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.
Record stores have long served as places of refuge for outsiders. Beatniks, misfits and the altogether strange put faith in their shop of choice, knowing what lies on those shelves could provide an answer, a new way of thinking or just some peace of mind. Founded by Eric Isaacson and Warren Hill on a quiet, unassuming block in North Portland, Mississippi Records has taken in the city’s eccentrics with open arms since they opened in 2003. With no real business plan, Isaacson’s punk, “always love over gold” ethos has served him well; Mississippi is now one of the most sought-after shops in a city with the highest number of record stores per capita.
As a newcomer to The City of Roses, I’ve spent nearly as much time in Mississippi Records than I have in my own apartment. Uprooting from NYC, away from friends, family and a strong music community has felt lonesome at times. While Portland isn’t home just yet, Mississippi Records has been a major player in countering my homesick blues. Now part of my weekend ritual, it is also the first place my fiancé and I take friends visiting from out of town. I’ve struggled to adjust to Portland’s relentless rainy season. It does, however, make spending hours browsing the racks that much more appealing. Some people buy sad lamps or hide out in coffee shops, but I head right for the record store.
Just after my 30th birthday last August, we traded coasts hoping for a change of pace. Six years in NYC had us eager to see if we could take our east-coast mentality and apply it in a far more relaxed city. We were lucky that our lines of work allowed us to make such a big shift with relative ease. Since landing in PDX, patience has been a word we’ve used often when describing it. There is a patient spirit that runs through every interaction, big or small here. Whether merging onto the highway or waiting in line for groceries, we’ve noticed fewer folks assuming they are the most important being to ever inhabit the earth.
As I’ve begun to become more comfortable with my abilities, interests, and taste — I’ve also developed (or tried to) a more patient disposition, especially when it comes to music listening and discovery. While we are often made to believe that we have every song ever at our fingertips, walking into Mississippi Records reminds listeners that this couldn’t be further than the truth. It gives a polite middle finger to algorithms, playlists, and corporate music systems. If there is any place that is capable of “Keeping Portland Weird” in 2017, it is Mississippi Records.
On a recent visit, while searching for a receiver to power a new set of speakers, I was taken aback by a vintage Concord system from Japan. I was told I could take it home, free of charge and give it a test run. “If you like it, just come back anytime and give me 20 bucks,” the cashier added. This, after being shown nearly every piece of equipment in their stockroom and speaking in-depth as to what my options were, was huge for me. Not only was I struck by the level of trust in this transaction, but it tied into a much larger picture of Portland for me, one of kindness, compassion and a true willingness to help others. I left the store that day feeling like I am meant to be here. Needless to say — the receiver worked perfectly.
Doubling as a label under the same moniker, both outlets operate with almost no trace of an internet presence yet their impact on both local and international music communities is indisputable. Word of mouth remains their greatest asset and is exactly how I got turned on to Mississippi. Before visiting Portland for the first time in the summer of 2016, a friend living in Seattle tipped me to their hand-made mixtapes featuring offbeat punk, soul, blues and world artists with original artwork. Collecting these mixes has become somewhat of an obsession in our house.
Mississippi alumni and outsider folk artist Michael Hurley is no stranger to the shop. “This place is thrills, chills and high adventure basically. Big on the blues and the international ethnic grooves. Oddballs and rarities are waiting to surprise the astute hipster on any given day, and there's no day off,” he tells us over email. Next to the store sits Sweedeedee, an intimate cafe named after one of Hurley’s tunes. Saturdays, he insists, is where the action happens, “In the cheapo bins, one can detect that if Eric [Isaacson] does not personally like a certain kind of music, he will let it go for cheap. So I usually can't resist taking up on a lot of good deals in the $4, $3, $2 retail range,” he added. Between Sweedeedee and health-food centric Cherry Sprout Market across the street, Hurley argues that “the public spirit is lifted in that area and this makes for more record sales.”
Shelly Short, a Portland native singer-songwriter, spent her formative years traveling to various record shops and thrift stores scouring the racks with family members. “I loved the music, but I didn't always feel welcome or like I was free to browse and talk to the record hucksters. It often felt intimidating,” she admits. Mississippi Records would prove to be the counterpoint to that narrative, providing a space that she describes as “a second home.” Short can sometimes be seen behind the counter of the store covering for Isaacson. From that seat, Short has discovered music that has made a lifelong impact on her, including “Synthesize Me” by the Space Lady. “I guess that's why I love being there and being part of the label, because it seems like a place where magic can happen, and it often does,” she added.
Now host to over 15,000 LPs and cassettes, Mississippi Records is testament to the raw power of music and community. They now offer the Mississippi CSR (Community Supported Record Program). The CSR gives folks not in the greater Portland area a chance to have access to limited releases as well as support their mission of keeping prices low, to make important cultural artifacts readily available and to preserve the voices of artists and their ancestors who have long been ignored or taken advantage of by the mainstream record industry.
In New York people often say it takes 10 years to be a “true New Yorker.” In Portland, no one’s counting. Despite adding to the growing number of transplants moving here each year, I hope to add value to this city — as an educator, a neighbor and an artist. With every day that passes, with every stop to the record store, we are shown how kind Portland can be. On “Be Kind To Me,” Michael Hurley says it best: “I told you once, I told you twice, why be mean when you can be nice. Come on, be kind to me.”
Up next, we travel to a record store in Maine.
Jeffrey is a special education teacher, freelance writer, and musician. You can find him at a show, on a hike, or petting dogs.
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