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.
For those of us best described as fanatical collectors, the mark of a perfect record store is one you often rave about but rarely frequent for fear of impulsively blowing your entire paycheck there. Obsession Records is one of those places for many of us here in The Last Frontier, myself included.
It is worth noting that, apart from Lost & Found Records semi-recently opening in Fairbanks, Obsession Records is currently the only record store in the entire state. Unlike a fair number of other local businesses that take full advantage of being the only game in town, the Alaskan born-and-raised Haynes couple is thankfully the notable exception to the rule. Obsession is indeed a labor of love. An experiment that began in 2014 has, despite everything, still surprisingly succeeded beyond everyone's expectations.
“Everybody just kind of gets along,” relates co-owner Steve Haynes. “You don’t see the crazy… no one fights over anything here. I’ve seen two people come in here that want the same record and the one guy will go ‘Oh, you’re into this thing too? Go ahead, you have it.’ There’s none of that fighting.”
Obsession does not have a long and storied history, opening its doors here in 2014. Nothing here really does, considering this oft-forgotten piece of real estate was not officially a part of the United States until 1959. The store more than makes up for its lack of a rich backstory with the fiercely loyal community it has spawned. This is a store that truly means something to Anchorage residents. Like anyone who manages to survive here, this shop is weird, proudly independent and making the most out of living in the least populated and geographically largest state in the union.
Anchorage also boasts the most ethnically diverse neighborhood in America, according to census data. The sleepy strip mall Obsession calls home clearly reflects this area’s diversity. Their storefront is kitty-corner to a Palestinian donut shop and a Mexican church. The unassuming outside façade blends in with the requisite chiropractors, nail salons and medical supply outlets.
The first thing you notice when you walk in is the enormous set of eyes on the main wall. I have since learned the image is Katherine Hepburn’s eyes featured on the cover of a 1964 film soundtrack record.
I personally moved to this part of the world eight years ago, fleeing the Midwest’s economic recession and looking for a fresh start at age 30. Once the novelty of visiting the areas that inspired Jack London wears off, city slickers like me cannot help but notice the downsides of isolation. You cannot watch Independence Day fireworks or even screen a movie outdoors because the sun does not really set in the summer. If you cannot find it on Amazon Prime, odds are it will not ship to you. Promotional prices and participation you see on television commercials do not just vary, it is non-existent. During an especially bleak winter only a vampire could love, I searched for “cheap flights out of Anchorage," and Google asked me if I meant "cheap flights from Alaska to the United States." True story.
Despite being both the size and population of a Cincinnati or a Pittsburgh, modern acts rarely tour here because of the prohibitively high travel costs. For similar reasons, local artists such as Portugal. The Man and Jewel only reached financial success when they escaped to what our newspaper of record refers to as Outside aka. The Lesser 48. The only places I could initially find still selling physical media was a random hodgepodge of thrift shop leftovers. Enter Obsession Records.
Obsession is genuinely a family-run small business, with the Haynes’ son, daughter and occasionally grandson being the only other employees. This place exudes the fearless entrepreneurial spirit local politicians always glorify in speeches but mysteriously forget about off-camera. University of Alaska student Dylan DeBuse regularly made the hour drive from Houston, Alaska, to visit the store and convinced the Haynes two years ago to let him pose for his high school senior photos there after hours.
“I like Obsession because it’s the only cool place to buy vinyl,” explained DeBuse, now 20. “Sure, you can go to Barnes & Noble. But to them, it’s just another trend or fad, a product. You can tell the staff really truly cares about this art form.”
Co-owner Steve Haynes believes the secret to their success is (relatively) simple. “It’s like belonging to a club. If you want to be here, it doesn’t matter what you’re going to get; whether it’s Taylor Swift or Burzum. It doesn’t matter because you’re in the record store.”
Shop co-owner Verna Haynes admits they both chased records together as a team even in the beginning of their relationship. “I didn’t think of myself as a collector back then, I just wanted to put music back in my life,” explains Steve Haynes. “I didn’t think about how I was going to go about it. I went with LPs, I went with vinyl. It just kind of went crazy after that. Within five years, I probably had 15,000, 20,000 records. I don’t know when I crossed that line from listener to collector, but it didn’t take very long… I have friends ... [who] would be very careful about what they bought, and they would walk away with 2 or 3 records. And I would walk away with 200 or 300 records… Hoarder Records didn’t sound good. That’s why we went with Obsession.”
To the uninitiated outsider, the argument that there is nothing quite as awful as having to pay more to turn sides for music intended for uninterrupted playback constantly is a valid point. The best way I can explain it is that it a strangely comforting, nostalgic experience. It is a simple, albeit silly ritual that makes me feel a little less lonely on nights I mainline Vitamin D while looking up pictures of the sun online to remember what it looked like. Besides, everybody knows there are more harmful things out there to get addicted to than this.
Nathan Hall is a writer, musician and stand-up comic originally from Minneapolis who has lived in Anchorage, Alaska, since Labor Day 2010. He studied Journalism at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.
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