. Big B’s was closed approximately a decade ago and Balcony Lights even before that, both near University of Nevada, Las Vegas. During the ska heydays in Vegas, bands would cram into the back of Balcony Lights between record bins, as fans packed not only the first floor, but hanging over the balcony above the band as well. That’s where I first met the Rx Bandits, who were touring in a van and needed a floor to sleep on that night; I still visit them at shows to this day. Across the street was Big B’s, with a much larger selection, and it lasted a bit longer before going out of business when digital music took off.
It was quite common to run into local musicians hanging out back then, and that’s when I ran into drummer Ronnie Vannucci, whom I knew from his awesome band Expert on October and prior to that, Attaboy Skip, a ska band that played the Mardi Gras dance at my high school. He told me about his new band called The Killers and invited me to see them at Café Espresso Roma.
I myself even did a short stint at Blockbuster music, where I’d end up blowing most of my measly paycheck on the used CDs we’d buy and trade. They went out of business even before the independent shops. Fortunately, the Zia Records chain existed for those looking to dig in crates with two locations in town, but those came without the sense of community fostered at a local shop where you can nerd out for an hour with the staff about rare vinyl or learn the history behind one of the more valuable records on the walls.
11th Street Records has now emerged for those who long for a 20th-century experience in a digital world. Owner Ronald Corso moved to Las Vegas in 1995 and worked in various aspects of recording, radio and audio while amassing a large vinyl collection.
“People were starting to really talk about the importance of record store culture,” says Corso. In addition to offering up most of his own vinyl collection to start filling the shelves of what would become 11th Street Records (named for the intersection at which it resides on the corner of Fremont Street), Corso would raid thrift stores, garage sales and Craigslist. “People thought [vinyl records] were garbage, at that point, and it really wasn't until about the time we opened that it was front-page news on the New York Times, ‘Hey, records are back.’” As interest in vinyl was accelerating, it became harder to buy used records, but Corso stocked up as much as possible and filled multiple storage units with his finds, from small collections to buying an entire large lot from someone. As he prepared to open the store, he’d peruse eBay for special pieces he thought the store should have on the walls for opening day.
While 11th Street Records has its fair share of new pressings, it’s main appeal lies in digging in the crates for a lost gem, as the store is alphabetical by artist with only a few genre sections. Underneath the bins are a myriad of albums for a buck or two for those that get in a zone flipping through random records. The back wall is like a permanent sidewalk sale with no sleeves or tags that’s become a popular feature with customers. There’s even a listening station in the corner to preview potential purchases. “It's not like the store is enormous,” says Corso. “You could probably flip [through] this whole place pretty thoroughly in 30 to 45 minutes.” 11th Street Records has become a favorite for local Vegas DJs that are getting back in touch with spinning wax, while others are looking for that perfect sample to rip to Serato.
As far as the aforementioned musicians that have 11th Street on their radar, there’s a recording studio down a hallway lined with authentic vintage punk flyers Corso acquired from a regular customer who needed some money to skip town (a thing that happens pretty regularly around here). National Southwestern Recording at 11th Street Records is where Las Vegas natives The Killers recorded a good chunk of their latest album Wonderful, Wonderful for six weeks. Powerful chanteuse Meg Myers recorded songs live for Spotify Sessions, as did the band Metric. Anti-Flag even recorded a full live acoustic album at 11th Street Records during an in-store performance as part of the Punk Rock Bowling annual festival in DTLV, packing fans in the store that even crowd-surfed in the small space.
When I was little, my friends from back in my home state of Florida often thought that people in Las Vegas didn’t really have a community and the residents all lived in hotel and casinos, where they worked as well. Since moving to Vegas in 1993, the city has become my adopted hometown and even though there’s over half a million people in the valley, you’d be surprised how interconnected the locals are, as exemplified by how the city came together after the mass shooting on October 1 of last year. If it wasn’t for our new NHL team, the Vegas Golden Knights (who just made history as the first pro sports team to ever make it to the playoffs in their inaugural season), I’d likely never even go near the Strip. And thanks to stores like 11th Street Records, downtown is the only place I need to.
Up next, we travel to Massachusetts.